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Reading Comprehension
September 2019


What does the research say about strategies for supporting third-grade students' reading comprehension, both in English and native language?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J. et al. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse. E-book and webinar presentation retrieved from Professional learning communities facilitator's guide retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"This practice guide provides four recommendations that address what works for English learners during reading and content area instruction. Each recommendation includes extensive examples of activities that can be used to support students as they build the language and literacy skills needed to be successful in school, including examples of how the recommendations align with Common Core and other contemporary state standards. The recommendations also summarize and rate supporting evidence. This guide is geared toward teachers, administrators, and other educators who want to improve instruction in academic content and literacy for English learners in elementary and middle school."

Chiang, H., Walsh, E., Shanahan, T., Gentile, C., Maccarone, A., Waits, T. et al. (2017). An exploration of instructional practices that foster language development and comprehension: Evidence from prekindergarten through Grade 3 in Title I schools (NCEE 2017-4024). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Science, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

From the Abstract:
"Reading comprehension—the ability to understand the meaning of text—is a foundational ability that enables children to learn in school and throughout life. Children who struggle with reading comprehension in the third or fourth grade are at high risk for dropping out of school, with detrimental effects on their future employment, income, and participation in the social and political aspects of life. Given the modest and inconsistent effects of existing large-scale early literacy interventions, the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education commissioned this study to investigate additional types of instructional practices that hold potential promise for promoting young children's language development and comprehension. Using an exploratory design, the study team collected extensive information about instructional practices in prekindergarten through grade 3 within Title I schools and examined the relationships between these practices and student growth in a range of language and comprehension outcomes. Findings from this study are intended to help identify potentially promising practices that ought to be studied further and evaluated on a large scale. As designed, this study makes three key contributions to the existing body of research about the relationships between instructional practices and young children's language and comprehension growth: (1) the exploration of a wide range of instructional practices; (2) the use of student outcome measures that cover a range of language and comprehension skills; and (3) the exploration of the relationship between practices and student growth on a large scale."

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J. et al. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (Educator's Practice Guide, NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.

From the Abstract:
"The goal of this practice guide is to offer educators specific, evidence-based recommendations for teaching foundational reading skills to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. This guide is a companion to the existing practice guide, "Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade", and as a set, these guides offer recommendations for preparing students to be successful readers. Both guides recommend some practices that can and should be implemented beginning in kindergarten, and both guides also suggest some instructional practices that can be implemented after students have mastered early reading skills. This guide synthesizes the best available research on foundational reading skills and shares practices that are supported by evidence. It is intended to be practical and easy for teachers to use. The guide includes many examples in each recommendation to demonstrate the concepts discussed. This guide provides teachers, reading coaches, principals, and other educators with instructional recommendations that can be implemented in conjunction with existing standards or curricula and does not recommend a particular curriculum. Teachers can use the guide when planning instruction to support the development of foundational reading skills among students in grades K-3 and in diverse contexts. Professional-development providers, program developers, and researchers can also use this guide. Professional-development providers can use the guide to implement evidence-based instruction and align instruction with state standards or to prompt teacher discussion in professional learning communities. Program developers can use the guide to create more effective early-reading curricula and interventions. Finally, researchers may find opportunities to test the effectiveness of various approaches to foundational reading education and explore gaps or variations in the reading-instruction literature."

Joseph, L. M., Alber-Morgan, S., Cullen, J., & Rouse, C. (2015). The effects of self-questioning on reading comprehension: A literature review. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 32(2), 1–22. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The ability to monitor one's own reading comprehension is a critical skill for deriving meaning from text. Self-questioning during reading is a strategy that enables students to monitor their reading comprehension and increases their ability to learn independently. The purpose of this article was to review experimental research studies that examined the effects of self-questioning methods on school-age students' reading comprehension and to determine the extent to which self-questioning is an evidence-based practice. This review resulted in 35 experimental research studies that involved teaching self-questioning to K–12 students with and without disabilities. Findings revealed that a variety of strategies are used to teach self-questioning to students. These self-questioning strategies are effective for improving reading comprehension performance across a range of diverse learners and across various educational settings. We provide limitations of this body of research, directions for future research, and implications for practice."

Shanahan, T., Callison, K., Carriere, C., Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Schatschneider, C. et al. (2010). Improving reading comprehension in kindergarten through 3rd grade (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2010-4038). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.

From the Abstract:
"Strong reading comprehension skills are central not only to academic and professional success, but also to a productive social and civic life. These skills build the capacity to learn independently, to absorb information on a variety of topics, to enjoy reading, and to experience literature more deeply. Despite the growing demand for highly educated workers in today's information- and service-related economies, the proportion of American adults classified as ‘below basic' readers remained remarkably constant between 1992 and 2003. This guide, developed by a panel of experts, presents a set of evidence-based practices that teachers and other educators can use to successfully teach reading comprehension to young readers. The panel believes that students who read with understanding at an early age gain access to a broader range of texts, knowledge, and educational opportunities, making early reading comprehension instruction particularly critical. The guide also describes the evidence that supports the practices and gives examples of how they can be implemented in the classroom."

Other Resources

Chung, S. F. (2012). Research-based vocabulary instruction for English language learners. Reading Matrix, 12(2), 105–120. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"A major reading-achievement gap exists between English language learners and English-only students. In order for ELLs to experience school success, they must achieve English language proficiency. This article presents why vocabulary acquisition plays the most vital role in ELLs' learning of the English language. Factors include the severity and frequency of vocabulary errors, the disparity of vocabulary knowledge between ELLs and monolingual English speakers, and the high correlation between vocabulary and comprehension. This study is based on a four-component vocabulary program proposed by experts in the field and a synthesis of research findings, practical strategies, and tools that enhance ELLs' vocabulary development. Other critical considerations for an effective vocabulary program are also discussed."

Friesen, D. C., & Haigh, C. A. (2018). How and why strategy instruction can improve second language reading comprehension: A review. Reading Matrix, 18(1), 1–18.

From the Abstract:
"Increasingly, children enter the school system with a home language that differs from the language of the majority. Consequently, classrooms have students with diverse language backgrounds and teachers must develop reading comprehension instruction that meets the needs of all their students. To successfully plan instruction, it is critical for teachers to understand the strengths that second language learners (SLLs) bring to the classroom as well as the potential difficulties they face. Here we review the literature on reading comprehension development and utilize cognitive frameworks to describe the knowledge, skills, and processes involved during reading for meaning. We use these theories to explain why SLLs may have difficulty with reading comprehension and how we might leverage their strengths in domains such as executive control to support their reading comprehension development. We further highlight for educators how strategy instruction aligns directly with cognitive theories of reading comprehension. Ideally, such examples will enable educators to explicitly articulate for their students how effective strategies enable the development of comprehensive mental representations of the text, and ultimately enable good text comprehension."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Reading OR Literacy, English learner OR English language learner, Comprehension, Elementary , Third grade, Trauma

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.