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Reading comprehension – 8 ways to create comprehension ninjas

Use Vocabulary Ninja Andrew Jennings’ ideas to help primary pupils effectively skim, scan and retrieve information…

Andrew Jennings
by Andrew Jennings

1 | Effective pre-reading

Prompt children to read with their pencil, meaning that their pencil moves across the page underneath each line as they read it. The benefit of training pupils to do this is that when it comes to underlining a key piece of information, their pencil is already in the correct location – it’s efficient.

2 | Underline key information

If you want pupils to underline key information as they read, they need to know what this means.

Consider the following categories:

  • Names of people, places, companies, events, locations, etc
  • Dates including days, months, years, times; statistics and numbers including percentages, fractions, amounts, figures, etc
  • Words that pupils don’t understand (identifying them may still help pupils answer a question)
  • Headings, sub-headings, images and punctuation

These areas can all help direct readers to the correct area of the text when answering a question.

3 | Spot key question words

Teach pupils to spot the key word or phrase in a question. This is a word or phrase that will signpost the pupil where to look in the text to find the answer.

In the following question, the key phrase is ‘Morse code’: ‘How did soldiers effectively use Morse code during the second world war?’ If pupils have pre-read the text effectively, ‘Morse code’ should be underlined, or they may even remember where it is mentioned.

4 | Skim the text

Skimming a text is like looking at the chapters of a DVD and deciding which section or chapter of the film to start at. We won’t necessarily find the answer, but we hope to locate the correct area of the text and, ideally, the correct paragraph or section.

Ask pupils to first remember whether the information was at the beginning, middle or end. Is there an image or subheading that can signpost pupils to the correct area of the text?

5 | Scan for detail

Scanning is when pupils look at the specific section they’ve identified while skimming with a greater level of scrutiny, possibly looking for a key word or phrase.

Going back to the DVD analogy, this is like watching that specific section or chapter of the film to locate the information we require. Ideally this would be a specific sentence, phrase or word.

6 | Real-world examples

Introduce skimming and scanning by using images, timetables, TV schedules, poems, lists and visual instructions. Search online for ‘hidden word pictures’ and ask pupils to locate specific items, objects or information within them. Add a time limit to increase the fun factor.

7 | In, before and after

Once pupils have found a key word or phrase in a text, train them to read the sentence before, the one containing the key word and the sentence after. Doing this will give pupils a much greater chance of answering comprehension questions successfully.

8 | Simplify sequencing

Teach pupils to allocate a symbol (square, triangle, rectangle, star, cross, for example) to five different statements. Pupils should then find these statements in the text and draw on the corresponding symbol.

Once they’ve done this, it is extremely easy to look at the text and see which symbol comes first, second, third and so on. This is a very effective strategy to help pupils effectively sequence information.


Andrew Jennings is an assistant headteacher. He launched Vocabulary Ninja (@vocabularyninja) in 2017 and has recently published Comprehension Ninja handbooks for Y1-6 (£24.99 each, Bloomsbury).

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