How to Improve Comprehension with Self-Questioning

Increasing Comprehension with Self-Questioning Before Reading a Text

Good readers use self-questioning before, during, and after reading to improve reading comprehension. Using self-questioning before reading helps readers predict what a text might be about. This helps them decide whether the content is something they want to read.

Getting an idea of the text content helps readers determine if the text will be useful or interesting to them. To preview the content, readers check the cover title and the author.

Girl reading a book to get better comprehension with self-questioning.
Reading and Self-Questioning Go Together

Then they think about whether or not they have read any books by this author. If they have liked the books from this author in the past, they may be more inclined to want to read the new book by the same author.

If students do not recognize the author, they are likely to want more information about the book before they decide to read it.

Next, readers look over the information on the book jacket. This helps them consider if the book will be interesting or useful. This self-questioning process increases the likelihood that the readers will select a book that matches their interests.

Poor readers, on the other hand, may look only at the title or cover picture and not delve much deeper than the surface level. If the title and picture cover does not catch their eye, they may immediately put the book down.

Other weak readers may select a book based on the thickness or number of pictures in the book. Helping students use questioning to match a book to their own interests, can help students choose books that match both their interests and the reading purpose.

Increasing Comprehension with Self-Questioning During Reading

Skilled readers use self-questioning and are actively involved in understanding the content as they read. They use self-questioning to make judgements about the information.

Proficient readers question the information as it is read and ask questions like: “I wonder why the author said that?”; “What did the author mean here?”; “Do I agree with this?”; or “Why character X did that.”; or “How can I use this information?” and similar self-questions.

Self-questioning helps the reader to look for text clues that help them wonder about what they read. They can make connections to their own background knowledge or similar texts. This strategy also helps them keep reading to find answers to their own questions.

Since each person’s background knowledge is different, readers will wonder about different parts of the text. Readers will make different connections and will take away different things from their reading.

Girl hodling out a book.

Increasing Comprehension with Self-Questioning After Reading a Text

When effective readers like a book, they often try to find more books on the topic or by the same author. Poor readers do not always make connections based on the author or the topic. This is a helpful skill for less effective readers so they develop better comprehension while reading.

After reading, effective readers can retell the gist of the story or informational content in their own words. By helping our less capable readers retell the story or key ideas, we improve their self-questioning. Therefore, questioning also helps them connect to what they have learned.

Encourage less effective readers to ask questions like: “What did the author want you to think about in this book?”; “How did the author want you to view Topic X?”; “What are the most important things that happened in the book?”; “Can you list the most important things to remember from what we have read?” 

When readers use self-questioning better comprehension is the result.

You May Also Like: What Effective Readers Do When Reading (Part 1) and What Effective Readers Do (Part 2)

What Effective Readers Do When Reading (Part 1)

Connecting to Background Knowledge

Researchers have identified the difference between what effective readers do when reading and what poor readers do differently.

These insights can help us focus on the skills that struggling readers need to increase their reading performance. When they know what good readers do when reading, they can learn these strategies too.

Strong readers use their prior knowledge and information to relate to the text while they are reading.

They make predictions about what will happen next in the text. They think about what they might learn in the rest of the text. They make judgments about how the information fits together as a sensible whole.

Connecting with what we already know about a topic (background knowledge) is one of these things. When we connect what we already know about a topic, the easier it is for us to understand and process new information on the topic.

Effective readers are able to spot ideas that conflict with their own background knowledge or with ideas from other articles they have read.

They understand that it is alright to disagree with an author’s position on a topic when they can cite evidence that shows inaccuracies.

Effective readers are able to stop reading and check other reference sources to see if the information is accurate and reliable.

Demands of Readers in Today’s World

In the age of instant information, helping students evaluate information and look for bias or self-interest is an essential skill. 

Students must know that all information isn’t “created equal” and that misinformation and disinformation exist.

Effective readers use their background knowledge to make sense of what they read.

For example, think of the word bank.  This word could refer to a place where we place our money as in “I bank at the City Bank.”  The word could refer to  the sidewalls of a river as in “The water was rising higher on its banks.” 

In another article, we might see the phrase, “The plane banked to the left as it rose.” In this case, the word bank would be referring to the movement of the plane.

By using our background knowledge about the topic, we are able to connect word meanings to the right meaning of the word being used in context.

Effective reading teachers know this and help students activate relevant prior knowledge before asking them to read.

What Happens When Children Lack Background Knowledge?

Students who do not have a rich storehouse of background knowledge or who come from a different culture, need to have greater levels of pre-teaching before being asked to read.

Some ways that you can help your students connect to the texts they are reading include:

  1. using visuals,
  2. directly introducing to new vocabulary they will see in the text before reading,
  3. using graphic organizers to help students visualize and organize content,
  4. and using appropriate realia to enhance background knowledge prior to reading.

Good Readers Create Mental Images As they Read

Good readers create images of the characters in a story and the action taking place.

Students can do this by drawing pictures or creating and sharing mental images. Creating mental images is like seeing the “movie version” played out in their heads as they read.

Effective readers become emotionally involved with what they are reading. How many times have you been so emotionally involved with a good book you couldn’t put it down? That’s what good readers do when reading.

Capable readers identify with the text and become emotionally involved in their reading. Help your students think about the visual images they get while reading.

Besides mental images, you can use graphic organizers to help students organize information and see meaningful relationships between and within concepts.

Good Readers Know and Use “Fix-Up” Strategies When Needed

Strong readers know that text should make sense as they are reading. They know when what they are reading makes sense and when it doesn’t.

They know how to use a wide variety of “fix-up” strategies when they lose meaning while reading. Some helpful strategies to use are: skipping ahead, re-reading, reading aloud, and slowing the pace of what is being read.

Good readers also know how to ask questions about what they are reading to reconnect with meaning in the text.

Effective readers know they lose meaning while reading. They know that when this happens, they need to stop and figure out how to regain meaning before they continue.

Model the reading strategies you use for monitoring your own comprehension by reading aloud to your students. Stop at strategic places to model how to use fix-up strategies that are appropriate to the text.

In this way, your students can hear your thinking and see what you do to reconnect to textual meaning.Help your students understand that all readers lose meaning from time to time.

Using effective strategies when meaning has been lost increases reading comprehension. It’s what good readers do when reading that poor readers do not know how to do.

Find more great ideas for building strong readers in my books:

The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (K-5)

Literacy Strategies: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading (6-12).

Becoming a Good Reader

Reading to Learn – Not Learning to Read

Becoming a good reader in the primary grades is an important goal for primary students. When students get past the primary grades, they are expected to use reading as a tool for learning. There is little time to spend on mastering the skills of reading. Yet, many students still struggle with fluency and comprehension after third grade.

The two most significant needs of students in grades 4-8 are building fluency skills, strengthening and expanding their vocabulary, and strengthening meaning and comprehension of what is being read.

Becoming a Proficient Reader Takes Practice

Reading is a participation sport. Just like a golfer has to practice hitting the golf ball on the golf course or a tennis player has to practice playing against a worthy opponent to improve their skills, students need to practice their reading to become more fluent and powerful readers.

Practices like “Drop Everything and Read” time (DEAR time) or other sustained independent reading times are helpful ways to encourage more reading. Allowing students to choose books and participate in book clubs or book circles is another way to encourage sustained reading.

Students must actively READ – not talk about reading or complete skill-drill worksheets about discrete reading skills. Students must practice their reading skills by reading authentic text. The more time children spend actually reading, the better readers they become.

When reading is effortless and enjoyable, children can truly lose themselves in the characters’ plight or in learning about content in which they have an intense interest. Good readers often report “getting lost” in a fascinating novel. Or, they might lose track of time while reading about topics they they find interesting. This is when reading takes on a special significance for students. They are now reading to learn important content rather than learning to read.

Building Fluency in Readers

A way to build students’ fluency skills is by re-reading a specific text to practice and refine it. Readers can use audiobooks while following along in a print version of the text. After reviewing the text a few times, they can read it to a peer or teacher to show their proficiency. Kids love it, and fluency soars!

Another fun way to encourage children to practice re-reading and building fluent reading is by using plays and Reader’s Theater in the classroom. A quick internet search will provide many Reader’s Theater scripts for classroom use. Children can also write their own Reader’s Theater scripts and create podcasts of the material for others to enjoy.

Using Reading to Learn in Grades 4-8

Helping Students Increase Reading Speed

Once children can read with good phrasing, expression, and intonation, the next step is helping them increase their reading speed. Research tells us that slow readers often lose interest in reading because it is an uphill struggle that reduces their stamina. Readers who can read fluently have more cognitive energy to devote to making meaning out of the words they read.

Timed reading passages where children practice fluency can increase reading speed and practice with the material at an independent reading level. Practice with appropriate material increases reading speed as children become more comfortable readers. Again, as fluency increases and effort decreases, the brain has more time to process the meaning of the text. This makes reading more enjoyable.


Helping students become proficient readers is the key to helping students experience success in the classroom and enjoy learning. By helping students improve their fluency and expand the number of words they can access quickly and easily, teachers can help students become more proficient readers who can use reading to learn and grow their background knowledge.

If you liked this article, you may like: Helping Struggling Students Meet Reading Standards

Learn more in my book: Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading