7 Literacy Strategies That Work: Improve Reading Comprehension Today

literacy strategiesLiteracy is a skill that must be learned, not an innate talent. Good, effective comprehension does not come naturally with the ability to read for everyone, and so teachers and parents must make the extra effort to teach young students the analytical skills required to comprehend texts to their fullest.

In this guide, you’ll find an extensive list of literacy strategies to aid students in their journey towards better comprehension skills. You can even practice them for yourself, if you’re learning to speak a new language (most of these techniques can be applied to any new language), or if you’ve struggled in the past with effective comprehension.

Discover more reading comprehension and literacy strategies with this online prep course.

Minute Comprehension

This literacy strategy is best exercised early on in a classroom setting, or in a self-taught environment if you’re practicing reading comprehension skills on your own. Readers should be given a page of text, or other relatively short passage that they can finish reading within one minute.

After the minute is over, the reader should turn over the page, and take thirty seconds to write down everything they remember from the passage – every single detail and piece of information that comes to mind. This isn’t about prioritizing information, it’s about identifying how much information a reader is able to absorb.

After that thirty seconds or so, the reader should then return to the passage for another minute. After that minute, they should turn the page over again, and write out any information they remember that they didn’t specify before.

With this exercise, readers can better gauge how much information they’re capable of absorbing at a time. Pacing is as much a factor in reading comprehension is anything, and understanding where your skills currently stand before a lesson is as important as knowing where you want them to be after the lesson.

Vocabulary List

Much of literacy comes down to understanding, misunderstanding, or simply not knowing the definition of certain words. The right vocabulary can make or break your ability to comprehend a text.

Take, for instance, the following excerpt from Jack London’s Call of the Wild:

“Buck had accepted the rope with quiet dignity. To be sure, it was an unwonted performance: but he had learned to trust in men he knew, and to give them credit for a wisdom that outreached his own. But when the ends of the rope were placed in the stranger’s hands, he growled menacingly. He had merely intimated his displeasure, in his pride believing that to intimate was to command.”

The vocabulary listing technique asks that the reader write out words he or she does not quite know the definition of, on a separate sheet of paper. Even if they’re familiar with the word, but feel unclear on the way the word is being used – they should write down any and all words, phrases, and terms that they are uncertain of.

After reading the text, they should search for each word and phrase’s definition, write it down, and re-read the text using these new-found definitions as a key.

Given the example above, perhaps the reader is unsure of what the words unwonted, outreached, and intimate mean, effectively preventing them from understanding the full meaning of the text.

If the reader is just starting this exercise, they should note in which ways their understanding of the text has improved based on their improved vocabulary. In the above example, they’ll learn that unwonted means unusual, indicating that the dog character in the novel is trusting of his owners, even when he is unsure of their motives, and so on.

Coded Annotations

This exercise works best if the text has been printed on a worksheet, since it requires the reader to write between the lines and within the margins.

One reason literacy and comprehension can be so difficult for readers is the inability to manage large walls of text. Visually, it can be overwhelming, not to mention difficult to track individual sentences and segments when trying to draw meaning from the words.

Readers often have many thoughts running through their heads when they read: What does this word mean? What is the writer implying with this sentence? I didn’t know this fact. I did know this fact. I don’t believe this assertion. And so on.

It helps to mark down these thoughts when reading, but writing lengthy annotations can distract the reader from the text, which is counter-productive to these literacy strategies. Instead, the reader can use symbols to denote certain thoughts. For example:

  • ? for “I don’t understand”
  • ! for “I learned something new”
  • ~ for “I don’t believe this/agree with this”
  • + for “I want to learn more about this”
  • - for “I don’t think this is important”
  • * for “I think this is an important theme”
  • = for “I think this is a parallel to something else”

This way, the reader can quickly return to points they felt were relevant without needing to scan the next over and over again.


One good literacy strategy to practice at the end of a reading session or class is to ask the student or reader to create a newspaper headline, detailing the lesson. Newspaper headlines are generally no longer than two lines, and serve to convey only the most weighty, relevant information from the story it’s representing. It’s no use comprehending bits and pieces of a story if you don’t understand the big picture, and how those details work together to convey it.

By making the reader write out mock newspaper headlines for the excerpt, story, or other body of text they’ve read, it encourages them to identify the most important, overarching theme of the work. This is a key skill necessary for effective comprehension.

Key Lines

Very similar to headlining, this technique asks the reader not to craft their own headline, but to identify the most important sentence in the passage they’ve read. Like the headline, this one sentence – this key line – should encompass what the reader feels is the most significant theme or idea in the text.

Building Interest

One reason a reader may have difficulty comprehending a text is sheer disinterest. If a reader doesn’t feel motivated to read a passage, why would they make that extra effort to apply any kind of critical thinking or analysis to it? Lack of interest leads to lazy reading and lack of comprehension.

This is why pre-reading literacy strategies like building interest are so important. For this exercise, the reader should at least be familiar with the basis of the passage. For instance, the teacher can reveal to students that they will be reading three pages about The Great Depression. The teacher should have prepared a few sentences highlighting central points of interest in this passage, making it as relatable and relevant to their class as possible.

Students can then go into the text feeling aware of its key points, looking out for important pieces of information, and understanding what they need to absorb from the text.

If there is no teacher available, and the reader is working on their comprehension skills solo, or with others, they can simply write out a few words about what they hope to learn from the text. As you can see, this exercise works best in a classroom setting, where the teacher can decide what is most significant for the students.

Building interest is also best for younger students, who might need that extra push to feel motivated to read. Learn more about teaching children to read in this helpful guide.

Alphabet Soup

It’s one thing for a reader to understand the point of a text, or the central themes. To take it to the next level, and really be an effective reader and an analytical thinker, readers need to learn how to make connections to other ideas, and other texts that aren’t directly in front of them. That’s where this literacy strategy comes in.

After reading a passage, the reader should fill out an “alphabet soup” worksheet (you can call this exercise whatever you want). This worksheet should contain the entire alphabet, and a space next to each letter where the reader can write out words and ideas that are relevant to the passage.

For instance, let’s say the passage was an excerpt from the Ray Bradbury novel, Fahrenheit 451. This is a novel about a future where society burns books. The reader’s alphabet soup worksheet could look something like this:

  • Alienation
  • Books
  • Censorship
  • Dystopia
  • Evil
  • Freedom
  • Greed

This exercise urges the reader to connect the ideas they’ve located in the book to the bank of knowledge in their own head, which is the basis of analytical thinking and effective reading comprehension.

For more literacy strategies, consider taking this SAT critical reading practice course. Even if you’re not preparing for the SAT, there are plenty of helpful tips and tricks for you to improve your comprehension. There are plenty more SAT reading comprehension courses, such as this one.

You can also take a Fast ForWord course, a class primarily aimed at younger children and developing cognitive reading abilities.