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Morgan Dynamic Phonics: Comprehension, Vocabulary, and Fluency Strategies

Comprehension, Vocabulary, and Fluency

Note: This section is long and you don't have to read it before starting the program but you will need to study it at some point. There are a lot of important ideas here.

Comprehension - Introduction "Comprehension depends on the ability to decode and recognize single words rapidly and accurately" (Lyon and Chhabra 1996). So for many students, teaching fast, efficient word reading (as we teach in this program) will have a strong impact on comprehension and they may not need direct instruction on comprehension. For other students comprehension instruction is crucial for understanding written language. Comprehension is a complex combination of problem solving and high level linguistic ability.

Note of caution: Good phonics skill is a prerequisite to reading comprehension. If your student or students are not accurate and fluent word readers, do not spend a lot of time teaching reading comprehension skills because you are taking valuable time away from decoding practice. You can, though, use these comprehension strategies to develop listening comprehension skills (closely related to reading comprehension) for materials which you read out loud to your students. Fluency training can be more valuable early on, because quick and accurate word reading can radically effect reading comprehension.

Many sentences within this program lend themselves to improving comprehension because students can relate to them: When a student struggles to read "Give me a penny", and then you immediately give him a penny, you are working on comprehension. When a student reads "Laugh at me", and you laugh at him, you are working on comprehension. The humor and meaningfulness of the sentences assists students in building comprehension:

  • "You are a very good teacher."
  • "I like to eat bugs."
  • "You are a terrible teacher."
  • "I am good at sports."
  • "Please act like an ape."
  • "I am a frog."

Some students who need direct explicit instruction in decoding also require direct explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. Comprehension strategies should be taught in a manner which is systematic, sequential, explicit and direct. They should be presented in small, sequential increments, with lots of review and practice. They should be taught one at a time. It is best to master one strategy before focusing on the next. The general steps to follow in teaching comprehension strategies are:

  1. Direct instruction and identification of the strategy
  2. Modeling the strategy
  3. Guided practice
  4. Monitoring of independent practice
  5. Independent practice

Teachers need to describe the strategy, model how it is used, and have students demonstrate and model its use with a piece of text (Bryant 1999; Swanson 1998; Mastropieri 1997; Graham 1989; Palincsar 1988; Vaughn 1999). Teachers can model most of these strategies by reading passages aloud and talking about their thought processes while they read. They can also have the students do this as they read aloud. Comprehension strategies should be taught and practiced while reading books and stories.

Written language instruction helps with reading comprehension because it helps students understand the structure of text. Diagramming sentences and learning parts of speech will also help with comprehension. Diana Hanbury King says that dyslexic students need to put a lot of mileage on their pencils. Learning about summarizing, main idea and supporting details are useful for composition as well as for comprehension. For using written language to improve comprehension with secondary age students, see Longo, 2001.


1) Phrasing and punctuation

Students will improve in comprehension and fluency by learning to chunk text into phrases: noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases, or other meaningful units (see Hook 2002). You may want to create reading text with separation between phrases for reading or draw lines under phrases within sentences to be read. You can also help students to draw lines under phrases in text.

One way to work on phrasing is by having the teacher write a passage on the board, read it out loud, and ask the students to find the phrase that:

  1. Tells you whom the passage is about

  2. Tells you how a character feels

  3. Tells you how something looks

  4. Tells you about what kind of person a character is, etc.

Point out that phrases and punctuation indicate where your eyes and voice pause. Students, who do not pause for phrasing and punctuation, may have big problems with comprehension. It has been said that the meaning of a passage is not in the words but in the phrases. You can also give students words and phrases on small pieces of paper and have them put them in the right order to make sentences.

Another way to work on phrasing and punctuation is to have students read number or letter sentences: 123 45? 67 898! 43 554 567? AB CDE FG. BK TUJ WD? where spaces represent breaks between phases.

Many people have approached this author and told him about the student they have who can read words well but who does not understand what they are reading. The first question that the author asks is, "Does your student pay attention to phasing and punctuation?" Very often that ends up being the problem. For students to become good comprehenders they need to understand syntax (i.e. the rules that govern text structure or organization between words in sentences), semantics, phrasing, inflection, and intonation. This is one reason that we teach students to read aloud with expression.

2) Paragraph structure

Paragraphs can take different forms but most paragraphs have a main idea and supporting details. Paragraphs, as well as longer passages, can be descriptive, sequential, argumentative/persuasive or compare/contrast. Direct instruction with these kinds of paragraphs or passages can improve comprehension skills. One useful activity is for the teacher to read a paragraph with one topic sentence and three or four supporting detail sentences and then asks the students to identify which is which. Another activity is to provide 3 or 4 supporting sentences and have students tell you what the topic sentence could be. Alternatively, provide the topic sentence and have them come up with supporting sentences. Shifting focus from main idea to the supporting details and back can be difficult for some students and may require much practice.

Eventually you will need to have your students practice reading passages from different styles of text: newspapers, poetry, narrative, essays, fables, etc. Direct teaching of different text styles helps students understand how text is organized.

3) Expository text

For expository text the teacher needs to set a purpose before reading. The use of graphic organizers, webs, time lines, multiple events charts (branching tree), mind maps and semantic networks can be very useful for understanding text (Bakken 1997). These help students discover how things are connected in texts - an important part of comprehension. Any way to create visual-spatial organization of text will help students' understanding and recall. Teachers can create graphic organizers and have students fill them in as they read a passage aloud or silently. Once the students understand the use of graphic organizers that are provided, have them start to create their own. A computer program that helps students create their own graphic organizers called Inspiration can be found at Teachers should discuss the main concepts of a passage (activating prior knowledge in students) before reading the passage and teach interpretive skills for specific maps, charts and graphs found in the text.

For expository text a few basic strategies will help with comprehension (also useful for narrative and descriptive text). First, have the students skim through the text looking at pictures, titles, graphs, and words in bold print, and headings to try to get a basic sense of what the text will be about. You may need to teach them explicitly how to interpret these. Ask them to make predictions about what the text will be about and have them brainstorm experiences in their lives that relate to what the text seems to be about. Activating prior knowledge about the topic is an important piece in understanding what you read. Comprehension is the product of prior knowledge and the ability to integrate new information. Some students will need direct instruction in organizing and reflecting on new information and relating that information to their prior knowledge.


K-W-L strategies and charts can be very useful. 'K' stands for what students already know about a topic. 'W' stands for what they want to or expect to learn about a topic in the reading assignment. 'L' stands for what they learned about the topic. The teacher can make K-W-L charts for students to fill in.

4) Narrative Text - story mapping.

For reading stories, story mapping is a great way to teach students about the structure of narrative text (Idol 1987; Gandill 1999). All stories have the same basic structure. They have a main character or characters, a setting, a time, a problem, a goal, attempts to solve the problem and reach the goal, eventual resolution of the problem, and then sometimes a lesson or theme of the story (Gandill 1999). You can practice story mapping by writing the various components on the board, reading a story out loud, and then have the students help you fill in the relative data. You could also do this with a TV show that you watch together. Eventually you want your students to be able to read a story and relate back to you information in this form. Understanding story structure will improve anticipatory skills (guessing what will happen next) that can improve reading fluency as well as comprehension.

Discussing the character's personality traits and his or her reactions to events can also be useful. Another format for working with narrative text is to have the students answers the questions who, what, where, when, why and how. Direct instruction in identifying the theme in a story or passage can be very useful for adolescents (Williams 2001).

5) Making predictions

Have your student make predictions of what will happen in a passage from looking at pictures, headings, etc. before you start reading. Have them continue to make predictions about what will happen next as they read through the text. As students gain better understanding of text structure, they will become better predictors. This can improve reading fluency and comprehension.

6) Self-monitoring

Many students also need to be taught how to self monitor understanding of a text. They need to always keep an awareness of their understanding. They need to know at the end of each sentence or paragraph either, "I understand what's going on", or "I don't understand and I need to figure this out". They need to continually question whether they understand what they are reading. If they don't, then they need to go back and use decoding and contextual clues to try to figure out what they are missing. If they still cannot figure it out, they may need to ask for help. Teaching students not to just skip over pieces of text that they don't understand is important. Merely reading the words is not enough; reading is about finding or constructing meaning from text (Vaughn 1999).

Reading is like detective work (problem solving): trying to figure out or build meaning from text. You may have to teach this strategy to your students. As the students construct conclusions and make predictions, have them explain how they decided - what is their supporting evidence, "How do you know". They need to explain the evidence for main idea, sequence, cause and effect and inferences. Again, the teacher can model these strategies by reading aloud and giving evidence for the conclusions and predictions that she makes. The teacher can also have the students explain conclusions, predictions, and evidence to a partner or in a small group.

7) Visualizing and imagining

Visual image training is an excellent way to help students with comprehension skills. Students who are good at comprehension seem to be good image makers and students with poor comprehension appear to be poor at making mental images (Bell 1991). Teach your students to create visual images (mental pictures) in their minds of words, of phrases, of sentences, of paragraphs and of whole pieces of text. It is best to have your students tell you about what they see in clear and concise language. Teachers can model this strategy by reading a passage aloud and describing the mental images that come to them while reading. Drawing pictures of their visual images may also be useful. Effective mental imagery techniques are described in Bell 1991, Bell 1986, Meyer 1999, Long 1989, Pressley 1976 and Smith 1987. Good readers often see moving pictures (Bell 1991) in their heads as they are reading. Having your students imagine the text as a moving picture in their heads can be beneficial for comprehension. Students who have trouble creating mental imagery can be asked to explain or draw the rooms in their house or school as a beginning exercise.

Carreker (2002) explains how to help students create mental imagery as they read. The teacher models this by reading a story aloud and drawing simple pictures that represent important features or information as she goes. Then the teacher does a retell of the story using the pictures as a guide and incorporating new vocabulary from the story. Then the students take turns retelling the same story in the same way. Next, the students read a new story and draw their own pictures, and then retell while using these pictures as a guide. This technique can also be used with other types of text.

The students can also aid comprehension by creating mental imagery that is auditory (how does it sound?), kinesthetic (how does it feel if you are doing it?), or tactile (how it would feel on the skin). The sense of taste and smell can also be imagined to help with memory and comprehension. Acting out words, actions, or feelings in a text can also be very effective (see charades).

8) Using other media (pictures, drawing, etc.)

Comprehension can be aided by encouraging students to explore various multisensory responses to their first and subsequent responses to text (Short 2000). They can be encouraged to explore their individual and personal connections to the text through the use of drawing, painting, poetry, singing, music, movement, drama, mathematics, language, or relating to other media such as a movie or TV program. This allows them to share their own personal responses to a book or passage in a favored modality with other students. They will be using these modalities as tools for thinking about meaning. Taking these responses public (by sharing aloud) can create new ideas that go beyond first impressions and benefit the whole class. It gives them new ways to interact with text and to express themselves to others. It also allows all the students in the class to think more broadly about text. Sometimes, just by giving students a few minutes to draw or write about a passage before discussion can be beneficial.

In this way, discussion is not just retelling but also relating. Students can critique, reflect, and extend on those ideas. It shows them multiple ways of knowing about the world. Transferring ideas from one modality to another brings deeper understanding and meaning to text. The larger pool of ideas and connections can cause students to reflect creatively in the process of building meaning from text by considering different perspectives on that meaning (Short 2000).

9) Summarizing and retelling

Summarizing is another important aspect of comprehension. Work with the students in summarizing paragraphs and longer passages. "Who or what is this paragraph or passage mainly about." Encourage students to give summaries in ten words or less. Again, this is probably a strategy that you will need to teach directly (Gajria 1992; Malone 1992; Simon 1991). You can have your students look for repeated words, substitutes for those words, and words that describe those words to try to discover the main ideas. For narrative text, have the students notice the word or words in each sentence that carry the story forward - important words. You can then teach how to create a web or outline from these words.

At the end of a story or expository text, students should be encouraged to describe main ideas, important details, story parts if it is a story, and then relate this information to their own experiences and prior knowledge about the topics or experiences. The instructor should present literary comprehension questions, inferential or interpretive thinking comprehension questions, and evaluative/creative thinking comprehension questions to his or her students. In this way, critical and creative thinking skills are improved in the context of comprehension skill development.

Teachers should ask the students about and discuss: special vocabulary, multiple meanings, main ideas or purpose, characters, setting, plot, predictions, conclusions, supporting details, sequencing facts or steps, recognizing analogies, identifying key events, recognizing conflict, distinguishing cause and effect and fact from opinion, making inferences, identifying theme, point of view and relationships to the student's personal experiences. The author's intent and use of words can also be discussed. Teachers can also ask students to tell back the events in order and put these on a graphic organizer or time line. Many of these characteristics should also be talked about during the reading of a text. Again, have students give supporting details to explain how they came to their conclusions or inferences. For higher level comprehension, work with comparing and contrasting ideas, characters, stories or facts as well as organizing and classifying information from text and prior knowledge.

Have your students retell a story or passage that you have read out loud or they have read silently.

Reading a summary of a passage to the students before the students read the passage has been shown to improve comprehension and fluency.

10) Open-ended questions

As well as asking specific questions at the end of a reading, ask more general questions. Ask questions like:

  • "What is this mostly about?"
  • "What's the message of the author?"
  • "What happened here?"
  • "Is there a lesson here?"
  • "What are they doing?"
  • "Can you say it another way?"

Open ended questions like this demand reflection, thinking, problem solving and meaning building and they allow opportunities for understanding to grow. In group instruction students will learn from each other as well as from the teacher. Students will be constructing meaning in their brains as the discussion progresses. After the student gives an answer, the teacher can echo the student's response and then ask a subsequent related question. In this way the teacher and the students work together to create meaning from text. Students should be encouraged to use complete sentences in responding to comprehension questions.

For more information about comprehension strategies see the Teacher's Manual for Morgan Dynamic Phonics 1 or 2.


Keep in mind that the best predictors of vocabulary and comprehension development are the amount of time spent reading. A non disabled fourth grader will read about one million words in a year and through that add 10,000 words to his sight vocabulary. Students cannot read a lot (and will not read a lot) if they cannot decode words quickly, accurately and efficiently. Your job is not just to teach reading skills but also to figure out how to get your students excited about reading so they will start to read independently.

Vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension are very highly correlated. Many students who have problems understanding text have vocabulary deficits from vocabulary impoverished environments and/or from not reading very much. This is particularly true for some students when they get to fourth grade and higher and have to cope with science and social studies texts. These students need direct instruction and practice with new vocabulary and lots of opportunity to hear and/or read these words in context, and practice using these words in discussions. With students who have vocabulary deficits, the teacher should consider teaching two or three new vocabulary words each day with contextualized introduction, direct explanation of meanings, and opportunities for using them. These can be words from books that you are reading aloud or from a list of vocabulary words that are on grade level for your student or students. Vocabulary instruction must include explicit teaching of the sounds, structural elements, parts of speech and contextual meanings of words. Students need to hear and understand the new words in relation to text. If you are teaching words above your students reading level, you will have to do most of this vocabulary instruction orally. All students can benefit from vocabulary instruction.

Picking out important or difficult phrases or new vocabulary words from a reading passage and discussing them before reading a passage is essential for some students and useful for others. Multi-meaning words may need to be taught and discussed (Paul 1988). Many students will need direct instruction in vocabulary, synonyms, antonyms, multiple meanings, appreciation of humor, slang, idioms, similes, metaphors, and figurative language. You may want to have students draw pictures of new vocabulary words to help with recall. You will need to discuss what a new vocabulary word is and what it isn't. Having them give examples of how a word is used is also very useful, as is discussing the origin of the word (see Dynamic Roots program).

You can also make word webs with new vocabulary words, which can include synonyms, antonyms, definitions, parts of speech, and uses in phrases and sentences. The more associations and connections that are made to a word, the more completely it is learned (National Reading Panel, 2000). Teaching vocabulary from a text before reading it has been shown to increase fluency as well as comprehension.

Many poor comprehenders will skip over small words while reading. They must be taught that these words are important to comprehension and to pay attention to these words. The word "and" means that more information is coming. The word "but" means the meaning is going to change direction. The word "as" means 'at the same time.' The word "if" means a condition is going to be explained. Direct instruction of these little words to students who do not understand them or skip them while reading, can improve comprehension. Other words that may need special instruction are: "before, while, after, since, for, because, so, when, where, what and then."

A) Oral reading of more advanced texts

Even though your student or students are probably reading text that is below their grade level, you should be helping them develop higher level comprehension strategies by reading higher level texts to them. Spend time reading good literature or other interesting reading materials to your students. This helps to inspire an interest in reading and also helps to develop comprehension skills. Reading comprehension is closely related to listening comprehension. While reading to your student or students, carry on a dialog with them about what you are reading. You can concentrate on the same aspects of listening comprehension that we are discussing for reading comprehension. Ask questions to students as you read to them. With beginning readers it is also a good idea to read them stories with rhyming or word play (i.e. Dr. Seuss) and play rhyming and word play games with them. This helps develop phonological awareness skills (sensitivity to the sounds in language. See the section on prereading activities in the instructions).

Andrew Biemiller, at the 53rd meeting of the International Dyslexia Association conference describe what one kindergarten teacher did with her class. She read them 12 books, 9 times each during the school year. She used repeated reading to discuss vocabulary meanings and comprehension. According to Mr. Biemiller, the students in this class made extraordinary gains in vocabulary knowledge.

B) Working with Roots

Our Dynamic Roots program is one program that helps to develop higher level vocabulary and reading skills through the study or root words, prefixes, suffixes and Latin and Greek word origins - for information see Students need at least a fourth grade reading level before starting this program.

For more information about vocabulary building strategies see the Teacher's Manual for Morgan Dynamic Phonics 1 or 2 or the Dynamic Roots program.


A recent study by Joe Torgeson from the N.I.H. (not yet in print) examined the difference between research based reading interventions at different grade levels. He found that first grade intervention produced much higher fluency rates than fourth grade intervention. We are not quite sure why this is, but it definitely points to the importance of teaching reading and fluency to at-risk students as early as possible. In order for students to enjoy reading and be motivated to read, they must be able to read and understand words effortlessly and quickly.

"Fluency instruction needs to be added to a balanced instructional program as early as kindergarten. Young students at-risk for reading difficulties should receive formal fluency training in conjunction with a strong program of decoding, word recognition and comprehension." Meyer 2002.

Many students will develop fluency slowly as they learn decoding skills. In this program we are training students to become faster and more automatic at recognizing letter-sound correspondences (giving the sounds from the letters and giving the letters from the sounds), sounding out words, recognizing sight words, and reading sentences and texts quickly, smoothly and with good expression. Automatic word recognition is necessary for fluency and comprehension. In order to attain this, sound-symbol correspondences must be automatic. For some students this takes a lot of repetition and over learning. Students also need to read using appropriate intonation, rhythm, phrasing, and punctuation (see comprehension strategies).

Reading is like riding a bike; if you don't ride fast enough, you fall off. If you don't read fast enough, you don't understand what you read. Many reading disabled students have poor fluency rates (reflected by poor rapid naming rates) and need direct instruction in fluency training (Mastropieri 1999). Fluency instruction with text is the most useful for students who know basic phonics skills but continue to slowly sound out almost every word as they read. Your student should have good phonics skills before you do fluency training with text. Good readers sound like they are speaking or even singing when they read aloud. For students who are having problems developing fluency skills try these activities:

1. Doing repeated reading speed drills with individual words and even letters have been shown to highly impact reading fluency (Hook and Jones 2002; Tax and Nicholson 1997). You can use the red card words, the phoneme cards or the words from the reading books for repeated fluency drills using the procedure outlined below. You can also use the sentences in the reading books or in the homework section for fluency training. The next step would be to use phonetically controlled readers and eventually to use easy non controlled text for the same purpose and using the same procedures. Any kind of fluency speed drills should be done with material that the student can read with 90% to 95% accuracy.

2. Best Practice. Pick a passage from a text in which your student can read 90% to 95% of the words. Set a goal of how many words per minutes you want to aim for. Have the student read for one minute and record number of words read and the number of errors. Give the student credit for words that he self corrects. Don't count off for proper nouns unless reading phonetically controlled text. You will need two copies of the passage so you can mark yours as he reads. Skipping a line only counts as one error but you don't count the words in that line.

At first you can set goals of 20 words per minute more than what he does on the first reading. An appropriate goal for first graders would be 30-40 words/minute; for second and third graders 70-80 words/minute; for 4th grade through middle school would be 100-120 words/minute; and for high schoolers and adults 150 words/minute. Eventually, you want high schoolers and adults to be able to reading 200 words/minute while reading silently.

After his first reading of the passage, point out words he omitted, substituted, added or mispronounced and give appropriate recommendations for him to pay attention to like using a finger or a ruler to keep his place while reading. Point out whatever is it that will make reading this passage faster or more fluently such as paying attention to phrasing and punctuation and reading with good expression.

The student then practices reading the passage aloud or subvocally two or three times before he comes back for his second time reading the passage with you. Again, record number of words read per minute and errors. Repeat this procedure one more time (students reads twice to himself and then rereads again to you). Chart his progress on a graph that shows words per minute minus errors (which cannot be more than 10% of the total). This whole process should only take about 10 minutes and should be done almost every day if possible.

Never have a student read a passage more than 5 times to you. If he does not reach his goal after 5 readings, pick an easier passage to read next. When your student can meet his fluency goal with two or three passages on the first or cold reading, it's time to move onto a higher level text.

3. Train the parents of your students to do the fluency training as explained above. You will need to provide them with the proper reading materials, information, and training.

4. Have the group read a story or passage and time them. Then have them read it again (with each student reading the same part) and try to beat their record. Then try it again faster. This author uses this method a lot. You can also read the passage aloud first sometimes.

5. Schedule short, frequent periods of fluency practice on a regular basis.

6. This author likes to use the paragraph summarizing strategies (see comprehension strategies) to read through a passage first with the students and then read the passage again for speed. A thorough understanding of the passage allows the students to improve reading speed on subsequent readings. Just as quicker reading rate tends to improve comprehension, better comprehension tends to improve fluency.

7. Reading a summary of a passage or story before having the students read it can help with fluency and comprehension by improving anticipatory ability: the ability to make good guesses about what will come next in text (Wood, et. al. 2001).

8. Vocabulary development has been shown to improve fluency - see comprehension above. Teaching vocabulary from a text before reading it has been shown to increase fluency.

9. Try making long lists of three to twelve words, in random order to use for fluency training (Fischer 1999). You could use a few sight words such as: "was, to, were, what" or words demonstrating phonics rules such as: "Sam, pat, sat, mat, mad, fat" or "cap, cape, mat, mate, hat, hate, scrap, scrape" or "taking, tacking, hoping, hopping, taping, tapping, licking, liking, filing, filling". Use the words that the students are having trouble with to make these lists. You can also create fill-in-the-blank sentences for troublesome words as discussed in the section on comprehension. Don't forget about the Fun Fill-In sheets at the end of the reproducibles.

10. Another technique that can improve both comprehension and fluency is to do choral reading with a student. Read aloud in unison with the student, not getting to far ahead or behind. You should read about 50% of the words before the student does. In this way you are able to teach valuable skills in proper phrasing, punctuation, voice inflection, comprehension and fluency. Pick a fairly easy passage and first, reading the passage to your student with good expression; second, read the passage out loud with your student (choral reading) twice; and third, have the student read it himself with expression and fluency (Rasinski 2000). You can also use this technique with peer tutors or ask the parent of a student you are teaching to do this with their student at home. You can also use this technique to have a group of students choral read a section with you aloud.

11. After starting to do fluency drills with text, make sure that you use various text styles in your drills.

Find other fluency ideas in the Teacher's Manuals for Morgan Dynamic Phonics 1 or 2 and on the Instructional Video Tape.

For handwriting and written language instruction see: The PAF Handwriting and cursive writing books and the Writing Skills for the Adolescent by Diana Hanbury King are very good programs that you might want to consider (EPS - 800-225-5750). Also see the chapter on written language (pp. 281-298) in Birsh 1999.


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Updated: April 19, 2009