6 Reading Comprehension Problems and What to Do About Them

High school history has a tremendous obstacle to learning — getting students enthusiastic about reading difficult texts. When I teach World History to my 9th graders, I have come up with a list of 6 common challenges I face when trying teach reading comprehension. Here’s a glimpse into how I meet these 6 challenges and help my students win!

6 reading comprehension problems and what to do about it

Note from Vicki Davis: When I find great products, I see if there is a fantastic teacher who is using the product every day to write the post. Actively Learn has a free version anyone can use. This is a sponsored post by Actively Learn and authored by MJ Linane, 9th grade World History teacher in Mattapoisett, MA. MJ is teaching those tough history texts in high school as he works to align with Common Core reading standards. I like this product because you can use most of these features for free. (Sign up for Actively Learn.) — Vicki Davis

1. Did the student read the text?

Sometimes I don’t know until my students walk in the door if students have read their assignment. The reality is: some will and some won’t.Some teachers feel that it is unfair for them to be held accountable to Common Core or state standards of instruction if the students do not even read the text that can help them improve.

Assigning reading questions is one solution but that leads to another problem.

2. Does the student comprehend what they read?

The typical way  that I handle reading comprehension is by assigning reading questions. These are either found at the bottom of the reading selection or on a different answer sheet.  The questions I assign often follow similar themes.

I want student answers to show me:

  1. Did the student comprehend what they are reading?
  2. Did they look up the words they couldn’t figure out?
  3. Did they understand what is significant in the story?

When I assign these readings for homework, I ask myself, is the student simply copying the answers from another student?

If a student says that they don’t understand what they read, were they just skimming the reading? In order to help students, I need to know where they skimmed and where they truly struggle. If I want to really help students improve, I must answer this next challenge with a solution.

Reading Comprehension and Actively Learn on an ipad

We can identify specific places where students struggle. We can also embed questions in the text (where they should be instead of at the end of a chapter.)

3. Where does the student struggle with the reading?

Research says that ⅔ of students are struggling readers; they cannot correctly identify the main idea when they read.

Students need to be able to decode and comprehend what they are reading.

As students read, two issues besides knowing how to identify the main idea  continually cause students to struggle:

  • the difficult language in historical texts
  • poor question design in the book

I can’t change the texts but I can change the way I design my questions.

Where do we ask students to demonstrate their understanding? To make the reading a “big picture”, teachers will commonly put questions at the end of the reading. Most of the questions in my textbook are at the end of the reading or on a separate page.

Once again, research shows that this is absolutely the worst place to put the questions. Students are “passively” reading, instead of being actively engaged. This is complicated with traditional paper/pencil because paragraph or sentence specific questions break up the page and can interfere with students understanding the reading’s “big picture”. To help students, we have to improve not only the questions but WHERE They are placed in the text. (Yes, there is a solution to this problem.)

Actively Learn Reading Screen

Actively Learn is a powerful tool that aligns individual student responses with whether they are meeting standards. 

4. How can I give meaningful feedback to students to encourage and help them improve?

It is hard to tell if a student is struggling when using traditional worksheets/questions. It is even more difficult to give quick feedback on student comprehension. The alternative is to give low-tech, highly efficient verbal feedback during a class discussion. This method also has its problems as well. Students have to be willing to ask a question publicly or approach the teacher privately. For me, the trouble is that I am one in a class of 30 and I can only help an individual or small groups of students at once. Surely, there are students I am missing but I am limited by traditional approaches.

To truly understand what a student comprehends, there needs to be an individual  conversation about the document. Yet, it is nearly impossible to provide that to a class of 30 students. Even small group or think-pair-share leads to a scenario where the grouped students might be discussing the wrong interpretation of the document. If I am faced with multiple groups misinterpreting the document, then I have a possible problem with differentiated instruction.

Again, there has to be a better way than these traditional means that we teachers have used for decades.

5. How can you get meaningful data on where to help your whole class?

A couple of years ago I gave a test on 20th century imperialism and it seemed that a lot of students struggled with questions that dealt with analyzing  primary sources. It took me well over an hour but I went through each test, question by question, and put all the question data together myself. (This was before the widespread use of online questions). My efforts were time consuming and revealed very little.

Immediate, actionable data has only become more important given today’s pressures to improve student’s reading comprehension scores. In addition to finding these sources, designing questions and meaningful lessons around them, we now have to become statisticians? Where can teachers find the time?

Yet, we need individual and collective class data to appropriately help those struggling students.

6. How do I align all of this with standards?

Even after confronting all these questions every time we assign meaningful readings our job is not complete. We then have to validate that the assignment is aligned with the proper standards. This step could take some time depending on how familiar you are with your relevant standards.

For me, it takes an additional 10+ minutes to make sure my readings are inline with my state standards for teaching history and the Common Core ELA standards for history. This should probably be the step I start with but it has the least impact on my students and therefore usually is a neglected until the very end. I would spend more time in considering the standards first if I could align them quickly so I can get right to question design.

OK. So now, how do we meet these challenges and teach nonfiction text, put questions in the text, improve the questions, personalize learning AND align with standards? Let me show you the approach I use in my classroom with Actively Learn. You can use this for free but I’ll explain the difference between the free and premium version.

Actively Learn on a PC to improve reading comprehension.

Actively Learn works on multiple platforms. I use it to coach students to improve their reading comprehension of nonfiction texts.

Review of Actively Learn: A Free Way to Improve Comprehension of Non-Fiction Texts

Student Reading Assignments: Common Challenges.

You have just asked the students to complete a reading assignment. It is a short story, or a primary source, or a poem, a nutrition guide, a website about biological cell structures. In truth, it doesn’t matter what the style is, the same student skill set is required for all of those.

How Actively Learn Helps Me Meet the Challenges of Tough Non Fiction Text

Actively Learn is a digital reading platform that provides educators with new tools to get every student reading closely. Teachers need to know exactly what students can comprehend and where they struggle. In a classroom of students it can be difficult to personalize every reading assignment. Actively Learn gives teachers a solution to that challenge.

How It Works:

Teachers can select any digital source and create a personalized reading experience for all students. Each teacher has a “My Workspace” to keep their digital readings and the associated questions. Teachers can then start putting together their collections from three sources.

Readings can come from:

  1. Selecting a text from the Actively Learn Catalogue
  2. An article from the Internet
  3. A PDF
  4. A Google Document
Actively learn reading comprehension

My actively learn workspace of documents. PDF’s, websites, and other text can be pulled into the app.


I tested all three methods and found the process very intuitive and easy to navigate. All of the reading assignments and questions can then be Common Core aligned. Also, in case teachers are stuck on what questions to create, the Catalogue offers questions that other teachers have created for the readings.  

What Actively Learn Does:

Once the reading is ready teachers assign it to their classes and students can begin to interact with it. Teachers will have already entered in notes, videos, and/or questions directly into the text so students will have to address those questions/extensions exactly where teachers want them to. In my traditional class, readings require students to go from the reading to the answer sheet, trying to match content to questions. It is a process that dulls the experience and breaks the flow of reading. Actively Learn allows teachers to focus on text that needs further explaining or extension. This is done in real-time and class-wide.

It is hard to tell if a student is struggling when using traditional worksheets/texts. Students have to be willing to ask a question publicly or approach the teacher privately. For me, the trouble is that I am one in a class of 30 and I can only help an individual or small groups of students at once. Surely, there are students I am missing but I am limited by traditional approaches.

With Actively Learn, if a student encounters difficult vocabulary, there is an online dictionary able to help them. They can also ask questions and share ideas with the class directly in the text itself.

Teachers can grade student responses right in the text. So once students are completed teachers can look at the class summary  data. Actively Learn allows for both individual student comprehension stats but also class-wide Common Core strand progress. It is helpful to see which skills need improvement class-wide.

What’s missing?

Actively Learn is essentially a “Freemium” service so there are some features that are behind a paywall. Currently a school/district has to pay for a shared curriculum library and student diagnostic reports. Also, there are user options that have yet to be included. For instance, there is currently no way to rename a reading title once created. Also, when students are commenting on a reading assignment, the other students can see the comments in real-time. This is a double-edged sword because while it allows for awesome collaboration, it also might allow struggling readers the chance to mimic other students, masking their true comprehension.

The student data reports are a good feature but remember that  long-term individual student tracking is a premium feature.  It is a great start, but if you try it out and it works for you, you’ll want to consider the premium version to track improvement.

Do you need this?

If your students read, then yes! What about those among us who have tools that deal with reading already? When I originally came across Actively Learn, I couldn’t help but compare it to tools I already use.

My school uses Google Apps for Education and I kept on questioning why would I need this if I have Google Drive? They serve two different purposes. Google is for writing and  although students can collaborate on Google Drive, it doesn’t work best for tracking students for reading skills. Actively Learn is a new platform offering new tools. It is worth checking out!

MJ Linane is a High School history teacher and educational blogger. MJ is interested in education technology and its impact on student learning. He can be found at his website and blog, TeacherRevolutions.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored post.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to edit and post it. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.)

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