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Comprehension Mastery: How to Elevate Reading Skills

As first grade teachers, we are always looking for ways to elevate our student’s reading comprehension skills. 

We’ve all been there. We have great and inspiring ideas for teaching comprehension, but you can’t always think of good questions in the moment. Or… You have some good activities for reading comprehension, but piecing together lots of different things is both time consuming and less effective. 

There really isn’t a “try this one thing” answer to helping students master reading comprehension in first grade. I have personally found a “let me build my bag of tricks” approach works best. Essentially, you just have to try a bunch of different things to see what works best. No two school years will look the same because no two students will learn in the same way or grow at the same speed. 

So, I’ve compiled a list of reading comprehension strategies for you to try!

Strategy #1: Re-think your Mentor Texts

A mentor text is NOT a book that you read once and put it away. That’s what we call a read aloud book. 

A mentor text is a book that is specifically chosen to support a reading comprehension skill you read once, then refer back to again and again and again. 

This really is one of the greatest “tools” you can add to your teacher toolbox. 

The greatest benefit of a good mentor text is that after you have read it once, when you refer back to it, you aren’t reading the entire book again, you are simply referring back to one or two pages. 

It will save you SO much time.

AND students are already familiar with the story line meaning that they already have a foundation for whatever comprehension skill you are about to dive into!

Strategy #2: Comprehension Focus Questions

A Comprehension Focus Question (CFQ) is a very focused and intentional comprehension goal for an activity, a week or even a unit. 

If you have done your research and you understand your learning standard, the vocabulary and what students need to know…

Then it becomes very easy to choose a goal (or a comprehension focus question). 

But, why do you need a comprehension goal? 

To stay FOCUSED! 

Not just for you, but for your students also! 

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that this week you are focusing on how to make an inference. Well, there are about a hundred different ways you can make an inference and a CFQ allows you to focus on one area at a time. 

Example CFQ: “How Did The Character Change From ___ To ____?”

In this comprehension focus question, you and your students are focusing in on the characters of the story. 

The great thing about CFQ’s is that the next time you pull out this mentor text, you can choose a different CFQ to focus on while still practicing how to make an inference! 

Reading Comprehension Support Strategy: Sentence Stems Explained

Another great strategy that falls right in long with mentor texts and comprehension focus questions is sentence stems. 

A sentence stem is a phrase that your first grade students will use to answer a comprehension question. 

Sentence stems are designed to get students to answer comprehension questions more fully rather than giving one word answers. 

Sentence stems encourage students to explain their thinking. 

I like to have a list of sentence stems next to my table that are specific to each comprehension skill. I stick to one or two stems per skill for the entire year because I want my students to be consistent. (This also makes it a lot easier for them)

If we are sticking with our Make an Inference example, I would use the following sentence stems: 

I Think ___ Because____.   

I Read This ____ So I Think _____

Strategy #3: Non-Text Comprehension Activities

Non-text activities might be an idea you haven’t heard of yet, and if you haven’t, you are definitely missing out. 

Think of it this way, if you were a football coach, would you throw your players into a scrimmage on the first day of practice, or would you run drills to practice tackling, etc. BEFORE playing against each other? 

You would definitely run individual drills first!

Non-text activities follow the same concept. 

These are activities that practice a comprehension skill that do NOT involve a book. These are often station or small group activities, but it can be very POWERFUL to practice them as a whole group BEFORE you try to apply those skills to a book.

The best part about this strategy is that it is VERY easy to move these activities into a station when you are done with them!

Strategy #4: Go Digital with Slideshows and Videos

Ok, please don’t stop reading… but the reality is, we need to meet our students where they are at! 

And our students LOVE digital activities and videos!

We’ve all heard of the “I do, we do, you do model. Now you can hook your students’ attention with teaching slides, guided practice and independent practice. No fancy tech skills needed. The best part? They are short and sweet, which means they take less than 10 minutes! 

My favorite kind of digital activity is Pixar Short Films. 

Most Pixar short films are wordless which really makes our students focus and apply their comprehension skills to understand what’s happening. 

And even more important, these videos are things they can relate to (hello, background knowledge). 

If you haven’t tried Pixar Shorts yet, they are super easy to find on YouTube! You can also type in “Pixar + (comprehension skill)” on Pinterest and a tons of options will pop up!

I’m also going to throw in a plug of using interactive slideshows with your first graders. These aren’t the typical read-from-a-powerpoint type of activity. 

Here’s my top tips for using slideshows for first grade: 

  1. Keep it short
  2. Give an opportunity for practice
  3. Make it interactive
  4. Convert it into a station
  5. Repurpose it for intervention

You can read more about it here: 


Strategy #5: Re-purpose EVERYTHING

There are ALL sorts of different comprehension lessons and activities that you can plan for first grade. There’s really no one perfect solution, your best bet is to expose students to that comprehension skill in a variety of ways.


Some of my favorite strategies, 

  • mentor texts
  • comprehension focus questions
  • sentence stems and questions to ask
  • whole group
  • anchor charts
  • non text activities
  • independent activities
  • station activities (& creative writing)
  • digital activities (videos, pixar wordless videos, google slides lessons and digital stations)


Reading that list might seem incredibly overwhelming, but here’s a tip:


You may have noticed activities that I use the same activities for my whole group and then repurpose it into a station activity, etc. 

Whether it’s station activities or a book with a reading response page, station activities should be able to be completed independently, which makes review activities work PERFECTLY. 

My challenge to you is to find a way to tie in creative writing. Have students use the book’s character in their own writing or retell the story with a different setting. 

Combining your comprehension with writing activities will not only help students better understand the concept, it will also save you time in your day by combining your reading and writing time!

First Grade Reading Comprehension Activities

Ready to have comprehension tools at your fingertips for the entire year?

This YEAR LONG Curriculum is a 10 unit system of Reading Comprehension Skills that you can refer back to AGAIN and AGAIN!

I not only wanted a solid library of resources to pull from, I wanted to make sure that the activities we were using were MAKING A DIFFERENCE!

This reading comprehension curriculum has given me the confidence and structure that I needed to boost my students' comprehension skills.

I can't wait for it to do the same for you!

More about First Grade Reading Comprehension

How to Elevate Reading Comprehenison

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Kristen Sullins

Kristen Sullins

I am a current Elementary Librarian and
Enrichment Teacher, mother of two, follower of Christ and Texas native. In my own classroom, I love to save time by finding unique ways to integrate writing, social studies and science into all parts of my day. I also love all things organization!