Effective Comprehension Strategies for Fifth Grade: A Research Proposal

Robin Applegarth, Teacher, Colebrook, CT
Megan Leonard, Teacher, Simsbury, CT
Beth Schmidt, Teacher, New Britain, CT
Karen Shanahan, Teacher, Enfield, CT

There are numerous definitions of comprehension available from a multitude of resources. In terms of our research study, the members · found the terminology “text comprehension” to be the most applicable. Text comprehension is defined as “the ability to understand or get meaning from text (any type of written material)” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001, p. 471). Understanding what is being read is the reason for reading and therefore is a critical component of all learning. Therefore, providing students with comprehension strategies can help them determine the meaning of what they are reading. When teachers teach comprehension as a strategic process, it enables the readers to make connections with what they are reading and move beyond literal recall of the texts (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001).

The members of our research team collectively decided that it would be advantageous to go further and explore various strategies to help students learn and apply comprehension strategies more effectively and productively with nonfiction texts. Expository text plays a key role in reading from the fourth grade on because students begin reading less narrative texts and therefore read more expository texts. Kendra M. Hall, Brenda L. Sabey, and Michelle McOellan from Brigham Young University, conducted a study on expository text comprehension. According to their study titled, Expository Text Comprehension: Helping Primary-Grade Teachers Use Expository Texts To Full Advantage, “Expository, or ‘informational’ texts convey and communicate factual information. These texts contain more unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts, fewer ideas related to the here-and-now, and less information directly related to personal experience” (2005, p. 212). As a result, students need to be explicitly taught how to use expository text effectively. With that being said, there have been several instructional programs that have been created in order to help increase comprehension of expository text. These programs focus on vocabulary, text structure, or text signals. “Text structure awareness has been shown to be an important foundation for facilitating text comprehension and recall (Dickson et al., 1998)” (Hallet al., 2005, p. 215).

In addition, it has been found that students who are taught expository text comprehension strategies, are better able to compare and contrast and write better summaries than students who did not receive explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. Overall, these strategies are necessary to organize and make sense of expository text (Hallet al., 2005). When students have comprehension strategies that they can use in order to read nonfiction texts, they can make meaning in a more thorough way.

Jennifer Conner’s (2006) article, “Instructional Reading Strategy: QAR (Question-Answer- Relationship)” discussed a strategy that assists students in the monitoring of their comprehension of the text. The article described QAR as a “reading strategy in which students categorize comprehension questions according to where they got the information they needed to answer each question” (Conner, 2006, Description of QAR section, 1). Conner (2006) wrote that this comprehension strategy is successful with fiction texts and nonfiction texts. By writing questions based on the text, teachers are giving students the opportunity to learn how expository text works and how to navigate through it. This type of strategy connects to Hall, Sabey, and McClellan’s research (2005) that suggested explicit instruction in comprehension strategies is beneficial for students to learn and more importantly learn how to use them effectively.

F. P. Robinson (2001), author of Effective Study. highlighted another comprehension strategy. The SQ3R method has five steps: survey, questions, read, recall, and review (Robinson, 2001). This strategy allows students to have a plan as they read nonfiction texts. Students write down their findings from skimming the text, write down questions about the text, and try to answer the questions while reading. Students also check their comprehension by recalling what the text is about, and finally reviewing all their information in order to see the whole text (Robinson, 2001).


Participants are from two different school districts in Connecticut. The population consisted of forty-two fifth grade students from two different communities. A convenience sampling was utilized with one hundred percent participation expected. The participants were from a lower middle class town and a higher middle class town. One of the fifth grade classrooms is located in a suburban area and consists of twenty students. Out of the twenty students, eighteen are Caucasian, one is African American, and one is Biracial. In addition, four of the twenty students receive special education services. There are eleven boys and nine girls in this classroom. The other fifth grade classroom is located in a rural area and consists of twenty-two students. All of the twenty-two students are Caucasian and of those students, two of them receive special education services. There are nine boys and thirteen girls in this classroom. Overall, all of the students are in an inclusive instructional environment, but are at varying ability levels.



Over the course of the research study, assessments were conducted to measure the effectiveness of the two comprehension strategies utilized by the participants. Before beginning the study with the participants, a member of the research team implemented a teacher created pre-assessment and post-assessment to a small sampling of fifth grade students from her school. Furthermore, the rubric used to score the two assessments in the field test was the same one used for the actual research study.

After the initial pre-assessment, the two participating teachers modeled and implemented the QAR strategy and the SQ3R strategy in their classrooms. Each teacher used one of the above-mentioned strategies in daily instruction. At the end of each modeling lesson, the students independently completed a related comprehension activity pertaining to the nonfiction text passages about various explorers. The format of the comprehension questions was open ended and required written responses. In addition, the questions were connected to the comprehension strategy being modeled each day. The two members of the research team who are not implementing the-instruction scored the students’ responses and shared their results. Discussions regarding the scores and any inconsistencies noticed were addressed by all members.

The daily comprehension activities were conducted with the intent to measure the effectiveness of the two chosen strategies to improve the student’s comprehension with nonfiction texts. At the conclusion of the study, the students were given a post-assessment, similar to the pre-assessment, in order to identify which strategy showed an increase in the student’s comprehension. Participants also completed a survey about the specific comprehension strategy that was used in their classroom and its effectiveness when reading and answering questions about nonfiction texts.


The participants of the research study were members of two different fifth grade classes that are located in two different elementary schools in Connecticut. In both of the classrooms, the daily allotted time for instruction for this research was approximately forty-five minutes. Prior to beginning the lessons with the participants, the members of the research team organized the necessary materials including selecting appropriate nonfiction texts, creating open ended comprehension questions, and generating lesson plans that were replicated in each classroom. In classroom one, the teacher utilized the QAR (Question-Answer-Relationship) strategy with her students. In classroom two, the teacher utilized the SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) strategy. After the conclusion of the daily, week and a half implementation of the two strategies, the participants were given a post-assessment, created by the research members. The researchers who did not implement the study analyzed the data to prevent bias when interpreting the results from the open ended responses.

After the pre-assessment was given, the two classroom teachers began the model lessons and related written responses. The two teachers followed the same ‘mini-lesson’ format based on Columbia’s Reading Workshop including the materials and how the model lessons will be presented such as with think-alouds, etc. This ensured credibility and dependability in the data we are collecting from the participants. Below is the planned schedule of the implementation of our research study:

  • Pre-assessment: Read Marco Polo, by Struan Reid (2001) from the Groundbreakers Series and the students will answer comprehension questions related to the specific passages.
  • Lessons 1-6: Teachers will model one of the two chosen strategies using pre-selected articles from Time for Kids. Then the students will read passages from six different explorer books from the Groundbreakers Series and answer various questions using the comprehension strategy being focused on in each classroom.
  • Post-assessment: Read Henry Hudson, by Ruth Manning (2001) from the Groundbreakers Series and the students will answer comprehension questions related to the specific passages.

Analysis and Results

After the completion of the week and a half implementation stage of the action research study, the level of effectiveness of the two chosen comprehension strategies was measured. First, the two group members who were not involved in implementing the two comprehension strategies scored the students’ responses based on the pre-determined rubric. Then the group members compiled the results of the eight days of lessons onto tables for each class for further analysis by each type of question-explicit, implicit, and script-implicit. Next the scores from the pre-assessment, the six mini-lessons, and the post-assessment were averaged into percentages and were then compiled in a table for each school. Finally, the group members compiled the results of the pre-assessment and post-assessment for each class onto a bar graph.

Next, the group members analyzed the scores from School Two to look for growth, if any, from mini-lesson one to mini-lesson six. School Two’s students’ scores showed that 12 out of 22 students received higher scores on mini-lesson one than on the pre-assessment. One out of the 22 students increased his/her score from mini-lesson one to mini-lesson two. Fourteen out of the 22 students received higher scores on mini-lesson three than on mini-lesson two. From mini-lesson three to mini-lesson four, 20 out of the 22 students’ scores increased. Two out of the 22 students’ scores increased from mini-lesson four to mini-lesson five. Ten out of the 22 students received higher scores from mini-lesson five to mini-lesson six. Finally, 6 out of the 22 students’ scores increased from mini-lesson six to the post-assessment.

After looking at the data tables of the two schools’ six mini-lessons the group members decided to look more in-depth at the pre-assessment and the post-assessment. In terms of School One, there were substantial changes seen from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment. Out of the 20 students in the classroom, 19 of them went up, which equates to a 95% increase from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment. The remaining student whose score decreased fro.m the pre-assessment to the post-assessment went down by six points, which equates to a 5% decrease. When looking at the data further, it was noticed that this particular student is a special education student. Interestingly, the other three special education students demonstrated an increase in their scores from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment. To illustrate, student number five went from 53% in the pre-assessment to 63% in the post-assessment, which is a ten-point increase. Student number seven went from 50% in the pre-assessment to 72% in the post-assessment, which is a twenty-two-point increase. Student number thirteen went from 63% in the pre-assessment to 75% in the post-assessment, which is a twelve-point increase.

In terms of School Two, there were varying degrees of change seen from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment, some positive and some negative. Out of the 22 students in the classroom, 10 of them went up, which equates to a 45% increase from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment. On the other hand, 7 out of the 22 students went down, which equates to a 32% decrease from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment. The remaining 5 students out of the 22 students stayed at the same percentage from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment, which equates to 32%. In terms of individual student progress, it is worth noting the results of the two special education students in School Two. One of these students demonstrated an increase from the pre-assessment to the post-assessment, while the second student experienced a decrease. Student number one went up from 37% in the pre-assessment to 41% in the post-assessment, which is a four-point increase. On the other hand, student number thirteen went from 69% in the pre-assessment to 44% in the post-assessment, which is a twenty-five-point decrease. Students in School Two differed in their answers to the survey statements. Twenty out of the 22 students thought they would have been more successful on the pre-assessment if they had been taught the SQ3R strategy before they answered the questions about Marco Polo. Eleven out of the 22 students thought that the SQ3R strategy was helpful when taking the post-assessment. Eighteen out of the 22 students answered that they would use the SQ3R strategy when reading on their own. Seventeen out of the 22 students felt positive about reading nonfiction texts now that they have learned the SQ3R comprehension strategy. Overall, when comparing the survey results between the two schools, it was evident that the students in School One responded more positively about the QAR strategy than the students in School Two did about the SQ3R strategy.

Discussion and Implications

The purpose of this action research study was to identify effective strategies to build comprehension in fifth grade students using nonfiction texts. The study consisted of implementing two different comprehension strategies in two different fifth grade classrooms, in order to determine whether or not they were effective comprehension strategies. Students in School One were exposed to the QAR strategy and students in School Two were exposed to the SQ3R strategy. Each strategy was taught daily for a week and a half and included a pre-assessment, explorer comprehension questions, a post-assessment, and a survey. The two comprehension strategies were then measured using a rubric to score each of the students’ written responses. These instruments were initially field-tested by a group member for credibility and dependability. Furthermore, the effectiveness of each strategy was determined by the group members at the conclusion of the study based on the pre-assessment data, the results from the six mini-lessons, the post-assessment data, and through the participants’ responses to the survey.

Based on the results of the survey responses, the majority of the students in School One were interested in using the QAR strategy. On the other hand, School Two students found the SQ3R strategy to be lengthy and cumbersome. Furthermore, the informal observations made by the two classroom teachers throughout the study reflected the importance of self-efficacy. Overall, the teacher in School One felt that her students were motivated and consistently tried their best when completing the written responses, for the most part. Towards the end of the study though, the teacher in School One felt that her students did show a slight drop in motivation due to the constant written responses being done, rather than the actual application of the QAR strategy. Overall, students in School One had to make a decision as to which question-answer-relationship to use out of the four total aspects and then only use one part of the strategy to answer each question. On the other hand, the teacher in School Two felt her students were not very motivated and lost complete interest by the fourth mini-lesson. The teacher observed that her students were complaining and less determined to complete the comprehension questions as the study went on. It was concluded by the group members based on the data scores and teacher observations that the students in School Two also lacked motivation due to the fact they needed to go through five steps for each nonfiction text being read during the mini-lessons.

Furthermore, the students in School One appeared to be more successful when applying the QAR strategy to the comprehension questions they were asked to respond to throughout the study. Based on the overall results of the students in School One, as well as their responses to the survey statements, the group members felt our research correlated with much of the research that has been conducted regarding the QAR strategy. The teacher in School One also commented that implementing the QAR strategy was helpful for her students to use when responding to the comprehension questions and will be a strategy she plans on utilizing in future instruction.

The teacher in School Two also commented that implementing the SQ3R strategy was overwhelming and time consuming, considering she had never applied it before in her instruction. Due to the format involved for successfully utilizing the SQ3R strategy, the group members felt that it was too time consuming and not necessarily a student-friendly strategy to utilize, especially for students who may be experiencing difficulty with their comprehension.

In terms of our research question, which strategy, the QAR and/or the SQ3R will increase reading comprehension of nonfiction text, the group members concluded that the QAR strategy was more successful in improving the overall comprehension of the fifth grade students when reading nonfiction texts. The group members found the QAR strategy to be more user-friendly and less overwhelming than the SQ3R strategy. Furthermore, the data we collected also empirically supported our research findings. However, the group members felt that further research studies pertaining to the QAR strategy and the SQ3R strategy are necessary, in order to help validate our findings.

There were a number of limitations easily recognized by the group members before, during, and after our action research study. One was that the convenience sampling being used to conduct the study was not representative of all students in fifth grade because of their school’s locations, socio-economic status, and ethnicity, which was predominately Caucasian. Furthermore, our participants were only fifth graders, so the conclusions made at the end of the research study may not be applicable to other groups of students and grade levels.

A second limitation that became evident was the gap between the two schools being used for the study, according to the State Department of Education’s website pertaining to the school districts’ ERG ran kings. School One was classified in ERG A and School Two was classified in ERG E. These rankings are four levels apart and are dependent on many factors, including education, occupation, poverty, family structure, home language, and district enrollment. The group members considered that these differences could have affected the results of our study, to an extent. To illustrate, School One is at the top of the ERG classification and based on the results of our action research study, the students in this school overall made more growth than the students in School Two. As researchers though, the group members had no way of knowing whether or not School Two would be less successful when responding to the open-ended comprehension questions due to their lower classification on the ERG ranking. Even though there was a gap, the group members needed to use these two schools, in order to conduct the study, because of availability and convenience. Before beginning the study, the group members were aware that the two schools were different in some respects, but we were not aware of the extent of the gap, which can be seen as a significant limitation in our study.

Despite these limitations, beneficial information was obtained about the importance of explicitly teaching specific comprehension strategies to students, in order to help them effectively understand what they are reading. In terms of our action research study, both comprehension strategies proved to have some impact on the students’ comprehension within the limits of the study. The QAR strategy appeared to be more effective than the SQ3R strategy in terms of the students’ written responses and reactions to reading nonfiction texts. Overall, the group members determined that explicitly teaching specific comprehension strategies are beneficial for teachers to teach and implement in their classrooms, in order to help increase the comprehension for all students.

To conclude, as stated previously in the introduction, comprehension strategies need to be explicitly taught, modeled, and practiced in a meaningful way, in order for the students to improve in their understanding of what they are reading. The implication of our action research was to determine whether or not one, both, or neither of the two strategies being used should be implemented by classroom teachers when teaching their students how to comprehend nonfiction texts. Based on the results we obtained throughout the study, the group members concluded that the QAR strategy appeared to be the more effective strategy to utilize compared to the SQ3R strategy, especially when reading nonfiction explorer texts. However, further research using both the QAR strategy and the SQ3R strategy would be advantageous, in order to come to a more conclusive decision regarding the effectiveness of these two comprehension strategies for students at different grade levels and in different school districts.

Work Cited

Conner, J. (2006). Instructional reading strategy: OAR (question/answer relationship). Retrieved September 29, 2006, from http://www.indiana.edu/-1517/QAR.htm.

Fountas I. & Pinnell G. S. (2001). Guiding readers and writers grades 3-6 teaching comprehension, genre. and content literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hall, K. M., Sabey, B. L. & McClellan, M. (2005). Expository text comprehension: Helping primary grade teachers use expository texts to full advantage. Reading Psychology, 26. Retrieved September 21, 2006, from ERIC database.

Manning, R. (2001). Henry Hudson. Chicago: Reed Educational Professional Publishing.

Reid, S. (2001). Marco Polo. Chicago: Reed Educational Professional Publishing.

Robinson, F.P. (2001). Effective study. Retrieved September 21, 2006, from http://www.dartmouth.edu/-acskills/docs/sq3r_method.doc.