Text Comprehension

Children need strong vocabularies, rich background knowledge, and well-developed comprehension strategies to become successful comprehenders. Learn about effective practices for teaching vocabulary and comprehension.

The undisputed purpose of learning to read is to comprehend. Although children are initially limited in what they can read independently, comprehension instruction can occur as soon as they enter school.

Comprehension depends, firstly, on a large, working vocabulary and substantial background knowledge. Even before children can read for themselves, teachers can build this vital background knowledge by reading interactively and frequently to children from a variety of narrative and expository texts, chosen in part for their ability to expand what children know about the world around them.

Further, comprehension is enhanced when teachers make sure students understand what they are reading by asking questions and encouraging student questions and discussions. Effective instruction will help the reader actively relate his or her own knowledge or experience to the ideas written in the text, and then remember the ideas that he or she has come to understand.

As Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children points out, "Every opportunity should be taken to extend and enrich the children's background knowledge and understanding in every way possible, for the ultimate significance and memorability of any word or text depends on whether children possess the background knowledge and conceptual sophistication to understand its meaning."

Engaging children in text comprehension may occur before, during, and after reading a text. From kindergarten onward, specific comprehension strategies can be taught explicitly. Techniques that have been shown to enhance text comprehension include:

  • Self-monitoring for understanding
  • Using graphic and semantic organizers
  • Answering questions and obtaining immediate feedback
  • Asking questions about the text
  • Becoming aware of story structure
  • Periodically summarizing key points

Although these strategies can sometimes be effective if taught alone, they are generally more effective if taught in clusters and used with flexibility. The teacher can explicitly model ways to raise questions, think about the text, and deepen comprehension as reading proceeds. However, these modeling skills require educators to practice, learn from coaching, and observe mentor teachers.

Previewing, especially for expository texts, should help children become aware of what they already know about the topic and what they would like to know.

During reading, children should learn to monitor whether they understand and to apply strategies such as rereading to "fix up" comprehension problems. They also should be able to ask themselves clarifying questions about the author's message.

After reading, they need to summarize what they have learned and extend their comprehension beyond the text itself. Connecting new information to known information, evaluating the author's intent, retelling or summarizing, or constructing a graphic representation of the information may be appropriate at different times. Again, a combination of techniques is likely to be most effective.

It cannot be assumed that teachers need less practice in this domain than in others. Teaching comprehension is complex, and prior research suggests that it is seldom taught well. Teachers often spend too much time on literal questions that test literal comprehension, in place of queries that encourage deeper engagement of the text with higher levels of thinking.



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Adams, M., Treiman, R., & Pressley, M. (1998). Reading, writing and literacy. In I. E. Siegal and K. A. Renniger (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Child psychology in practice (5th ed., Vol. 4, pp. 275-355). New York: Wiley.

Bear, D. Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (1996). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (1991). Conditions of vocabulary acquisition. In P. D. Pearson (Ed.), The Handbook of Reading Research (Vol. 2, pp. 789-814). New York: Longman Press.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Omanson, R. C. (1984). The fertility of some types of vocabulary instruction. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Hamilton, R. L., & Kucan, L. Getting at the meaning: How to help students unpack difficult text. American Educator, 22, 66-71, 85.

Beck, I. L., McCaslin, E. C., & McKeown, M. G. (1980). The rationale and design of a program to teach vocabulary to fourth-grade students. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center.

Berninger, V., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R., Brooks, A., Abbott, S., Reed, E., Rogan, L., & Graham, S. (1998). Early intervention for spelling problems: Teaching spelling units of varying size within a multiple connections framework. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 587-605.

Berninger, V., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., Brooks, A., Rogan, L., Reed, E., & Graham, S. (1997). Treatment of handwriting fluency problems in beginning writing: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 652-666.

Durkin, D. (1993). Teaching them to read (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Ehri, L., & Soffer, A. (1999). Graphophonemic awareness: Development in elementary students. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 1-30.

Fletcher, J. M., & Lyon, G. R. (1998). Reading: A research-based approach. In W. Evers (Ed.), What's gone wrong in America's classrooms (pp. 49-90). Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Graham, S., Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., & Whitaker, D. (1997). The role of mechanics in composing of elementary school students: A new methodological approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 170-182.

Learning First Alliance (1998). Every child reading: An action plan. Washington, DC: Author.

Moats, L. C. (1995). The missing foundation in teacher education. American Educator, 19(2), 9, 43-51.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Fluency. Chap. 3 in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (pp. 3-1-3-43). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Text comprehension. Part 2 of Chap. 4 in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (pp. 4-39-4-118). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Vocabulary instruction. Part 1 of Chap. 4 in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (pp. 4-15-4-38). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Pressley, M. (1998). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

Scarborough, H., Ehri, L., Olson, R., & Fowler, A. (1998). The fate of phonemic awareness beyond the early school years. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2, 115-142.

Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children (pp. 80-83). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Treiman, R. (1993). Beginning to spell. New York: Oxford University Press.

In addition to their mention in Every Child Reading: An Action Plan, these components are commonly delineated in documents such as research reviews, state standards on instruction, the Reading Excellence Act funding criteria, curriculum guidelines, and teacher instructional manuals.

Of course, as the National Reading Panel notes, "phonics teaching is a means to an end. . . . In implementing systematic phonics instruction, educators must keep the end in mind and ensure that children understand the purpose of learning letter sounds and that they are able to apply these skills accurately and fluently in their daily reading and writing activities" (Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Health, 2000, p. 10). The panel's report also states that, notwithstanding the fact that explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics is the most effective approach, there remain unanswered questions on how to make this instruction as effective as possible. For example, the panel notes that more research is needed on questions such as how long single instruction sessions should last, how many letter-sound relations should be taught, and how many months or years a phonics program should continue. Moreover, some children will learn and appropriately apply phonics skills quickly and effortlessly, while others must be taught slowly, step by step. The individual variation in any group remains a continual challenge to teacher judgment, resourcefulness, and program management skill.

In the standardization of the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, these subtests combined predict the likelihood of success or failure with about 90 percent accuracy.

The readability of text, as reflected in sentence complexity and frequency of vocabulary, can now be assessed with software. Readability formulas tend to have more validity for children who have attained a reading level above 2nd grade than they do for those who are just beginning to read, and readability does not reflect the extent to which a text is decodable on the basis of what a child has been taught.

Excerpted from: The Content of Professional Development. (November, 2000). Every Child Reading: A Professional Development Guide. Learning First Alliance. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 2000 by the Learning First Alliance. Learning First Alliance member organizations include: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, National School Boards Association. For more information, see www.learningfirst.org


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