Reading 101 is a collaboration with the Center for Effective Reading Instruction and The International Dyslexia Association.

Comprehension: In Depth

Comprehension: In Depth

In 2002, the RAND Report on Reading for Understanding defined the term “reading comprehension” as the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language.

Good reading comprehension requires many different abilities. Some of these, such as accurate decoding and text fluency, are not specifically reading comprehension skills, but they serve as key underpinnings of reading comprehension. Decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension should co-exist as instructional goals.

What makes a good reader?

The National Reading Panel identified the following types of skills and knowledge as critical in building a young student’s capacity to comprehend what he or she reads (Sedita, 2006):

  • Word attack skills that allow students to decode words in text accurately and fluently
  • Vocabulary knowledge and oral language skills that help students understand the meaning of words
  • Background knowledge that includes knowledge acquired at school
  • Thinking and reasoning skills such as drawing inferences
  • Motivation to learn and apply information so that students can reach automaticity

The 2002 Rand Report said that reading comprehension is influenced by an interaction of three elements: the reader, the text, and the activity or purpose for reading within the larger sociocultural context that is shaped by the reader.

  • The Reader brings his or her capabilities such as attention, memory, analytic ability, language knowledge, motivation, background knowledge, and life experience.
  • The Text includes the words on the page, the ideas behind those words, and the mental models that are ingrained in the text.
  • The Activity involves processing the text, which includes decoding the text, higher-level processing of the meaning, and self-monitoring for comprehension.
  • The Context in which reading is taught, since all learning occurs within a context of the socio-cultural environments in which children live and learn to read.

To teach comprehension skills to all readers, teachers should recognize the influence of these elements as they apply to specific texts.

For example, a second grade class may be reading a text about skiing. Although individual children will vary in their level of reading skill, some children may also have greater motivation to read the text (because of an intrinsic interest in the topic), or may have greater levels of background knowledge about the text (e.g., because they have watched the Olympics or they have been skiing themselves).

These variations in motivation and background knowledge will affect the children’s performance in reading comprehension for the specific text in question.

Also, texts vary in how “considerate” they are of readers’ needs. “Considerate texts” (Armbruster & Anderson, 1985) facilitate comprehension through such features as an introduction, a clear sequence of topics, and the use of cohesive words (e.g., however, in summary, for instance).

We have all had the experience of reading poorly structured, “inconsiderate” texts, and we know that these can be hard to understand! The point is that a child’s comprehension may vary depending not only on his or her reading and language abilities, but also on how well structured and “considerate” a particular text is.

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What good readers do

Draw on prior knowledge

Good readers draw on prior knowledge and experience to help them understand what they are reading.

Draw inferences

In addition to understanding the literal points that the author is making, good readers are able to “read between the lines” and draw inferences about a wide range of hidden meanings, such as why events are unfolding as they do, why characters behave in a certain way, what the characters are thinking, and what might happen next.


During reading, good readers learn to monitor their understanding, adjust their reading speed to fit the difficulty of the text, and address any comprehension problems they have. After reading, they check their understanding of what they have read. Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they’re reading and when they don’t.

Form mental images

Good readers often form mental pictures, or images, as they read. Readers (especially younger readers) who picture the story during reading understand and remember what they read better than readers who do not create a picture in their mind.

Summarize and retell

Summarizing requires students to determine what is important in the text and then put it into their own words by retelling, verbally or in writing. Instruction in summarizing can help students become more purposeful as they read and more skillful in comprehending. Summarizing can help students to:

  • Identify main ideas orally or in writing
  • Connect the main or central ideas orally or in writing
  • Learn to weed out unnecessary information
  • Remember what they have read

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When should text comprehension instruction begin?

Teachers in the primary grades lay a critical foundation for higher levels of reading comprehension. Reading is a complex process that develops over time. Although the basics of reading — decoding, word recognition and fluency — can be learned in a few years, good comprehension does not occur automatically once students have “learned to read.” Teachers should address text comprehension from the beginning, rather than waiting until students have mastered all the basics of reading. Instruction at all grades levels can benefit from showing students how reading is a process of making sense out of text. Beginning readers, as well as more advanced readers, should learn that the ultimate goal of reading is comprehension.

Listening comprehension activities, especially teacher read-alouds of grade-appropriate children’s books, can make a big contribution to comprehension in the primary grades, and even beyond. In the early grades, children’s basic reading skills tend to limit the complexity of books that they can read themselves. Most children at the early grade levels — and especially those who struggle with decoding — can understand much more sophisticated books while listening than they can while reading.

Many of the skills we describe in this module — such as understanding figurative language and learning to question, summarize, and infer — can be developed in the context of listening as well as in reading. These abilities, developed orally, will transfer gradually to reading comprehension as children’s decoding and fluency skills improve. Therefore, teacher read-alouds and other types of listening activities (especially if accompanied by ample discussion and explicit teaching) are essential components of a primary grade English/language arts curriculum.

For struggling readers with weaknesses specific to decoding, oral language and read-alouds may be critical for enabling students to stay on track in terms of comprehension while their decoding needs are being addressed through phonics intervention. And for struggling readers whose difficulties involve language comprehension, evidence suggests that interventions that include oral language comprehension are more effective than interventions focused on reading comprehension alone (Clarke et al., 2010).

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Learn More!


Video: The Jigsaw Strategy

Go inside Cathy Doyle's second grade classroom in Evanston, Illinois to observe her students use the jigsaw strategy to understand the topic of gardening more deeply and share what they have learned. Joanne Meier, our research director, introduces the strategy and talks about the importance of advanced planning and organization to make this strategy really effective.

Reading 101 is a collaboration with the Center for Effective Reading Instruction and The International Dyslexia Association.

"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo