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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.

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
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