Reading comprehension is essential to academic and lifelong learning. Yet despite its critical importance, comprehension has only been in the forefront of scientific study since the 1970s. Since then, we’ve learned that reading comprehension is not a passive, receptive process, as previously believed, but rather an active and intentional one; it is an ongoing interchange between reader and text, involving a wide array of skills.
A key to improving comprehension is teaching students to monitor and rethink their understanding of text. This involves learning how quickly to progress through material, including when to stop and re-read confusing or critical passages. In addition, knowing how and when to apply the following comprehension strategies will also improve comprehension.
Many students are adept at answering literal questions, but are unable to grasp what is suggested or implied in what they read. Making inferences is a complicated task requiring a reader to consider numerous facts found throughout the text, and combine that with background knowledge. Such inferential knowledge enables the reader to fully understand and appreciate the text, draw conclusions about the author’s message, and predict what will happen next. It is a dynamic process, with readers continually confirming or revising predictions as they read.
Proficient readers typically create mental images as they read, using information provided by the author coupled with their prior knowledge of the topic. In contrast, struggling readers often “see” only the words on the page. They are working so hard to decode them that they miss a deeper critical layer of meaning.
A constant flow of questions should arise internally while a reader is going through text—both literal (who, what, and where) and inferential (why, how, and what if) questions. Together, they target important information that helps the reader follow the story line or get the facts, monitor comprehension, predict future events, and grasp the author’s message.
- Making Connections
Although it is natural to draw upon prior knowledge and experiences when reading, proficient readers consciously make such connections because they know it improves their understanding of the text. In contrast, early or struggling readers often move directly through text without considering if it makes sense, or if their background knowledge can help them understand the material.
- Determining Importance
Not all information presented by an author is equally important. A good reader must make decisions about what parts of a text deserve the most attention, encompassing both narrative content (character, setting, problem, event, and resolution) and expository issues (important points, local order, and conclusion). This is particularly critical when reading content-heavy nonfiction material. It is also related to identifying the author’s purpose. Struggling readers frequently dive directly into a passage without a clear understanding of what their purpose in reading should be.
Readers need to step back periodically from the text and identify a central interpretation or theory that emerges from all the separate pieces of information. This involves summarizing the text, or condensing and restating the important information. Struggling readers often can provide a string of disconnected pieces of information or segments of a story, but may miss major themes or the main ideas.
The National Institute for Literacy publication Put Reading First says it all: “Comprehension is the reason for reading; if readers can read the words but do not understand what they are reading, they are not really reading.”
Before specific comprehension strategies can be addressed, students need the following skills:
- Decoding. Students cannot understand text if they cannot read the words. When decoding (sounding out words) is laborious, the attention required to decipher text interferes with the capacity to focus on meaning.
- Vocabulary. Research shows that good comprehenders also have strong vocabularies. Not surprisingly, comprehension improves with direct, explicit vocabulary instruction.
- World Knowledge. Readers who possess rich knowledge about the topic of a text often understand it better than classmates with less knowledge.
Sheryl Knapp, A/AOGPE is the founder and President of the Literacy Learning & Assessment Center of Connecticut. Knapp has Associate Level certification with the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.