How Students Learn Reading Comprehension: More Tips From Reading Science


Key Takeaways


  1. Comprehension is complex. Students need to combine different forms of knowledge with processes and general cognitive skills to comprehend what they read
  2. Knowledge matters. Orthographic knowledge, linguistic knowledge and general knowledge are all important for comprehension
  3. Processing knowledge and text activates comprehension. Word activation, inference generation and comprehension monitoring are important processes underpinning comprehension
  4. General cognitive resources tie it all together. Linking knowledge and processes together are the general cognitive resources that underpin a lot of learning.
  5. You can teach it. It’s not easy, but comprehension can be taught – read the post to find out how.


You’ve seen that the basics of reading aren’t that basic. Reading is a complex process best taught using explicit instruction, starting with phonics. Once students understand the words printed on a page though, they still have a way to go before they can properly comprehend what they’re reading.

This has important implications for teaching. So, let’s dive deeper into the fantastic paper Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert by Anne Castles, Kathy Rastle and Kate Nation.

Comprehension involves much more than merely knowing the meaning of individual words on a page. Instead, comprehension is about constructing a mental representation of the situation being described in written text. This representation isn’t just a verbatim record of what’s written, instead skilled readers develop a rich mental representation of written text that goes beyond what’s written on the page/screen.


Comprehension is complex


Constructing this mental representation relies on knowledge in different forms. Readers begin by combining their knowledge of words with the ‘syntactic’ roles those words play when they form phrases or sentences. Readers then connect knowledge drawn explicitly or inferentially from these phrases and sentences with relevant background knowledge to attempt to form a deep understanding of what they are reading. Feel confused? Don’t worry, we’re going to unpack each of these things in a moment.

Comprehension is not a simple linear process. Instead, it’s a complex skill that sees readers combine things they know with a different process that they carry out with this knowledge.

From Ending the Reading Wars:

“In summary, reading comprehension is not a single entity that can be explained by a unified cognitive model. Instead, it is the orchestrated product of a set of linguistic and cognitive processes operating on text and interacting with background knowledge, features of the text, and the purpose and goals of the reading situation.”

So, how can you help students build this complex skill? Castles, Rastle and Nation, break down what reading science has to say about comprehension.


Knowledge matters


Knowledge underpins comprehension. Specifically, three forms of knowledge help students derive meaning from what they read: orthographic knowledge, linguistic knowledge and general knowledge. Let’s quickly look at each


1. Orthographic knowledge.

Students need to understand the words they’re reading. Our last reading post went deep on what this means and how it’s developed. The bottom line is, students can’t begin to understand a passage of text if they don’t have the word-reading skills to make sense of the printed text in front of them.


2. Linguistic knowledge. 


Even if they can turn the printed text into oral language, students need to understand then what each word means. Vocabulary is crucial here and has a strong correlation with reading ability. Students need to know what words mean and how they can be used – this includes the less conventional ways words are used.

From Ending the Reading Wars:

“Rich vocabulary knowledge subsumes not just the number of individual words known, but how well they are known and how flexibly they can be used in a given context (this is critical given that the majority of words are polysemous—i.e., they have multiple meanings or “senses” to a greater or lesser extent). Beyond single words, text comprehension demands knowledge of multiword utterances (e.g., the meaning of the phrase “by the way” cannot be deduced from the meaning of its individual words); idioms (e.g., “kick the bucket,” “break the ice”), and other figurative expressions that occur frequently in text. “


On top of vocabulary knowledge, students need to know how words in a sentence work together.  This is done by drawing on syntactic understanding.

For example, students need to know about “cohesive devices” that string together different ideas presented in a sentence. For example, how connectives and anaphors connect ideas together (connectives = words like so, because and but. Anaphors = words that refer to earlier antecedents – e.g. in the passage “Tom wrote a blog post about reading. Later that week he tweeted about it” you’re able to use the “he” to work out that the person tweeting the post was Tom)


3. Background knowledge.


Higher levels of relevant background knowledge correlate with higher reading ability, and poor readers often have less relevant background knowledge or don’t draw on it accurately when reading.

From Ending the Reading Wars:

“As with vocabulary, the availability of background knowledge in long-term memory allows relevant knowledge to be activated as the situation model builds during reading. This provides a coherent representation of the text and is required for the formation of many types of inference (e.g., Kintsch & Rawson, 2005); it also serves to enrich the situation model. “


Processing knowledge and text activates comprehension


All this knowledge isn’t enough. Skilled readers also apply this knowledge using specific processes when they read and comprehend something.

Three processes are required to activate knowledge in the right ways when reading: meaning activation, inference generation and comprehension monitoring. Again, let’s have a quick look at each one


1. Word activation


Word knowledge isn’t black and white. Students may know the meaning of a word but be unable to “activate” the right meaning for its written context – this will undermine their ability to comprehend what they read.

From Ending the Reading Wars:

“Even if a word is known by a child, it might be known less well or in a way that is less connected to other words, relative to the connections that other children might form. A consequence of this might be less rich input into the situation model and, in turn, reduced comprehension.”


2. Inference generation


Inferring information from written text is a primary function of comprehension. Children learn to infer in spoken language when they are young. Not all students develop this skill easily when reading, and there is further research required to know why this might specific apply to certain children.

Working memory overload may be to blame, as may inadequate knowledge in the forms discussed above or problems with inferential ability itself. Either way, inferring is crucial to comprehension; without it, students will struggle to understand what they read.


3. Comprehension monitoring


Comprehension monitoring uses a set of metacognitive skills students to evaluate and correct their understanding of a text. Students who have adequate monitoring skills are better placed to construct the situational model needed to understand written text.

Researchers test for comprehension monitoring by asking students to underline meaningless words or phrases in a test. Students who do better at this task are better at evaluating their comprehension and identifying when it has gone astray – this helps them more effectively comprehend what they read.


General cognitive resources tie it all together


So, linguistic resources are important, as is the ability of a child to construct a situational model. Supporting these things in reading comprehension are the general “executive functions” that support a lot of learning. Executive functions are the cognitive process that allow people to plan, organise, control and regulate resources to achieve a goal.

Working memory is an example of an executive function – and it’s important to reading comprehension.

From Ending the Reading Wars:


Working memory can be defined as the mechanisms or processes involved in the control, regulation, and active maintenance of task-relevant information in the service of complex cognition (Baddeley, 2012). It is easy to generate hypotheses about why working memory might matter for reading comprehension. For example, people with greater working memory resources might be at an advantage because they can retain more information. This might allow more inferences to be generated and connections to be made.


The more working memory a student has, the abler they are to create the rich situational model needed to richly comprehend the text they read.


So, what does this mean for classroom practice?


Explicit instruction is important


Explicitly teaching students strategies to actively engage with text is an effective approach. Reciprocal teaching is one example of effective explicit comprehension instruction. The Victorian Department of Education provides an excellent guide to this practice here. This approach involves the teacher modelling four comprehension strategies predicting, clarifying, questioning and summarising. After seeing these strategies modelled, students then use them on the same or a new passage of text.

This ‘strategy instruction’ (i.e. teaching students generalisable strategies) has obvious scalability benefits for students who can apply strategies learnt in one context to new texts that they encounter. This means you don’t need to do a lot of strategy instruction for it to be effective.

From Ending the Reading Wars:

“Another encouraging finding is that the benefits of strategy instruction appear to emerge after relatively little instruction: There is little evidence that longer or more intensive strategy interventions lead to greater improvements in reading comprehension. As discussed by Willingham (2006), this makes sense if strategies are thought of not as skills that keep developing but as “tricks” that, once explained and discovered, are available for children to use in other situations.”


Teach Vocabulary


Strategy instruction only works if students can access the text they’re reading. For the explicit instruction of comprehension strategies to be effective, students must first have enough relevant knowledge to understand the content of written text. Key to this is the level of vocabulary knowledge of students.

Vocabulary instruction significantly improves student comprehension of the text, so long as the text they need to comprehend contains the words they have been taught. This isn’t that ground-breaking – if you teach kids words, they’ll better understand a passage that contains those words. Unfortunately, vocab instruction doesn’t help students a great deal if they need to read a passage that doesn’t include the taught words.

This doesn’t mean it’s not worth teaching vocab though – priming students with explicit instruction of the key words they’ll encounter in a text will have a significant impact on how easily they can comprehend that text, and it doesn’t take very long to do.

From Ending the Reading Wars:


“Wright and Cervetti (2017) reported the number of minutes of instruction per word associated with successful transfer; it is striking how low this number was, less than 1 min per word in some studies. This suggests that even a brief instructional opportunity to develop word knowledge can help reading comprehension.”


Focusing on particular words in vocab instruction can also be effective. Selecting specific words (referred to as ‘Tier 2’ words by Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013) that you know will help students comprehend a variety of texts and curricular topics boosts the return on investment in vocab instruction. Tier 2 words give students the technical language they need to engage deeply with the subject at hand and make it easier for them to ‘break into’ a new or unfamiliar subject area.

A more transferable approach to vocabulary instruction involves teaching the ‘root words’ of language. This can help students understand new words they encounter rather than just passages containing the specific words they were taught.


Try to teach inference


Teaching students how to generate inferences from text improves comprehension both in a generalisable sense (i.e. as measured on standardised tests) and a specific sense (i.e. inferential aspects of comprehension tasks). Unfortunately, it’s not exactly clear from the research which instructional approaches are best for teaching inference.


Don’t try to “train” working memory


We saw above that working memory and other executive functions support reading comprehension. So, what can we do to help students build this capacity? The answer might be “not much”. Simons et al. (2016) reviewed the cognitive training programs and found that little evidence that the programs improved everyday cognitive performance. So be wary of any brain training programs that promise reading gains.

If you can’t expand children’s working memory, you need to instead work on reducing the degree to which they have to draw on it when reading. The best way to do this is to build their knowledge of vocabulary and develop their lexical quality so more of the reading process can be carried out by the autopilot parts of the brain. This frees up limited working memory for the more difficult parts of comprehension and reading stamina.

Reading comprehension is complex, but teachable. Castles, Rastle and Nation provide a great reading list for teachers and parents here – expect to see us dive into these books in future posts on this blog as we continue to learn more about how to teach reading.


Key Takeaways


  1. Comprehension is complex. Students need to combine different forms of knowledge with processes and general cognitive skills to comprehend what they read
  2. Knowledge matters. Orthographic knowledge, linguistic knowledge and general knowledge are all important for comprehension
  3. Processing knowledge and text activates comprehension. Word activation, inference generation and comprehension monitoring are important processes underpinning comprehension
  4. General cognitive resources tie it all together. Linking knowledge and processes together are the general cognitive resources that underpin a lot of learning.
  5. You can teach it. It’s not easy, but comprehension can be taught – read the post to find out how.