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Reading Comprehension: What It Is, Types, Tests, How to Improve

Table of contents:

What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension - index
Reading is one of the most important components of any language, and it is an essential tool for lifelong learning. The goal of reading is comprehension.

Reading comprehension refers to a reader’s ability to successfully interpret a text. Mikulecky and Jeffries point out that reading comprehension means making sense of what readers read and connecting the ideas in the text to what they already know. Duffy simply defines reading comprehension as the essence of reading because if we do not understand the message, we are not reading.

What is the difference between literal and inferential comprehension?

Literal comprehension is a reader’s understanding of the events and information in a text. To test it, you can ask a child questions like “what happened?” or “where did it happen?” Answers to these questions are all available in the text itself.

Inferential comprehension depends on literal comprehension but goes further. This is the reader’s ability to form judgments that make sense (inferences) about the text, the author, or aspects of the text. For example, questions about the moral of a story, or the intentions of the writer, rely on inferential comprehension. In order to deal with a text at this level, the literal level has to be automatic and effortless.

By age six to seven, children should be sensitive to such characteristics of stories as the main character, sequence of events, inferences, the motives and feelings of characters, and sentence order. As they get older, children should be more efficient at recognizing and recalling facts, recognizing and inferring main themes and relationships, drawing conclusions, making judgments and generalizations, predicting outcomes, applying what has been learned, and following directions. The comprehension goals of the intermediate grades address these abilities as well as those required for independent study: skimming, using reference materials, outlining, summarizing, altering reading rate and focus as the purpose of reading changes, use of headings, note-taking, and so on.

Reading comprehension and the reading disabled

For many reading-disabled students, reading comprehension is a major problem. There are mainly three causes:

  • Poor decoding skills

Decoding is the act of connecting sounds with symbols. To decode a word,

(1.) you need to know which sound or sounds each letter makes, like how a g sounds in game and how it sounds in gym;
(2.) how to take apart the sounds in a word and blend them, for example, with man, the first sound is /m/, the next sound is /ă/, and the last sound is /n/; and
(3.) how groups of letters can work together to make a single sound, like ch in chip

This skill needs to be in place for proficient reading to develop, but it’s not enough. There are words that you cannot decode. For example, words whose spelling is very different from their sound, such as “enough.” To successfully read English, you need to recognize this word, in the way that you would recognize someone’s face. Words that have a high frequency (they occur often), or must simply be learned by sight, are called sight words.

  • Poor fluency

Another condition that seems to be necessary for comprehension is fluency. Fluency is the ability to read “as you speak”. Hudson et al. define fluency this way: “Reading fluency is made up of at least three key elements: accurate reading of connected text at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression.” Nonfluent readers suffer in at least one of these aspects of reading:

(1.) they make many mistakes,
(2.) they read slowly, or
(3.) they don’t read with appropriate expression and phrasing.

This makes intuitive sense. After all, it is difficult to understand someone who speaks haltingly or without natural intonation.

  • Weak cognitive skills

There are many reasons why children struggle with decoding and fluency in the first place, the most common being weak cognitive skills. Cognitive psychology has now linked many brain-based skills to reading disabilities: phonological awareness; verbal fluency; attention and executive functions; visual attention; visuospatial abilities; processing speedshort-term memory; auditory working memoryvisual memory and visual sequential memory; visual long-term memory, especially for details; verbal long-term memory; and rapid naming.

What is Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit?’

It is possible for someone to read fluently and still have poor comprehension. This has its own clinical term: Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit (SRCD). This happens when a child’s decoding skills are more developed than his or her ability to understand a text.

When a child is a fluent reader, yet still struggles with comprehension, there are mainly four causes:

  • Poor vocabulary

Being able to pronounce a word correctly does not guarantee that one understands its meaning. For example, being able to pronounce the word archipelago correctly will not be very helpful when reading a passage about Lofoten, an archipelago in the county of Norland, Norway; it is vital that one also understands the word’s meaning, i.e. ‘an island group’.

Decades of research have confirmed the important role that vocabulary plays in reading comprehension and in students’ overall academic success.

  • Poor memory

Neuro-imaging of children showed that, while reading, the brain function of those with reading comprehension problems is quite different and distinct from those with reading disabilities. Those with reading disabilities exhibited abnormalities in a specific region in the occipital-temporal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with successfully recognizing words on a page. Those with reading comprehension difficulties, on the other hand, did not show abnormalities in this region. Instead, they showed specific abnormalities in regions typically associated with memory.

Short-term memory holds information in the mind for only a few seconds while it is being processed. Long-term memory is where such processed information is permanently stored. Working memory is an intermediary and active memory system in the information processing area of the brain. It is an important memory system and one that most of us use every day.

Sentence comprehension depends heavily upon adequate working memory. For example, working memory is required to comprehend sentences that are complex in structure, such as, “The clown that is hugging the boy is kissing the girl.” It helps us interpret lengthy sentences, such as, “Do every other problem on page fifteen and all of the problems on page sixteen before checking your answers in the back of the book.” We use working memory when preserving word order (syntax) is important to correctly understand a sentence like, “It was the boy’s ball and not the girl’s that was dirty.”

Sentences must be held in working memory and must also be integrated. Each sentence is read, understood, associated, and integrated with the previous one and so forth. Eventually, the entire paragraph is read and the reader continues to the next one. By the end of the chapter, both the details and main idea need to be retained in working memory, otherwise, the reader may have retained isolated facts but may not know the sequence of events nor understand the main idea.

  • Poor logical thinking skills

Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, for relationships between facts, and for chains of reasoning that “make sense.”

The relationship between logical thinking and reading is well established in the literature. It has been said that “there is no reading without reasoning,” and even that reading is reasoning.

  • Text cannot be tied to foreknowledge

To read with comprehension a reader must be able to integrate what they are reading with foreknowledge. Foreknowledge can be defined as the range of one’s existing knowledge and past experiences. If one reads something that cannot directly be connected to or tied in with knowledge that one already possesses, one cannot decipher the contents of the message. As Harris et al. state in Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and Treatment, “What a child gets from a book will often be determined by what the child brings to the book.”

A skill that is closely related to that of integration is classification. When a person sees a chair, although they may never have seen a chair exactly like this one, they will nevertheless immediately recognize it as a chair, because they are familiar with the class of objects we call “chair.” This implies that, whenever a name is ascribed to an object, it is thereby put into a specific class of objects, i.e. it is classified.

The Gestalt principle of closure means that the mind can derive meaning from objects or pictures that are not perceived in full. W- -re s-re th-t y– w-ll b- -ble to und-rsta-d th-s s-ntenc-, although more than 25 percent of the letters have been omitted. The mind is quite able to bridge the gaps that were left in the sentence.

The idea of closure is, however, more than just seeing parts of a word and amplifying them. It also entails the amplification of the author’s message. No author can put all his thoughts into words. This stresses the importance of foreknowledge. If it were possible for an author to put everything related to the subject he is dealing with on paper, the possession of foreknowledge would not have been necessary. That, however, is impossible, as an author can at most present a very limited cross-section of reality, and the reader must be able to expand on this before comprehension becomes possible. Poetry is a good example of the importance of foreknowledge. Any person, unfamiliar with the Arthurian legend, will derive little meaning from a reading of Morte d’Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Lastly, imagination plays a role in comprehension. It is doubtful whether a person really understands something unless they can think about it in terms of pictures. When we read, the words and thoughts comprising the message call up images in our mind’s eye. If this does not occur, the message might not make any sense. If you read or hear a sentence in an unfamiliar language, it will not make any sense to you, simply because none of the words will call up any pictures in your mind’s eye. Furthermore, by using one’s imagination while reading, one’s emotions can be addressed during the reading act.

How is reading comprehension measured?

There is a wide range of tests that are commonly used by teachers and psychologists in order to assess comprehension skills.

  • Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-V) Reading Comprehension Subtest

This subtest of the WISC-V battery of tests can determine how well a child is able to comprehend texts. It has three components of increasing difficulty. The first of these involves matching pictures to words. This is a way to demonstrate a basic, foundational association between symbols and objects. Then, the child reads individual sentences and answers a question about each one. These questions are literal, rather than inferential. The third and final part requires the child to read a text, which could be a story or an explanatory text. Verbal questions follow, both literal and inferential. The examiner gauges the number of correct answers to arrive at a score.

  • Measures of Academic Progress (MAP)

The Measure of Academic Progress is a group of tests that includes a reading test. It is frequently administered in a school setting. The test is widely used for several reasons. Firstly, it is done on a computer, which makes it easy to administer. This also gives the test another, even more important, strength. The computer can assess the person taking the test while the test is happening and adjust the difficulty of the questions based on the test taker’s performance so far. A correct answer to one question will lead to a more challenging question. An incorrect answer will cause the computer to offer a less challenging question next.

Secondly, MAP utilizes multiple genres to gauge reading comprehension, such as prose, recipes, and poems. This means that it can provide a detailed picture of a child’s reading ability. After all, we live in a text-rich environment and we constantly have to switch between genres. On any given day, most of us will encounter a wide range of text types including emails, blog articles, written instructions, and others.

The test procedure involves individual assessment, as the child reads the texts on screen. The test presents questions on each of the texts. These questions require the child to identify the meanings of words, make judgments about the text’s purpose, or the intentions of the writer. Unlike many comprehension tests, there is less emphasis on details and more focus on informational content.

  • Passage Comprehension subtest (Woodcock-Johnson III)

The Passage Comprehension component of the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement is another test that utilizes silent reading to gauge reading comprehension. This test comprises several stages. The first one requires the child to match a pictograph to a picture. This gauges whether the child can successfully match a symbol to an object that it commonly represents. Next, the child reads a phrase and chooses a picture that represents that phrase. Then, the child reads a passage with a missing word, which must be supplied. The word must be grammatically correct but it must also make sense in the context. This final part is in the form of a cloze test. In psychology, cloze tests are those in which the task is to complete a piece of text that has gaps in it.

  • Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT-5)

The Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT-5) is used to measure a number of skills related to reading. These include fluency and comprehension. The procedure of the test is quite simple. The child reads a short story out loud to the assessor. During this time, the assessor can listen to the child’s reading and make any relevant observations about the pace and intonation that the child uses. After reading the text, the child answers five questions about the story. The questions aim to elicit inferences, recall details or identify main ideas.

  • Reading Comprehension WIAT-III

The Reading Comprehension subtest of the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT) measures both literal and inferential comprehension. It utilizes a wide range of text types, such as stories and advertisements. The child can choose to read in silence or aloud. The questions are posed and answered verbally. This is important because it enables the test to isolate comprehension without possible interference from poor writing skills.

Is poor reading comprehension holding your child back?

The good news is that weaknesses in cognitive skills can be attacked head-on; it is possible to strengthen these mental skills through training and practice. Edublox’s Development Tutor aims at strengthening underlying cognitive skills, including processing speed, short-term memory, working memory, and logical thinking.

In addition, a child’s vocabulary will need to be improved, and they will also need application in the form of comprehension exercises. The old saying practice makes perfect still applies. Edublox’s live tutoring services include a reading comprehension curriculum, aimed at improving vocabulary and at teaching students to identify the main idea, sequence events, make inferences, and so forth. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.


Key takeaways


Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the field of learning disabilities, and Dylan Arslanian (B.A. Hons Linguistics, Cambridge DELTA).