Comprehension in reading

Adele Sewell

Promoting reading comprehension in our classrooms: putting theory into practice.

What is Comprehension in Reading?

When we consider reading comprehension, we need to also consider the basic communication models of transmitter and receiver. The Shannon-Weaver model highlights several issues with communication; the first is that noise or distraction will occur on the medium used for communication. Noise or distractions can take a wide range of forms, including visual or auditory distractions, disabilities or learning difficulties and languages or jargon and the register that it is written (Machin, Hindmarch, Murray, & Richardson, 2016). Within this model, it needs to be remembered that what is to be communicated can get distorted in its journey to the receiver (Gould & Roffey-Barentsen, 2014). Applying this to reading comprehension strategies, we, therefore, need to put in stages to help and support and scaffold the learning to enable effective communication or in this case, comprehension to be achieved. One helpful way of scaffolding is to use the CREATE model (Hoskins, Stevens and Nehm 2007). A science-based model of enquiry supports students to consider and read an article using Bloom's cognitive domain taxonomy it then moves to elucidating and hypothesizing on what is read before analyzing and interpreting what has been read. This is then used to think forward, action plan or make connections with other things read.

Background Research in reading comprehension

When looking at reading comprehension difficulties, Zimmerman (2003) and much of the neuro research to date has shown that language comprehension for students, like other complex cognitive tasks, results from highly interconnected neural networks using different areas of the brain (e.g., Bookheimer 2002; Ferstl et al. 2008; Just et al. 1996; Xu et al. 2005) working together to decode and apply to mean. This, as the basic communication model shows, can be disrupted by many things, leading, therefore, to low levels of comprehension of learners. What is worrying is that studies focused on higher education (Barletta et al., 2005; Yáñez Botello, 2013) show that university students are at a literal or basic level of understanding. They often have difficulties in making inferences and recognizing the macrostructure of the written texts. Ntereke and Ramoroka (2017) found that only 12.4% of students perform well in a reading comprehension tests, 34.3% presenting a low level of execution in the task. If we look at secondary schools, we find that a quarter of all 15-year-olds have a reading age of 12 or below, and that the reading ability gap between boys and girls widens significantly after primary school (


Approaches to reading comprehension

Research on reading comprehension approaches in individuals relies on two interconnected abilities: word reading (being able to decode the symbols on the page) and language comprehension (being able to understand the meaning of the words and sentences, Zimmerman S and Hutchins C 2003) which as the above highlights is at a low level throughout our education system.

To understand comprehension strategies further, you therefore as a reader of this article are working on varying cognitive levels to not only decode the marks on paper but also associate meaning to those words to form new ideas and concepts from your prior experiences. This is a multiple-level skill encompassing many levels of Blooms taxonomy studies have shown that while word-level processes are necessary, they are not sufficient for reading comprehension (e.g., Catts et al., 2006; Oakhill et al., 2003). Comprehension is, therefore, about engaging with prior experiences and the senses to make meaning. On the more extreme end, this is represented by the fact that approximately 10% of poor comprehenders do not have deficits at the word level processing stage, suggesting that decoding of letters and symbols at the phonetic level is something we do well in schools, but this skill is not in itself sufficient for comprehension to take place.(Catts et al., 2003; Nation & Snowling, 1998; Stothard & Hulme, 1995). Within the National Curriculum, the programmes of study for reading at key stages 1 and 2 consist of 2 dimensions:

  • word reading
  • comprehension (both listening and reading)

Graphic organisers for reading comprehension
Graphic organisers for reading comprehension

Reading comprehension strategy instruction

Advocating that It is essential that teaching focuses on developing pupils' competence in both dimensions, suggesting different kinds of teaching are needed for each. These include skilled word reading involves both the speedy working out of the pronunciation of unfamiliar printed words (decoding) and the speedy recognition of familiar printed words. Underpinning both is the understanding that the letters on the page represent the sounds in spoken words. This is why phonics is emphasized in the early teaching of reading to unskilled readers when they start school. Buchweitz (2009) suggests phonological rehearsal helps reading comprehension as it helps to increase working memory, which is essential for reading comprehension. However, perhaps as educationalists, we need to rethink this approach as it is not clearly working for students, as shown by the research carried out on higher education students.

In addition, good comprehension draws from linguistic knowledge (in particular vocabulary and grammar) and background knowledge of the world. Comprehension skills develop through pupils' experience of high-quality discussion with the teacher, as well as from reading and discussing a range of stories, poems and non-fiction. Pupils must be encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their personal knowledge of themselves and the world they live in, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain background knowledge across the curriculum. Again if we look at this skill, it does not consider the ability of students to access these resources or encompasses notions of social justice and inequalities of educational attainment in British schools.

Building background knowledge with the thinking framework
Building background knowledge with the thinking framework

Language acquisition

In the process of reading for comprehension, we have to remember Vygotsky and Chomsky in that the teacher has a role to play in the language acquisition of the child in the stages of schooling through facilitation of language activities. Whilst support schemes such as Oxford Owl, Reading Rockets ( can be utilized to support early language acquisition and comprehension strategies, but are they enough?

Studies have therefore suggested that reading comprehension is not only a cognitive process but also an emotional process, memory retrieval, concept integration, abstract or thematic relationships, and story structure construction and emotional valuation.

Chomsky (1957, 1965, 1970) who stated that the nature of language was basically about abstract syntax, has incorporated the syntax-semantics interface in to his work (Chomsky, 1981, 1995) suggesting that reading is no longer considered a straight-forward graph-to-sound decoding mechanism but consists of subprocesses that take place in different areas and pathways of both hemispheres of the brain.

Comprehension therefore takes place beyond the level of single-word processing; it takes place on the sentence level of the neural mechanism. Meaning is not directly extracted from every word on the printed image, but from the combined meaning of individual words, and the context to produce a coherent meaning. If those mechanisms for understanding are underdeveloped or are inhibited by cultural barriers or neurodiversity conditions this processing will not take place.

Farris et al. (2021) found that for college students with discrepant levels of reading comprehension and decoding, vocabulary and morphological awareness appear to be key factors in the low levels of comprehension. Indeed studies have shown that by Further and Higher levels of education, students develop strategies, enabling adequate comprehension of text despite relatively weak decoding skills. Interestingly assessment can also support reading comprehension in the way it is presented. Looking at different forms of comprehension, such as multiple choice versus recall versus narrative versus exploratory explanation, narrative strategies are easier to comprehend supporting meaning-making (Kim and Petschers 2020). Therefore when we devise reading comprehension activities, we need to consider this strategy for building background knowledge acquisition.

Developing skilled readers through oracy exercises
Developing skilled readers through oracy exercises

Fundamental comprehension difficulties

Very often we find that students can decode a text by being able to form the words as they can decode the symbols in order to make sense of the marks on the paper. However, this does mean that a student can comprehend a text. In order to comprehend a text, students must be able to use the higher order thinking skills of Bloom in the ability to synthesis and comprehend the words. In order to comprehend the words, students need to be able to make meaning and apply that meaning to new situations. It also involves them drawing conclusions from what they have read.

Working with students at Higher Education level, reading comprehension becomes vital in the understanding of complex texts in order to support academic writing. Simple tools such as scanning for keywords, writing in their own words a part of an academic text, using dictionaries to unpick words and compiling glossaries are all strategies that can be employed. Within schools, discussion of keywords and thesauruses are useful to support the unpicking of words.

Using the Frayer model for building domain knowledge

Another useful tool is to employ the Frayer Model which is a graphic organizer for building student vocabulary. This technique requires students to define target vocabulary and apply their domain knowledge by generating examples and non-examples, giving characteristics, and/or drawing a picture to illustrate the meaning of the word. This information is placed on a chart that is divided into four sections to provide a visual representation for students.

By using the Frayer Model, students are supported to :

• Develop understanding of key concepts and vocabulary through unpicking keywords.

• Draw on prior content knowledge to make connections among concepts by relating words to prior knowledge of those keywords to make meaning.

• Compare attributes and examples from experiences.

Think critically to find relationships between concepts and to develop deeper by applying to other contexts within their experiences

• Understanding of word meanings by putting the words into their own lexicon

• Make visual connections and personal associations through visual representation.

• Review key vocabulary before a test or quiz

• Create a "vocabulary wall" for quick reference of word meanings

In conclusion, Ellerman and Oslund (2019) state that despite decades of research in reading comprehension, there is still a need for a sustained focus on developing background knowledge, vocabulary, inference, and comprehension by educators to ensure a more research-focused methodology to be employed.


Further reading

Gould, J., & Roffey-Barentsen, J. (2014). Achieving your diploma in education and training (1st ed.). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Mehrabian, A. (1972). Silent Messages Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes. Belmont: Wadsworth.


Organisations that provide advice on reading comprehension

  • Education Endowment Foundation
  • National Foundation for Educational Research
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America
  • Learning Disabilities Research & Practice
  • Committee on Learning Sciences: Foundations and Applications to Adolescent and Adult Literacy
  • National Center for Education Statistics