Comprehension

Comprehension means understanding text: spoken, written and/or visual. Comprehension is an active and complex process which:

  • includes the act of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning from text
  • enables readers to derive meaning from text when they engage in intentional, problem solving and thinking processes
  • is a lived and institutionally situated social, cultural and intellectual practice that is much more than a semantic element of making meaning.
Definitions elaborated

These definitions can be elaborated on through an extract from the text New Boy (Nick Earls, Penguin Random House Australia, 2015). Max, an Australian student is giving Herschelle (a newly arrived boy from South Africa) a guided tour of his new school campus.

‘This is our new school hall,’ he says. There’s a stage at one end and seats piled up at the other, with the floor marked for basketball and other games. There’s a huge steel ceiling fan with at least eight blades. ‘The fan’s cactus already, and the hall’s only a few years old’.
I look around. There’s no cactus. I wonder if it’s the brand, but there is no visible logo.
‘The fan’s carked it, he says. It’s gone bung.’  (p. 19)

Herschelle must first decode the text to recognise the individual words Max is saying. He then has to use his understanding of the individual words along with the syntactic and semantic relationships between those words to construct meaning (Konza, 2016).

As Herschelle is constructing meaning, he uses his prior knowledge about the word ‘cactus’ to quickly realise there is no cactus in the hall. He then tries to problem solve by thinking of a plausible link between his understanding of what a cactus is and what Max might have meant. This active process prompts him to look for a brand logo on the fan to construct understanding. However, this problem solving attempt does not help.

It is only later on when Herschelle has access to the socially and culturally negotiated practices of Max and his community, that he can fully derive meaning (Simpson, 2013). He must first understand that ‘cactus’, ‘carked’ and ‘bung’ are synonyms Max and his community use to explain ‘broken’. Without this understanding, his comprehension is limited.

EAL/D students have to work even harder than students whose first language is English to comprehend texts at multiple levels. They need to:

  • decode sounds or scripts to recognise individual words
  • find the meaning of the word
  • connect the meaning of words to grammatical knowledge to make literal meaning from longer sections of text
  • connect literal meaning to cultural conventions to construct social meaning from the text.

At each stage, EAL/D students’ knowledge of sounds, script, words, grammar and cultural conventions may differ from what is required by the text.

Teaching comprehension to EAL/D students may require scaffolding at each of these levels, as well as explicit teaching of comprehension skills before, during and after reading the text.

Links to curriculum

Opportunities for teaching comprehension occur throughout the curriculum. The main strategies generally viewed as supporting comprehension are:

  • activating and using prior knowledge to make connections
  • predicting
  • visualising
  • asking and answering questions
  • summarising
  • synthesising
  • identifying literal, inferential and evaluative levels of comprehension
  • critical thinking.

By level:

Foundation

Reading

Speaking and listening

Level 1

Reading

  • Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning about key events, ideas and information in texts that they listen to, view and read by drawing on growing knowledge of context, text structures and language features (Content description VCELY186)

Speaking and listening

  • Express preferences for specific texts and authors and listen to the opinions of others (Content description VCELT206)
  • Discuss characters and events in a range of literary texts and share personal responses to these texts, making connections with own experiences (Content description VCELT207)
  • Discuss features of plot, character and setting in different types of literature and compare some features of characters in different texts (Content description VCELT208)
Level 2

Reading

  • Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning and begin to analyse texts by drawing on growing knowledge of context, language and visual features and print and multimodal text structures (Content description VCELY222)

Speaking and listening

Level 3

Reading

  • Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning and begin to evaluate texts by drawing on a growing knowledge of context, text structures and language features (Content description VCELY257)
Level 4

Reading

  • Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning to expand content knowledge, integrating and linking ideas and analysing and evaluating texts (Content description VCELY288)
  • Compare and evaluate two texts presenting the same ideas and analyse why one is more comprehensible or engaging than the other (Content description VCELY289)

Speaking and listening

Level 5

Reading

  • Use comprehension strategies to analyse information, integrating and linking ideas from a variety of print and digital sources (Content description VCELY319)

Speaking and listening

  • Present a point of view about particular literary texts using appropriate metalanguage, and reflecting on the viewpoints of others (Content description VCELT336)
Level 6

Reading

  • Use comprehension strategies to interpret and analyse information and ideas, comparing content from a variety of textual sources including media and digital texts (Content description VCELY347)

Evidence base

The importance of comprehension is reflected in the Victorian Curriculum (F-10): English across all levels in the Literacy strand. It is also reflected in the Victorian Curriculum (F-10): English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Comprehension is a strong predictor of overall academic achievement (Luke, Dooley and Woods, 2011). Large scale international studies of literacy achievement such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), stress the importance of students being able to apply their knowledge and skills to real-life situations.

To be successful in their reading, students need to draw on strategies taught through the lens of comprehension such as:

  • retrieving
  • interpreting
  • integrating
  • reflecting
  • evaluating information. (Thomson, De Bortoli and Buckley, 2013)

The teaching of comprehension from the early years of schooling is an important component of any literacy program. Competency in comprehension, a key indicator of reading achievement, is also monitored through the international testing of Year 4 students by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, (PIRLS). Again, comprehension is viewed more broadly to include not which just lies on the page (literal comprehension) but rather on how a reader can apply what is read to new situations and projects (Mullis and Martin, 2015).

A ‘slowing down’ in the fourth year

Seminal research findings on the Fourth Grade Slump (Chall, Jacobs and Baldwin, 1990; Chall and Jacob, 2003) found some students became less effective readers as they moved from the early years into the middle and upper years of primary and early secondary schooling. This research investigated the relationship between reading achievement and the change in text complexity and curriculum expectations. The research noted that early texts:

  • are constructed around familiar topics and contain vocabulary and ideas which students can easily identify with (i.e. family members, prominent members of a community (e.g. visiting the doctor, dentist),
  • are about common experiences (going shopping, playing in the park, pets)
  • have illustrations which are very supportive of meaning and contribute to readers building understanding
  • have a measured number and placement of words on each page
  • are most commonly narrative texts.

As text levels increase:

  • the number of words on a page increases
  • sentences become more complex as does the introduction of new and varied vocabulary
  • illustrations and diagrams are less supportive or more complex
  • topics begin to expand beyond the personal environment of the student.

As students progress into the final years of their primary schooling they are expected to:

  • independently read an increasing range of text types
  • decode and understand technical vocabulary
  • make inferences or critically analyse text content
  • navigate multimodal  and electronic texts and
  • apply these concepts to new learning and thinking.

Around the fourth year of schooling, a breakdown or slowdown in reading for meaning can occur. Students can decode the words but might not understand what they are reading about (Chall, Jacobs and Baldwin, 1990; Dewitz and Dewitz, 2003, Palinscar and Brown, 1984; Palinscar, 2013) (see Guided Reading: Reciprocal Teaching). The research suggests that is due to:

  • a lack of exposure to rich literature with varied vocabulary and concepts
  • opportunities to develop fluency and automaticity of word meaning
  • a lack of opportunities to talk, justify, infer, clarify, critique, analyse and write about texts from the early years.

Teaching comprehension strategies should be taught alongside decoding strategies (Department of Education, Science and Training, 2005; RAND, Reading Study Group, 2002; Scull, 2010). As the outcome of reading is understanding, readers need to be aware of the overall message as they problem solve and work at the letter, word, sentence and paragraph level. 

See the Victorian Curriculum F-10: English

Additional reading challenges for older EAL/D learners

EAL/D learners experience challenges in developing reading comprehension that are different from the challenges faced by students who speak English as a first language and they typically experience a greater cognitive load when reading in English due to the linguistic and cultural differences in texts.

  • Texts written about ‘familiar’ topics may be foreign for EAL/D students with different life experiences
  • EAL/D students may still be learning the vocabulary and grammar suitable for younger readers whose first language is English but are cognitively ready for more challenging and age-appropriate content and tasks
  • EAL/D students with disrupted prior schooling or limited literacy in their home language may not have the same reading strategies or skills (for example, memorising or scanning for specific information) as those with age-equivalent education. Therefore they will need to learn these strategies at the same time as learning to read
  • Students may have highly developed literacy skills in their home language and therefore only need support to comprehend the English text at the literal level. They can then transfer their reading skills acquired in the home language to the new text.

Discussing a text in the EAL/D  students' home language can help them notice text structures and language features more easily than if discussed solely in English (Nation, 2008). It can also support content knowledge development, which provides students with substantial ideas for subsequent discussions they have in English. They can then focus solely on delivering their ideas in English during whole class discussions.

Translation is a useful strategy in developing EAL/D students’ reading comprehension. Being able to translate a text indicates a good level of understanding of both language and content. Some translation strategies for developing comprehension include:

  • asking EAL/D students to record key points of a text in their home language, either individually or with a partner from the same language background
  • allocating different sections of a text to each student in a same-language pair. Ask the students to explain their section to their partner using their home language. Both students swap their sections at the end and discuss the accuracy and completeness of their translation
  • using an online translation tool to translate a short section of text into the student’s home language. Ask them to comment on the accuracy of the translation, and to make improvements (see Vogel, Ascenzi-Moreno and García, 2018)
  • the teacher checking for the accuracy of the students’ understanding by asking questions during reflection at the end of the lesson.

For more information, see: Vocabulary

Teaching comprehension

There is advice on teaching comprehension in the classroom.

Literal, inferential and evaluative levels of comprehension

When readers read or view a text they can understand it on different levels. Deep comprehension occurs when all levels have been considered.

Literal comprehension occurs at the surface level when a reader/viewer acknowledges what they can see and hear. The details are stated and clear for anyone to identify. Literal comprehension is often referred to as ‘on the page’ or ‘right there’ comprehension. This is the simplest form of comprehension.

Inferential comprehension requires the reader/viewer to draw on their prior knowledge of a topic and identify relevant text clues (words, images, sounds) to make an inference. Inferential comprehension is often referred to as ‘between the lines’ or ‘think and search’ comprehension. This level of comprehension requires more skill but can be achieved by young children (van den Brock, Kindeou, Kremer, Lynch, Butler, White and Pugzles Lorch, 2005).

Evaluative comprehension requires the reader to move beyond the text to consider what they think and believe in relation to the message in the text. It is at this point that readers/viewers are required to justify their opinions, argue for a particular viewpoint, critically analyse the content and determine the position of the author. Evaluative comprehension is often referred to as ‘beyond the text’ and includes ‘big picture’ comprehension. Often there is no right or wrong answer but rather justification for thinking in a particular way.

Supporting EAL/D learners to develop comprehension skills

EAL/D learners of different ages might need support to develop literal comprehension skills because they might:

  • still be learning to read English language symbols, sounds, vocabulary and grammar and at the same time, try to understand what they are reading
  • have good sight vocabulary but do not understand what they are reading
  • find it difficult to demonstrate that they have understood a text through speaking or writing in English.

To support EAL/D students, the teacher could:

  • use story maps or other diagrams to represent the literal meaning of a text. Students can annotate pictures and/or describe them orally in English and/or their home language
  • pre-teach new or important vocabulary, sentence structures and background knowledge
  • select, adapt or create texts which extend slightly beyond the language and content that has been taught, to challenge students and bring them into their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978)
  • pose literal level questions before reading the text. The questions enable students to develop a schema or initial idea of what the text is about which supports initial comprehension of the text
  • carefully sequence activities that enable students to develop an initial understanding of the text that is refined over time and with further engagement with the text. For example, students could sequence key events in the correct order or use graphic organisers to list all of the characters in a text and any information they know about the characters.

Inferential comprehension requires readers to understand the underlying meaning of a text. Readers rely on cultural and social knowledge connected to the context of the text. However, many texts used in schools may not represent familiar experiences or settings for EAL/D students. The teacher scaffolds knowledge, language and thinking for inferential comprehension by:

  • teaching new contexts and experiences that students will encounter in text, for example, students learn to play football in physical education before reading a novel about football. Build the language and understanding using the language experience approach or introduce the content using artefacts or videos
  • choosing, adapting or creating texts that represent cultures and contexts that are familiar to the EAL/D students
  • teaching inferential question stems, and ways of thinking that go with them. For example:
    • when you see a question asking ‘Why did somebody do something,’ look for information about what that character did, what happened before and after, and how that character felt.
    • providing worked examples and models of inferential understanding
  • writing and sequencing literal comprehension questions to build up evidence that supports inferential comprehension.

Evaluative comprehension gives EAL/D students the chance to express and justify opinions. The teacher scaffolds thinking and language for evaluative comprehension by:

  • teaching explicitly about issues in texts, including examining different perspectives on the issues or different solutions to problems
  • choosing, adapting or creating texts that deal with issues students might face in their curriculum, school experience, or life outside of school
  • teaching students how to articulate their opinions and present evidence
  • writing and sequencing literal and inferential comprehension questions to build up ideas that can be used to answer evaluative comprehension questions.

Teaching practices that teach reading comprehension explicitly to all students for all texts are relevant for EAL/D students as well. Additionally, EAL/D students need to understand and use comprehension strategies in their home language, English or both. Some of the key steps teaching comprehension are:

  • activating and using prior knowledge about languages to make connections (vocabulary, grammar, text-type features, purpose, content, other similar texts)
  • predicting content, text organisation or vocabulary
  • visualising or drawing the sequence of events in the text
  • asking and answering questions (the questions could be posed in students' home language and the answers co-created in English)
  • summarising (using graphic organisers to represent the key information of a text)
  • synthesising (creating a bilingual synthesis of the text, using the first language to capture their higher-level thinking and then working with support (e.g. bilingual dictionary) to produce an English version.

Visual Literacy gives information on LIE - close reading of an image using three levels of comprehension.

Text Level 3 - Guided Reading is a guided reading sample lesson -The merry-go-round: literal and inferential comprehension.

Table 1 provides sentence starters that teachers and students can use to ask questions to check for understanding of literal, inferential and evaluative comprehension.

Literal question stems: Right there on the page
  • Who........?
  • When........?
  • Where........?
  • What is........?
  • Which........?
  • What happened........?
  • How did........?
  • How far........?
  • How many........?
Inferential question stems: Think and search or between the lines

Find clues in the text (TC) and use information from your own background knowledge (BK) to make an inference Or search for information from different places in the text to make an inference.

  • Why is/did........?
  • Is/Did/Was.......?
  • Can you explain........?
  • How did/do/does.........?
  • What caused........?
  • What do you think is meant by?
  • What effect does........?
  • How is this similar to........?
  • What evidence can you find........?
  • What examples can you find........?
  • What makes you think that........?
  • What is the relationship between........?
Evaluative question stems: Beyond the text or big picture

What you think or believe? The author would agree/disagree. What is missing?

  • Do you think.......?
  • Do you agree......?
  • Why would........?
  • What else could........?
  • Why/How might.........?
  • Why do you think........?
  • What would happen if.........?
  • What will probably /most likely happen?
  • What/How would you........?
  • What/How should.........?
  • How do you feel about........?
  • How does.........affect you?
  • If you were........what would you........?
  • What would have happened if........?
  • What is your opinion of........?
  • Would it be better if........?
  • How would you evaluate/judge........?

For more information, see: Guided reading lesson: Evaluative question stems, beyond the text or big picture

Question stems to support literal, inferential and evaluative comprehension.

Example lessons

This lesson will require students to read and understand a narrative text. The text works on two levels. It follows the story of two ducks who lose their habitat due to economic development and they embark on a search for a new home. The predicament of the ducks run parallel to the flight of refugees. It is here that the text truly connects with its title and acts as a metaphor for the plight of refugees around the world. The text provides opportunities to teach literal, inferential and evaluative comprehension.

Links to Curriculum

Victorian Curriculum (English), Reading and Viewing, Literacy Strand: Interpreting, analysing, evaluating:

Level 3
  • Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning and begin to evaluate texts by drawing on a growing knowledge of context, text structures and language features (Content description VCELY257)
Level 4
  • Use comprehension strategies to build literal and inferred meaning to expand content knowledge, integrating and linking ideas and analysing and evaluating texts (Content description VCELY288)

Lesson sequence

Three lessons over several weeks:

References

Chall, J., Jacobs, V., and Baldwin, L. (1990). The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind. USA: Harvard University Press.

Davis, A. (2015). Building comprehension strategies for the primary years. Hong Kong: Eleanor Curtain Publishing.

Department of Education, Science and Training (2005). Teaching Reading: Report and Recommendations, National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Canberra: Australian Government.

Dewitz, P. and Dewitz, P. (February, 2003). They can read the words, but they can’t understand: Refining comprehension assessment. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 56, No. 5. pp. 422-435.

Duke, N.K. and Pearson, P.D. (2002). Effective reading practices for developing comprehension. In A.E. Farstrup and S.J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction, (3rd Ed.), (pp. 205-242). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Earls, N. (2015). New Boy. Australia: Penguin Random House Australia.

Harvey, S. and Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement. (2nd Ed.), Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hill, S. (2012) Developing early literacy: Assessment and teaching (2nd Ed.). Hong Kong: Eleanor Curtain Publishing.

Keene, E.O. and Zimmermann, S. (2007). Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction (2nd Ed). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Konza, D. (2016). Understanding the process of reading: The Big Six. In J.Scull and B. Raban (Eds.) Growing up literate: Australian literacy research for practice, (pp. 149-175). Hong Kong: Eleanor Curtain Publishing.

Luke, A., Dooley, K., and Woods, A. (2011). Comprehension as Social and Intellectual Practice: Rebuilding Curriculum in Low Socioeconomic and Cultural Minority Schools. Theory into Practice, 50(2), pp. 157-164.

Mullis, I.V.S., & Martin, M.O. (Eds.). (2015). PIRLS 2016 assessment framework (2nd Ed.). Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

National Reading Panel (April, 2000). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction. Reports of the Subgroups. Accessed at: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf

Palinscar, A.S. (2013). Reciprocal Teaching. In J. Hattie and E.M. Anderson (Eds.), International Guide to Student Achievement. (pp. 369-371). Taylor and Francis Accessed at: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=1114642

Palinscar, A.S. and Brown, A.L. (Spring, 1984). Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities. Cognition and Instruction. Vol. 1, No. 2. pp. 117-175.

RAND, Reading Study Group (2000). Reading for understanding: toward an R & D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Scull, J. (2010). Embedding comprehension within reading acquisition processes. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 33, No. 2. (pp. 87-107).

Simpson, D. (2013). What’s new about new literacies? In E. Honan (Ed.), Thinking through new literacies for primary and early years. (pp. 1-16). Moorabbin, Victoria Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Thomson, S., De Bortoli, L., and Buckley, S. (2013). PISA 2012: How Australia measures up. Camberwell, Victoria Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research Limited.

van den Broek, P., Kindeou, P., Kremer, K., Lynch, J., Butler, J., White, M.J., Pugzles Lorch, E. (2005). Assessment of Comprehension Abilities in Young Children. In Scott. G. Paris and Steven. A. Stahl (Eds.), Children’s Reading: Comprehension and Assessment. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.