Comprehension is the process of making meaning from a text.

WHAT is Comprehension?

Reading comprehension has been defined as “the act of constructing meaning with oral and written text” (Duke and Carlisle, 2011). Because reading comprehension is such an important aspect of literacy, we need, as teachers, to understand what it is and how it develops. Comprehension does not reside in a text, but in the reader’s interaction with the text. As a reader reads, they create a mental representation of the meaning of the text (Kintsch, 1998; McNamara, Miller, and Bransford, 2016). One basic model of reading comprehension views it as an interaction between three elements: the reader who is doing the reading, the text that is being comprehended, and the activity or the purpose for reading, (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). Each of these three elements interacts to influence comprehension in a particular social context. This three-element model of reading comprehension—the reader, the text, and the activity or purpose for reading—is helpful to us as teachers because it reminds us that comprehension is a complex processes that we can support by taking into consideration all three elements of the comprehension “triangle”: what the reader brings to the text (their knowledge, vocabulary, skills, strategies, etc.), the text itself (its language, syntax, content, structure, etc.), and the activity or purpose for reading (the context in which the reading is occurring).

WHY is Comprehension Important

Comprehension is the ultimate goal of all other aspects of reading instruction, the whole reason we teach the foundational skills, like phonics and fluency, necessary to begin reading. The significance of reading comprehension is far reaching. At the most immediate level, it allows a child to grow as a reader and a thinker because the child is understanding what he or she is learning from reading texts. On a more far reaching level, strong reading comprehension is one of the primary skills that allows children, and later young adults, to thrive in school, college, and eventually the work world. Without good reading comprehension we would not know how to processes, evaluate, and use all the written information around us, on which our lives as citizens and individuals depends. In short, reading comprehension is a small yet crucial area of early education with a great impact on children’s lives in the classroom every day, and more broadly on their lives in the future.

HOW do you teach Comprehension

The Essential Threads of Reading Comprehension

To teach reading comprehension, it is useful to recognize the complexity of how it develops and occurs. A child’s capacity to comprehend any given text depends on many variables, including their oral language, foundational reading skills, vocabulary, background knowledge, and their engagement with the task of reading—all of which can also be impacted by the complexity of the text being read, and the child’s familiarity with the topic and genre of the text. To better understand the “tapestry” of reading comprehension, it makes sense to consider some of the “essential threads” which contribute to its growth and development in children.

Oral Language and Discussion

It has been said that “reading floats on a sea of talk (Britton, 1970; Mills, 2009). Research has tied oral language skills to learning how to comprehend, and classroom discussions, in a variety of forms, to the deepening of children’s understanding of texts (Hadley et al, 2020; Mills, 2009; Duke, 2011). Researchers have repeatedly called on teachers to recognize the connection between high-quality classrooms discussions and reading comprehension. Recognizing that comprehension is an active and often collaborative process of making meaning, effective teachers of reading comprehension tend to employ classroom discussion to help readers work together to make meaning from the texts they encounter (Langer, 2001; Duke, et al., 2011).

Foundational Reading Skills

The foundational reading skills of decoding and fluency are directly linked to comprehension (National Early Literacy Panel, 2009; National Reading Panel, 2000). Without good decoding skills and fluency children have to use all of their attention just to blend together letter sounds, leaving them with very little attention or cognitive energy to devote to thinking about the meaning of what they are reading.


The connection between vocabulary and comprehension has been well established by research. As the reading researcher Elfrieda Hiebert has pointed out, “The words our students know make a big difference in how well they comprehend text …Words represent knowledge, and knowledge about a text’s topic strongly predicts comprehension of a text” (Verhoeven, van Leeuwe, & Vermeer, 2011; Hiebert, 2020).

Knowledge Development

Background knowledge and general knowledge are both linked to reading comprehension. Two of the most prominent models of comprehension, the construction-integration model and the schema-theory model, view comprehension as the source of knowledge, and knowledge as the source of comprehension: “We bring knowledge to the comprehension process, and that knowledge shapes our comprehension. When we comprehend, we gain new information that changes our knowledge, which is then available for later comprehension” (Duke et al., 2011). It is apparent from these models and later research that when we help children build disciplinary and world knowledge, as well as background knowledge, we support their ongoing comprehension growth in a number of ways (Duke et al., 2011; Cervetti and Hiebert, 2015).

Reading Engagement and Motivation

Reading engagement and motivation has been highly correlated with comprehension (Guthrie et al., 2006; Duke et al., 2011). When children are engaged with reading and motivated to read, they show greater stamina, persistence, and willingness to figure out what they may not initially comprehend in a text. Providing motivating texts and contexts for reading is an important component of any attempt to build children’s comprehension (Duke et al., 2011).

Integration of Reading and Writing

Like talk and oral language, writing is intrinsic to the development of reading comprehension. Reading and writing mutually reinforce one another and have been shown to draw on some of the same cognitive processes (Shanahan, 2006). Through writing and talk, children are often able to build richer mental representations of the text they read than they might be able to with just reading. It appears that revisiting and re-representing ideas in many modes helps us better understand those ideas, and that giving children chances to think through content from reading in writing and talk allows them to further build up their comprehension of what they have read (Duke et al., 2011).

Volume and Range of Reading

Because the volume of experiences children have with reading texts in and out of the classroom has been shown to correlate with their general reading success, it is generally assumed that exposure to a volume and range of text, particularly in a motivating situation, builds comprehension, as many studies of voluntary summer reading programs have demonstrated (Taylor et al., 2000; Allington et al., 2010; Duke et al., 2011).

Integrated Instructional Practices

Instructional practices that support the overall development of reading comprehension need to integrate the essential threads described above. It is this integration—the way that high-quality instructional practices draw on more than one essential thread—that makes for strong comprehension instruction. The instructional practices that allow children to think through the same topic or a theme in different modes (reading, writing, and oral language) with a range of the essential threads are the ones that will foster the rich and nuanced understanding that is the ultimate goal of reading comprehension.

For example, in the sample unit below, we can see how a group of five high-quality instructional practices support comprehension by integrating all of the essential threads.

Tree Unit (Third Grade)

What children Do

Instructional Practice

Essential Threads

How to

Children listen to and discuss nonfiction and fiction texts about trees.

Interactive Read Aloud

Knowledge Development


Oral Language

Engagement and Motivation

Interactive Read Alouds: Responsiveness and Rich Discussions

Teacher and children discuss nonfiction and fiction texts about trees.

Whole Class Discussion

Knowledge Development


Oral Language

Engagement and Motivation

Whole Class Discussion:

Questioning The Author

Children read, reread, annotate, and discuss a short complex passage of informational text about trees, and a short related complex poem about tress.

Close Reading

Knowledge Development


Oral Language

Engagement and Motivation

Close Reading:

Scaffolds and Adaptations For The Primary and Elementary Grades

Children work in small groups to discuss the text sets about trees they have been reading.

Small-Group Collaborative Discussions

Knowledge Development


Oral Language

Engagement and Motivation

Small-Group Collaborative Discussions:

Literature Circles, Reciprocal Teaching, and Book Clubs

Children write their own texts about trees and forests, including stories, poems, informational texts, and narrative nonfiction, modeled on the texts that they have been reading in the unit.

Integrating Writing and Reading

Knowledge Development


Integration of Reading And Writing

Engagement andMotivation

Integrating Writing and Reading: Mentor Texts, Reading Response Journals, and Quick Writes

Children read related nonfiction and fiction about trees, which they discuss and write about in close reading lessons, collaborative discussions, and writing related to reading

Text Sets

Knowledge Development


Foundational Skills (fluency)

Volume and Range Of Reading

Engagement and Motivation

Text Sets:

Quad Text Set Framework

Comprehension Scaffolds

Comprehension scaffolds are the specific tools we use in individual lessons to scaffold and support children’s understanding of complex texts. In other words, comprehension scaffolds are something we use selectively when necessary to help readers understand complex texts in specific lessons, not something that we build our big goals for instruction or our unit plans around per se, as we would likely do with the more integrative instructional practices.

  • Comprehension scaffolds can be part of an integrated instructional practice (i.e., pointing out a cause and effect text structure during an Interactive Read Aloud of an informational text), but they are rarely the sole purpose or point of the integrated instructional practice in which they are featured because, ideally, integrated instructional practices are more broadly focused on “keeping the text at the center” and directly discussing the meaning of the text.

  • Comprehension scaffolds primarily assist with specific comprehension issues. They do not, by and large, support the overall development of reading comprehension. Integrated instructional practices are usually more useful for supporting the overall development of reading comprehension because they effectively combine the essential threads necessary for the growth of reading comprehension.

Common Comprehension Scaffolds



Comprehension Strategies:

  • Setting purposes for reading
  • Previewing and predicting
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Monitoring, clarifying, and fixing
  • Visualizing and creating visual representations
  • Self-questioning and thinking aloud
  • Summarizing and retelling*From Duke et al., 2011

Research has shown that comprehension strategies can support children’s comprehension of text in various content domains (Duke, 2011). However, over-emphasis on comprehension strategies can inhibit rather than promote comprehension, if children come to think the point of learning the strategies is to learn the strategies, not to understand the text itself. When teaching comprehension strategies, it is therefore important to not over-teach them and to keep the text and its meaning—not the processes of enacting the strategies—at the center of instruction. Some researchers have also suggested that “rigid, highly routinized strategy instruction may not be as effective as conventional discussions focused on knowledge acquisition” (McKeown et al., 2009; Wilkinson & Son, 2011; Duke et al., 2011).

Text Structures
• Elements of Structure in Narrative Text:

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Goal
  • Problem
  • Plot or action
  • Resolution
  • Theme

• Elements of Structure in Informational Text:

  • Description
  • Sequence
  • Problem and solution
  • Cause and effect
  • Compare and contrast

*From Duke et al., 2011

The ways that knowledge of text structures supports comprehension has been established by research (Duke, 2011). The goal of text structure instruction is to help children understand how particular genres and types of text are structured, so that they know what to expect and think about when reading those texts. For example, an introduction to narrative text structures might include orientation to one or all of the following aspects of narrative text structure: character, setting, goal, problem, plot or action, resolution, and theme. And an introduction to different kinds of informational text structure might include orientation to any of the following methods of organizing informational text: description, sequence, problem and solution, cause and effect, compare and contrast.


  • Understanding the gist or big idea
  • Understanding complex vocabulary
  • Understanding complex syntax and/or grammar
  • Repairing comprehension “break downs” and “solving” confusion

Rereading is often used as a method to help children figure out sections of text they do not understand, and can be a useful strategy for adjusting one’s comprehension of a text when it “breaks down.” Therefore, children working with complex text, particularly informational text, can be encouraged to reread sections where they became confused and see if slowing down, rethinking, annotating, and checking vocabulary in that section of the text as they reread helps them to better understand the section.


  • Slowing down to deepen understanding
  • Noticing and noting new learning, new vocabulary, questions, and literary elements
  • Leaving “thinking tracks”

Annotation can be used to deepen comprehension and get children to actively think about a text as they read it. Annotating can take many forms, including underlining or marking particular aspects of the text, or jotting notes in the margins. Annotating for specific aspects of texts named in the standards is currently common practice (“underline the main idea”), but this is by no means the only or even the most compelling way annotation can be used. It can, in other forms, be a fun and useful tool to get even the youngest readers reading more actively, as they star passages where they learned something new or put question marks next to passages they do not understand, and may return to reread.

Reading Guides
Common Tasks for Reading Guides:

  • Answering questions
  • Completing charts
  • Constructing diagrams
  • Drawing pictures
  • Writing responses


*From Stahl, 2020

Reading guides are guides containing questions to be answered and other tasks to be filled in as children read. With subheadings to help children keep their place while they read, reading guides are meant to encourage children to slow down and think more deeply about crucial sections of the text which are necessary for understanding the whole text. They are not intended to be quizzes and worksheets, test prep, or graded exercises. Rather, they should be “guides on the side” for thinking along with the text (Stahl, 2020). Each reading guide is unique, as it contains just the elements necessary for helping children think through a particular text.

Works Cited

Allington, R.L., et al. “Addressing Summer Reading Setback among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students.” Reading Psychology, Volume 31, Issue 5, 2010, pp. 411–427.

Britton, James. Language and Learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1970.

Cervetti, Gina N., and Elfrieda H. Hiebert. “The Sixth Pillar of Reading Instruction: Knowledge Development.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 68, Issue 7, 2015, pp. 548–551.

Cervetti, Gina N., and Elfrieda H. Hiebert. “Knowledge at the Center of English/Language Arts Instruction.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 72, Issue 4, 2018, pp. 499–507.

Duke, Nell K., and Joanne Carlisle. “The Development of Comprehension.” Handbook of Reading Research, Volume 4, edited by Michael L. Kamil et al., Routledge, 2011, pp. 199–228.

Duke, Nell K., et al. “Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension.” What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction, edited by S. Jay Samuels and Alan A. Farstrup, International Reading Association, 2011, pp. 51–93.

Ensley, Alice, and Sanjuana C. Rodriguez. “Annotation and Agency: Teaching Close Reading in the Primary Grades.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 73, Issue 2, 2019, pp. 223–229.

Gelzheiser, Lynn, et al. “Reading Thematically Related Texts to Develop Knowledge and Comprehension.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 68, Issue 1, 2014, pp. 53–63.

Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, et al. “Influences of Stimulating Tasks on Reading Motivation and Comprehension.” Journal of Educational Research, Volume 99, Issue 4, 2006, pp. 232–246.

Hadley, Elizabeth Burke, Katherine M. Newman, and Jinsil Mock. “Setting the Stage for TALK: Strategies for Encouraging Language‐Building Conversations.” The Reading Teacher, 2020.

Hedin, Laura R., and Greg Conderman. “Teaching Students to Comprehend Informational Text through Rereading.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 63, Issue 7, 2010), pp. 556–565.

Hiebert, Elfrieda H. “Core Vocabulary and the Challenge of Complex Text.” Quality Reading Instruction in the Age of Common Core Standards, International Reading Association, 2013, pp. 149–161.

Kintsch, W. Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Langer, J.A. “Beating the Odds: Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well.” American Educational Research Journal, Volume 38, Issue 4, 2001, pp. 837–880.

Lonigan, Christopher J., and Timothy Shanahan. “Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Executive Summary. A Scientific Synthesis of Early Literacy Development and Implications for Intervention.” National Institute for Literacy, 2009.

Lupo, Sarah M., et al. “Rethinking Text Sets to Support Knowledge Building and Interdisciplinary Learning.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 73, Issue 4, 2020, pp. 513–524.

McNamara, Timothy P., Miller, Diana L., Brandsford, John D. “Mental Models and Reading Comprehension.” Handbook of Reading Research, Volume II, edited by Rebecca Barr et al., Routledge, 2016, pp. 490–511.

McKeown, M.G., Beck, I.L., & Blake, R.G.K. “Rethinking Reading Comprehension Instruction: A Comparison of Instruction for Strategies and Content Approaches.” Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 44, Issue 3, 2009, pp. 218–253.

Mills, Kathy A. “Floating on a Sea of Talk: Reading Comprehension through Speaking and Listening.” The Reading Teacher, Volume 63, Issue 4, 2009, pp. 325–329.

National Reading Panel (US), et al. Report of the National Reading Panel: 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. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, 2000.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. “Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy.” Harvard Educational Review, Volume 78, Issue 1, 2008, pp. 40–59.

Shanahan, Timothy, et al. “Improving Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade: IES Practice Guide. NCEE 2010-4038.” What Works Clearinghouse (2010).

Snow, Catherine. Reading for Understanding toward a R&D Program in Reading Comprehension. Rand Corporation, 2002.

Taylor, B.M., Pearson, P.D., Clark, K., & Walpole, S. “Effective Schools and Accomplished Teachers: Lessons about Primary-Grade Reading Instruction in Low-Income Schools.” The Elementary School Journal, Volume 101, Issue 2, 2000, pp. 121–165.

Verhoeven, Ludo, Jan van Leeuwe, and Anne Vermeer. “Vocabulary Growth and Reading Development Across the Elementary School Years.” Scientific Studies of Reading, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2011, pp. 8–25.

Welsh, Kate Muir, et al. “Disciplinary Literacy in a Second‐Grade Classroom: A Science Inquiry Unit.” The Reading Teacher (Early View), 22 December 2019,

Wilkinson, I.A.G., & Son, E.H. (2011). “A Dialogical Turn in Research on Learning and Teaching to Comprehend.” Handbook of Reading Research, Volume 4, edited by Michael L. Kamil et al., Routledge, 2011, pp. 359–387.

Comments (7)

  1. Jorge Paredes 
    Jorge Paredes 

    This information was extremely helpful! I love that there is a clear break down of high-quality instructional practices, demonstrated with the third grade Tree Unit, as well as a list of comprehension scaffolds. So helpful!

  2. Children's Literacy Initiative (Staff) 
    Children's Literacy Initiative (Staff) 

    Autumn, your are right. We left out the Stahl citation in the bibliography. The Stahl citation should be: Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl et al, Assessment For Reading Instruction, Fourth Edition, Guilford Press, 2020. More specifically, the reference comes from the chapter on comprehension in that book, which discusses reading guides as a tool for supporting comprehension on page 212. The whole chapter on comprehension assessment and ways of addressing comprehension difficulties is very useful, as is the book in general. Thanks for catching the missing bibliography citation!

  3. Penny Silver 
    Penny Silver 

    This entire topic is the focus of my problem of practice….I learned so much that will guide/support the 'whys' with research for text sets, book clubs, repeated (close reading), etc. This is an invaluable resource to help me build capacityand understanding in creating readers who focus on constucting meaning rather than being word callers.