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Key Literacy Component: Text Comprehension

National Institute for Literacy
Text comprehension allows readers to extract or construct meaning from the written word. Students who misread words or misinterpret their meanings are at a disadvantage. Proper instruction can boost students’ skills in this key area.

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Comprehension is the process of extracting or constructing meaning (building new meanings and integrating new with old information) from words once they have been identified [1]. Many struggling adolescent readers do not have difficulty reading words accurately; they have difficulty making sense of the information and ideas conveyed by the text [2, 3]. Comprehension varies depending on the text being read. Even proficient readers may have difficulty comprehending particular texts from time to time. Difficulties with comprehension may result from a reader’s unfamiliarity with the content, style, or syntactic structures of the text [1, 4]. Even as adults, many people struggle when reading Shakespeare or the manual for installing a new computer program.

What do good readers do?

Good adolescent readers are purposeful, strategic, and critical readers who understand the content presented in various types of texts.

Good readers set a purpose for reading

Successful readers establish different purposes for reading different kinds of text. They read computer manuals to figure out how to use a new computer or software program. They read the newspaper to find out what is happening in the community. They read mystery novels for enjoyment. Good readers know that there are many purposes for reading, and they vary the ways in which they read depending on their purposes and the texts [1, 4].

Good readers are strategic readers

Successful readers are mentally active readers. They make sense of what they read by drawing on knowledge and experiences that are relevant to the information and ideas in the text. Good readers use knowledge of vocabulary, language structures, and genre to understand the text. They have a repertoire of reading strategies that is used before, during, and after reading to build meaning from the text [7, 1]. For example, before beginning a new mystery novel, good readers may consider the author; the book’s tone, organization, literary elements; and other books written by the author.

While reading a mystery novel, for example, successful readers constantly try to predict what will happen next. They also make text-to-text connections; that is, they use information from previous mysteries that they have read to help understand the new mystery. Good readers monitor their comprehension while reading by periodically checking their level of understanding of the text. If problems occur with comprehension while reading, good readers possess knowledge of useful “fix-up” strategies and implement them to gain a better understanding of what is being read [7, 1].

Successful adolescent readers use post-reading strategies, such as summarizing, to help remember what they have read and to clarify misunderstandings. When good readers read a chapter in a history text, they know that, at the end of each section, it is helpful to stop and summarize what has been learned so as to better understand and retain new information. Good readers also know and are able to apply a variety of reading strategies to help them comprehend what they read [5, 1].

Good readers are critical readers

Comprehension is necessary but not sufficient for developing adolescents’ critical awareness of all texts [4]. Critical readers analyze how writers, illustrators, and others involved represent people and their ideas. To be fully literate, adolescents must develop a critical awareness of how all texts position them as readers and must consider such factors as how authors’ backgrounds and cultures influence their writing [4, 6, 7]. Good readers apply critical thinking skills to texts found in printed and electronic media to consider how authors manipulate electronic and print information in different ways and for varying purposes [4].

What challenges do adolescent readers face with text comprehension?

Adolescents struggle with text comprehension for different reasons. Some adolescents simply lack sufficient fluency to achieve comprehension. Some fluent students lack comprehension strategies, such as generating questions, summarizing, and clarifying misunderstandings. Others have learned strategies only in the context of reading narrative texts, such as stories. Some students learn on their own how to transfer strategies used in one domain, such as literature, to other domains, such as history and science. Other students do not learn how to transfer these strategies on their own and are never taught how to apply them to the expository text found in science, history, math, and other content areas. Still other students have limited background knowledge in these domains [8, 9].

The structure of middle and high school texts also presents challenges for struggling readers. Expository text is the most prevalent text structure in most middle and high school texts. In contrast with narrative text, students have had less exposure to expository text and, more important, have not been taught comprehension strategies within the context of expository text [10]. Common categories of expository text are cause/effect, problem/solution, comparison/contrast, chronological order or sequence, concept idea with examples, and proposition with support. Students encounter expository text across their content-area courses. Expository text is found in newspaper and magazine articles, science and social studies texts, research articles, and primary source documents.

The prevalence of expository text categories varies by discipline. For example, chronological order and cause/effect are common in history texts. Geography texts make frequent use of description and comparison/contrast. Social studies texts use analysis and evaluation of perspectives, arguments, and interpretations using proposition- support structures [10]. If students are not familiar with the various types of texts used in middle and high school, they may encounter challenges in comprehending what they read.

How can instruction help adolescent students with text comprehension?

Although many struggling adolescent readers need more specific and intense instruction in reading from reading specialists, all teachers can assume responsibility for helping students comprehend texts that are used in their classrooms. The goal of text comprehension instruction is to help students become active, purposeful, and independent readers of science, history, literary, and mathematics texts. Key findings from research show that learning how to use comprehension strategies can improve adolescent readers’ text comprehension [11, 12, 8, 3]. The following sections describe the comprehension strategies teachers can incorporate into their content-area instruction and suggestions for teaching these strategies so that students can use them independently.

Integrate text comprehension strategies into instruction

Some comprehension strategies are general and can be used across different kinds of text. The following strategies can be adapted for use with most types of text [13].

Generate questions

Good readers ask questions before, during, and after reading. Generating questions is a way to process text and monitor comprehension. Asking questions during reading helps students monitor their understanding of what they have read and integrate different parts of the text to understand main ideas and important concepts. Teachers can integrate instruction in generating questions into their lessons using the following steps:

  1. Read aloud passages from subject-matter text;
  2. As you read, stop now and then to model the kinds of questions successful readers ask themselves as they read. For example, “Why does the author tell me this?” “Did I understand this correctly?” “What seems to be the most important point or idea?”;
  3. Repeat this modeling several times with different texts; and
  4. Guide students in generating their own questions with content-area texts [11, 12, 14].

Answer questions

Teacher questioning is an effective way to help students think about what they have read so that they can more fully comprehend the text. Teachers can use question-answering instruction to help students improve how they answer questions, which will, in turn, help them better understand what they read. In question-answering instruction, teachers must create opportunities for question answering and must also help students to determine the kind of response called for by the question. The teacher must then model how to construct various responses. Using content-area texts, teachers can model how to construct answers from:

  • Explicit information in the text, that is, the answer is evident in the text and can often can be copied or repeated (sometimes referred to as a “right there” response);
  • Implicit information found in several different places in the text; that is, the answer is in the text, but the reader has to pull it together from different parts of the text (sometimes referred to as a “pulling it together” response);
  • Implicit information found in the text and the reader’s own prior knowledge and experiences, that is, the answer must be generated from a synthesis of information from the text and the reader’s prior knowledge and experiences (sometimes referred to as a “text
  • and me” response); and
  • Students’ prior knowledge and experiences alone; that is, the student does not have to read the text to answer the question, but reading the text will inform the answer (sometimes referred to as an “on my own” response) [11, 12, 14].

Below is a sample text with corresponding questions that elicit the four types of responses described above.

Margie went into the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on, waiting for her. It was always on at the same time everyday except Saturday and Sunday because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.

The screen was lit up, and it said, “Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.”

Margie put her homework in the slot with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came laughing and shouting into the schoolyard, sitting together in the same schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it. And the teachers were people… The mechanical teacher flashed on the screen: “When we add the fractions 1/2 and 1/4…” Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

Excerpted from The Fun They Had by Isaac Asimov [15]

  1. Who was the author of this story? (“Right there” question)
  2. What does Margie like about the “old schools”? (“Pulling it together” question)
  3. When does this story take place? (“Text and me” question)
  4. Should we have “mechanical” teachers? (“On my own” question)

Monitor comprehension

Expert readers monitor their comprehension as they read by continuously identifying when they do and when they do not comprehend the information, ideas, and other messages contained in the text. When comprehension breaks down, expert readers are able to use comprehension monitoring or other problem solving strategies to help them comprehend. Many struggling readers do not use monitoring strategies or use them inappropriately [11, 12, 14].

Because comprehension monitoring is a mental process that cannot be observed, teachers must find ways to replicate or model this process for struggling readers. Teachers can make apparent to students the monitoring strategies they themselves use when reading by verbalizing these strategies as they read a text passage. To model the use of monitoring strategies, use the following steps:

  1. Read aloud selected text passages.
  2. Stop at various points to “think aloud” about what may or may not be understood. Questioning, prediction, and summarizing are used as monitoring strategies.
  3. Provide examples of other problem-solving strategies and how they are used in response to comprehension difficulties. Examples of problem-solving strategies include re-reading the text, asking oneself questions about the text, and reading before or after the portion of text where comprehension difficulties occurred [11, 12, 14].

The teacher reads aloud the title of a newspaper article. “ ‘Do or Die Time for the Kiwi.’ I’m confused. I thought kiwi was a kind of fruit. How can a kiwi fruit have ‘do or die time’? Maybe farmers are having problems growing kiwi fruit…? I need to read more to find out if I’m right.” The teacher reads aloud the next sentence from the article. “ ‘Although they’re 0-4, the Kiwi Curlers may still have winnable games against Germany and Italy.’ Oh I get it, curling must be some kind of sport because it talks about “winnable games” and a score of 0-4. I don’t really know anything about curling, but I do know that this article is about sports and Kiwi is the name of one of the teams. The article must have something to do with the Olympics because I know the Olympics are going on now and it says that the Kiwi team is playing against other countries — Germany and Italy.”

Summarize text

Summarizing helps students focus on the important content of a text, determine what is important and what is not important, condense the important content, and restate this content in their own words. Summarizing helps students comprehend and remember what they read. There are four components of the summarizing strategy:

  1. Identify and/or formulate main ideas,
  2. Connect the main ideas,
  3. Identify and delete redundancies, and
  4. Restate the main ideas and connections using different words and phrasings.

Use text structure

As adolescents build their knowledge of science, social studies, mathematics, and literature, learning to use knowledge of the structure of the particular text helps them comprehend the more complex texts that they encounter in these disciplines [16, 17]. Selecting strategies that are useful for comprehending text structures involves examining the content, language, and structure of text with which students may have difficulty and then identifying specific strategies that will help students use these patterns and structures to aid in comprehension [16, 17].

Teaching students to use graphic and semantic organizers that differ based on the category of expository text the organizer represents is one way to help students understand and use text structure to comprehend complex texts. A graphic organizer that lends itself to chronological order differs from an organizer that is useful for cause and effect. Teachers can model the use of graphic organizers to show the different categories of expository text and then encourage students to use the various organizers to record and organize important information and concepts from the texts they are reading [2, 10].

In addition, teachers can identify words that function as signal or transition words for a particular text structure. For example, common signal and transition words for cause/effect structures include because, since, consequently. Teachers can emphasize and teach the functions of these words by:

  • Placing text passages on the overhead projector,
  • Reading the passages aloud,
  • Underlining key signal or transition words, and
  • Explaining how these words provide clues for using text structure to aid comprehension.

For example, explain that when students encounter the word consequently, it serves as a signal for the direction that the text will take next, in this case that a result of some action or event is about to be described or discussed. Teachers can model and emphasize the use of signal or transition words orally as they discuss content and ask questions that require students to use these words in their responses [16, 17].

Use graphic and semantic organizers

Teach students how to use graphic and semantic organizers to help them organize ideas and concepts during and after reading. Graphic organizers are diagrams or other visuals that help students identify and see the relationships among concepts, ideas, and facts in a text [2]. These organizers can be used with either narrative or expository text and in fact can be used to illustrate or represent the text structure itself. A semantic organizer, sometimes called a semantic map or web, is a type of graphic organizer that uses lines to connect a central concept or main idea with related or supporting facts or ideas [11, 5, 12, 14, 18].

Teaching students to use graphic and semantic organizers that differ depending on the category of expository text is one way to help students understand and use text structure to comprehend complex texts. A graphic organizer that lends itself to chronological order differs from an organizer that is useful for cause and effect. Teachers can model the use of graphic organizers to show the different categories of expository text and then encourage students to use the various organizers to record and organize important information and concepts from their texts [2, 10].

Develop critical analysis and reasoning skills

To be fully literate students must be able to analyze critically the ideas and information they obtain from texts [7]. The use of graphic organizers can contribute to the development of critical analysis and reasoning skills [7].

“Inquiry” or “I” charts are a type of graphic organizer that students can use to compile, compare, and analyze information on a historical event or topic from several text sources. Procedures to guide the use of these charts are listed below:

  1. Plan a topic and set of questions that can be answered in multiple texts. For example, a set of questions could be developed around the effect of the westward expansion of European Americans on the Native Americans of the Great Plains.
  2. Identify several resources that address this issue from different perspectives.
  3. Construct a chart or graphic organizer that has one column for each question, a row for students’ prior knowledge relevant to the questions, additional rows equal to the number of sources used, and a final row for pulling together key ideas from prior knowledge and the various sources.
  4. Probe students to use their prior knowledge to answer the questions before reading the various text sources. Summaries of students’ responses based on their prior knowledge are recorded in the first row.
  5. Help students during reading to attend to sections of each text that respond to the questions, to summarize this information, and to record it in the chart.
  6. Help students to examine the summaries of each text across the various rows to determine similarities and differences in how the texts address each of the central questions.
  7. Help students pull together the ideas from the different sources (i.e., their prior knowledge and the information found in the various texts) and resolve competing ideas from the separate sources.

Strategies such as the use of “I” charts help students understand how to integrate information by attending to the connections, biases, and contexts across different texts [7].

Use direct, explicit, and systematic instruction to teach students to use text comprehension strategies

Scientific research supports teaching students comprehension strategies using direct, explicit, and systematic instruction. Comprehension strategy instruction is organized into three phases:

  1. explicit training and teacher modeling,
  2. guided practice, and
  3. independent practice [11, 5, 12, 14, 18].

Phase 1: Explicit training and teacher modeling

Effective strategy instruction begins with teacher talk, which can take the form of a discussion or a lecture. Whether discussion or lecture is used, instruction typically involves teaching six components:

  1. The name of the strategy,
  2. How to use the strategy,
  3. Explicit modeling of the strategy,
  4. Examples of when to use the strategy,
  5. Possible adjustments to the strategy for different tasks, and
  6. The usefulness of the strategy [12, 18].

Explicit modeling should be performed only after giving a thorough explanation of the strategy. The purpose of teacher modeling is to demonstrate the mental processes used by expert readers. Teachers can do this by pausing and “thinking aloud” as they read. Students observe as teachers verbalize their decision-making about which strategies to use and how they use them [12, 18].

Phase 2: Guided practice

During this phase, students practice the strategies that they learn with support from the teacher and other students. As the guided practice phase proceeds, the teacher assumes a less active role in student strategy use. Teachers can support strategy use during this phase by:

  • Breaking the strategy into simplified steps,
  • Giving cue cards or checklists for strategy steps,
  • Reverting to explicit instruction and modeling as necessary, and
  • Allowing students to work in small groups to practice a strategy together.

Supporting students in collaborative work to learn new strategies is a critical part of guided practice [12].

Phase 3: Independent practice and debriefing

Teachers can incorporate independent practice into instruction by providing opportunities for students to use strategies on their own. These opportunities may include reading assignments as homework or in-class individual reading. Debriefing after independent practice is important. During debriefing, teachers ask about the strategies students used while doing their independent reading assignments, how they used those strategies, and how well the strategies worked for them [12].

Teach students to use multiple strategies

Good readers use strategies in clusters. For example, during reading, good readers question and clarify misunderstandings; and after reading, they summarize and predict what will happen in the next part of the text. Students need to learn and practice individual strategies, but they also need to learn how to use clusters of strategies to aid comprehension [11, 12, 14]. As with individual strategy instruction, use direct, explicit, systematic instruction to teach clusters of strategies that work together. Instructional strategy packets such as Reciprocal Teaching encourage students to move toward higher levels of thinking and comprehension by utilizing clusters of strategies [19-22].

What do we still need to know?

To increase understanding of how best to develop adolescent readers’ text comprehension, research should focus on investigating the effectiveness of interventions for improving comprehension of specific kinds of text (e.g., expository text using cause and effect structures). For example, although there is evidence of the importance of having sufficient prior knowledge of the domain or topic of an academic text, it is not yet clear how best to instruct students to access this prior knowledge. Research on whether certain interventions are more or less effective with specific populations of adolescent students (e.g., English language learners with limited native language literacy) is also needed. Finally, explorations of the kinds of supplemental materials useful in enhancing content-area instruction in text comprehension would provide teachers with guidance in selecting such materials [2, 8].

National Institute for Literacy. (2007). Adapted from What Content-Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy. Retrieved from