What Is Comprehension

By Cathy Puett Miller, TLA, Inc.
What Is Comprehension?
Any teacher can tell you that comprehension is one of the five key components of essential reading instruction as identified by the National Reading Panel (2000).   Many may even be able to identify strategies that good readers use to understand (comprehend) what they read.  But comprehension goes further:  Comprehension involves

  • ▪ constructing meaning from reading traditional text in print form (books, papers, magazines),
  • ▪ from listening to others read or
  • ▪ from viewing text in one of the many media available in our world today.

Comprehension is an essential part of successfully developing 21st century literacies.  It is a vital tool for reading in our modern age, a vehicle through which we:

  • ▪ gain meaning from the words someone else has constructed,
  • ▪ learn something new, to confirm something we think,
  • ▪ understand another’s viewpoint,
  • ▪ to relax and, yes,
  • ▪ even to escape from the everyday pressures of life.

There are many purposes to reading but each ties back to cognition, to thinking.  Without “thinking, wondering, and pondering,” as I call it, reading becomes simply word calling.  That type of “reading” has little or no benefit to the reader or those that might listen to him.
Reading words aloud, pronouncing them properly does not constitute this essence of reading.  Neither does reading at a certain pace or speed although all of these skills contribute.   A student can do all those things well and still not understand what the words mean.  What value is there in that?  Whether you teach reading in the classroom or work with your own children at home, be careful that you always define reading, not by the subskills involved, but by the understanding gained.

Regardless of whether we teach this idea to a three-year old or a thirty-three year old, the core is the same:  reading is an active, and mentally interactive, process.  The best readers have these essentials in common.  They:

  • ▪ begin reading with an understanding of the purpose for their exploration of the text,
  • ▪ bring to the table what they already know (their schema), and associate what they read to that basis,
  • ▪ predict before they read and then adjust as necessary their predictions as they move through the text,
  • ▪ question,
  • ▪ self-monitor (listen to themselves when they read) and stop to reread when they recognize that they are losing meaning,
  • ▪ have a broad oral toolbox of vocabulary (words they understand the meaning of when they hear them or when they use them in speech),
  • ▪ pause to ponder and consider (think deeply, in other words, analyze, interpret and evaluate, moving to the highest levels of Bloom’s classification of levels of intellectual behavior commonly referred to as Bloom’s taxonomy).

You notice that none of these require the person understanding to be a reader.  That’s important to remember when interacting with young children.  A foundation of cuddling and conversation can start as soon as you take the baby home.  By the time he or she is six months old, you will begin to see the child interact as you have with the meaning of the text.  Talking with a toddler about the rhyming and repetitive stories he loves will help that child connect reading to his own world and the big world he is learning about.  It also builds a tremendous foundation for comprehension when that child begins to read on his own.
As children begin school and learn to read on their own, these same ideas apply.   Teachers and parents alike do well to model extensively each of the above-mentioned strategies and discuss them with children.  However, don’t stop there: help them practice these same strategies in the context of reading real books, websites, comic books, research materials, emails, and blogs.


When a lack of understanding is evident, an extensive evaluation of text, exploring vocabulary, building background knowledge for the student and engaging them in discussions to help define the gaps in understanding are key.  This, over time, and with many opportunities for repeated experiences, is the surest way to help young people learn how to make meaning from text.
In our modern, text-dense world, the ability to understand, to synthesize, to take meaning from text, and apply it to real life situations is critical.  This depth of reading ability is not only important in the classroom for academic success but for coping in day-to-day existence.  Reading comprehension is a tool for life.

Mrs. Miller, known as the Literacy Ambassador®, is a national educational consultant.  She writes regular monthly columns for teachers at www.Educationworld.com and provides expert training for teachers, families, librarians, and nonprofit/social service agencies interested in promoting reading, writing, listening, and communicating.  Visit her at www.readingisforeveryone.org.