How to Assess and Teach Reading Comprehension

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The ability to read is one of the most powerful tools teachers and parents can give students. Literacy is strongly correlated with future economic and professional success.

Illiteracy, on the other hand, exacts a steep price. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that 43 percent of adults with the lowest reading levels live in poverty, and according to the National Institute for Literacy, 70 percent of people on welfare have extremely low literacy. Furthermore, 72 percent of children of parents with low literacy will themselves have low literacy, and are more likely to perform poorly in school and drop out. 

Early and elementary education offers a key opportunity to break this cycle of economic hardship. And while the mechanics of reading and writing are essential building blocks, reading comprehension allows students to move beyond decoding and into understanding and enjoyment.

Understanding Reading Comprehension

The easiest way to explain reading comprehension is to put a reader in the position of someone who is "deciphering" letters and words rather than comprehending (attaching meaning to) them.

Try reading this:

Fæder ure
ðu ðe eart on heofenum
si ðin nama gehalgod
to-becume ðin rice
geweorþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofenum.
Urne ge dæghwamlican hlaf syle us to-deag
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgifaþ urum gyltendum
ane ne gelæde ðu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfle.

Using your knowledge base of phonetic sounds, you might be able to “read” the text, but you would not understand what you’d just read. You most certainly would not recognize it as The Lord’s Prayer.

What about the following sentence?

Fox grape grey shoe on land title base.

You may know each word and its meaning, but that doesn't give the sentence meaning.

Reading comprehension involves three distinct components: processing text (sounding out the syllables to decode the words), understanding what was read, and making connections between the text and what you already know.

Vocabulary Knowledge vs. Text Comprehension

Vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension are two vital elements of reading comprehension. Vocabulary knowledge refers to understanding individual words. If a reader doesn’t understand the words he is reading, he won’t understand the text as a whole.

Because vocabulary knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, children should be exposed to a rich vocabulary and should always be learning new words. Parents and teachers can help by defining potentially unfamiliar words that students will encounter in texts and teaching students to use contextual clues to understand the meaning of new words.

Text comprehension builds on vocabulary knowledge by allowing the reader to combine the meanings of the individual words to understand the overall text. If you’ve ever read a complicated legal document, a challenging book, or the previous example of a nonsensical sentence, you can understand the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension. Understanding the meaning of most of the words does not necessarily translate into understanding the text as a whole.

Text comprehension relies on the reader making connections with what he's reading.

Reading Comprehension Example

Most standardized tests include sections that assess reading comprehension. These assessments focus on identifying the main idea of a passage, understanding vocabulary in context, making inferences, and identifying the author’s purpose.

A student might read a passage such as the following about dolphins.

Dolphins are aquatic mammals (not fish) well-known for their intellect, gregarious nature, and acrobatic abilities. Like other mammals, they are warm-blooded, give birth to live young, feed their babies milk, and breathe air through their lungs. Dolphins have a streamlined body, a pronounced beak, and a blowhole. They swim by moving their tail up and down to propel themselves forward.
A female dolphin is called a cow, a male is a bull, and the babies are calves. Dolphins are carnivores that eat marine life such as fish and squid. They have great eyesight and use this along with echolocation to move about in the ocean and locate and identify objects around them.
Dolphins communicate with clicks and whistles. They develop their own personal whistle, which is distinct from other dolphins'. Mother dolphins whistle to their babies frequently after birth so that the calves learn to recognize their mother's whistle.

After reading the passage, students are asked to answer questions based on what they read to demonstrate their understanding of the passage. Young students might be expected to understand from the text that dolphins are mammals that live in the ocean. They eat fish and communicate with clicks and whistles.

Older students might be asked to apply information gleaned from the passage to facts they already know. They could be asked to infer the meaning of the term carnivore from the text, identify what dolphins and cattle have in common (being identified as a cow, bull, or calf) or how a dolphin’s whistle is similar to a human fingerprint (each is distinct to the individual).

Methods of Assessing Reading Comprehension

There are several ways to evaluate a student’s reading comprehension skills. One method is to use a formal assessment, like the example above, with reading passages followed by questions about the passage.

Another method is to use informal assessments. Ask students to tell you about what they read or retell the story or event in their own words. Put students in discussion groups and listen to what they have to say about the book, watching for areas of confusion and students who are not participating.

Ask students for a written response to the text, such as journaling, identifying their favorite scene, or listing the top 3 to 5 facts they learned from the text.

Signs That a Student Is Not Able to Comprehend What He's Reading

One indicator that a student is struggling with reading comprehension is difficulty reading aloud. If a student struggles to recognize or sound out words when he’s reading orally, he’s likely encountering the same struggles when reading silently.

Weak vocabulary is another indicator of poor reading comprehension. This is because students who struggle with text comprehension may have difficulting learning and incorporating new vocabulary.

Finally, poor spelling and weak writing skills may be a signal that a student isn’t able to comprehend what he’s reading. Difficulty spelling may indicate problems remembering letter sounds, which means that the student is likely also having trouble processing text.

How to Teach Effective Reading Comprehension

It might seem as though reading comprehension skills develop naturally, but that’s because students gradually begin to internalize the techniques. Effective reading comprehension skills must be taught, but it’s not difficult to do.

There are simple strategies to improve reading comprehension that parents and teachers can employ. The most important step is to ask questions before, during, and after reading. Ask students what they think the story is going to be about based on the title or cover. As you’re reading, ask students to summarize what they’ve read so far or predict what they think will happen next. After reading, ask students to summarize the story, identify the main idea, or highlight the most important facts or events.

Next, help children make connections between what they’ve read and their experiences. Ask them what they would have done if they had been in the main character’s situation or if they’ve had a similar experience.

Consider reading challenging texts aloud. Ideally, students will have their own copy of the book so that they can follow along. Reading aloud models good reading techniques and allows students to hear new vocabulary in context without disrupting the flow of the story.

How Students Can Improve Reading Comprehension Skills

There are also steps that students can take to improve their reading comprehension skills. The first, most basic step is to improve overall reading skills. Help students select books about topics that interest them and encourage them to read at least 20 minutes each day. It’s okay if they want to start with books below their reading level. Doing so can help students focus on what they’re reading, rather than on decoding more challenging text, and improve their confidence.

Next, encourage students to stop every so often and summarize what they’ve read, either mentally or aloud with a reading buddy. They may want to make notes or use a graphic organizer to record their thoughts.

Remind students to get an overview of what they’ll be reading by first reading chapter titles and subheadings. Conversely, students can also benefit from skimming over the material after they’ve read it.

Students should also take steps to improve their vocabulary. One way to do so without disrupting the flow of reading is to jot down unfamiliar words and look them up after they’ve finished their reading time.

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Your Citation
Bales, Kris. "How to Assess and Teach Reading Comprehension." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bales, Kris. (2020, August 27). How to Assess and Teach Reading Comprehension. Retrieved from Bales, Kris. "How to Assess and Teach Reading Comprehension." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).