Can comprehension be taught?

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

When students read a piece of text, silently, on their own, teachers hope that their pupils understand the content. To assess their comprehension, teachers usually ask students to answer a variety of questions, which include multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, short and extended answers. Students in a classroom usually exhibit a range of comprehension levels. While a few may demonstrate deeper understanding by being able to apply or analyze what they have read, others show more superficial comprehension. A small subset may even fail to grasp the main messages of the passage. So, what can teachers do when they have to teach a class of students with vastly different comprehension skills? More fundamentally, can comprehension be taught, and if so, how?

Two highly experienced educators and reading researchers, Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, have authored an exceptional book, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding, which can be used by teachers of all subjects and grades to promote comprehension. Essentially, what Harvey and Goudvis do is to reveal what the “thinking readers do when they read.” Good, in contrast to poor readers, process information actively by deploying a variety of strategies. Most proficient readers use these strategies almost automatically as thinking and reading are highly interlinked for them. Students with weak comprehension skills don’t necessarily engage with the text actively, often because they don’t know how to.

And this is where Harvey and Goudvis’ book comes handy. By making explicit the strategies good readers rely on while processing text, they hope to help all students “understand text and become more thoughtful readers.” They would like all students to appreciate how active reading and thinking are inextricably connected.

Essentially, the authors describe and model seven reading strategies that skilled readers use when they peruse an article, chapter or book. Ideally, we would like all children to become strategic and reflective readers who actively mull over what they are reading, make attempts to repair their understanding when it breaks down and who are able to regulate their use of comprehension strategies to meet their “goals or purposes for reading”.

The first strategy involves making connections of three types. Text-to-self connections happen when readers connect what they are reading to their own lives and experiences, either past or present, or even future aspirations. Next, text-to-text linkages are forged when readers relate what they are currently reading to something they have already read; either a passage they encountered earlier in the same text or in a completely different one, including songs, poems, scripts, newspaper reports, etc. The third type, text-to-world associations involve finding a nexus between themes in the text and the larger world, focusing on social and global “issues, events, or concerns”.

The next strategy entails asking questions. In fact, Harvey and Goudvis aver that questioning provides forward momentum. As curious minds look to the text for answers, they are more likely to persist in their reading efforts. Questions may serve a variety of purposes from helping readers build meaning, deepen understanding, provide specific information and kindle further research. With greater exposure to a variety of books and genres, readers gradually begin to appreciate that some questions get answered in the text, while others require further exploration.

For experienced readers, the act of reading can also be multisensorial, especially if a text is filled with imagery. Visualizing is a strategy that allows readers “to make the words on a page real and concrete.” When readers create mental images of the text, it not only enhances their understanding but also stirs their imagination, increases their levels of engagement and injects joy into the experience of reading. Visualizing is not limited to the sense of seeing but also encompasses sounds, smells, tastes and textures.

Inferring is a skill that we use to decipher all types of communication, both verbal and nonverbal. If we see a person crying softly in a corner, we may infer that he is sad. According to Harvey and Goudvis, we make inferences when we ‘read’ faces, gestures, tones and expressions. Likewise, when processing text, good readers “read between the lines” to glean what the author intended as opposed to what the writer stated explicitly. For example, if a writer describes a character in a fiction story, walking out of an argument and banging the door, we may infer that the character is angry.

Another aspect of active reading is distilling important ideas from less significant ones. For fiction, that usually involves discerning the main themes of a story, whereas for nonfiction it entails differentiating between key ideas and supporting details. Rather than mindlessly highlighting portions of a text, as many students are wont to do, proficient readers exercise judgment in deciding what to emphasize. Students may also differentiate between ideas they already know or have learned versus new information that enhances their background knowledge of a topic.

One of the main purposes of reading is synthesizing information, which involves “merging new information with existing knowledge” to form a novel idea, gain fresh perspectives or new insight into a topic. While reading, students may be encouraged to pause every now and then to ponder over what they have read. When asked to summarize the contents, good readers are able to filter out the main points and state them succinctly, without digressing or dwelling on irrelevant details. Synthesizing, argue Harvey and Goudvis, spans a range of abilities from simply “taking stock of meaning” to “achieving new insight”.

How can teachers impart these seven strategies? Initially, the teacher may introduce one strategy at a time by first explaining what it entails, then modelling it while reading a piece of text aloud and finally asking students to practice it when reading independently. As readers get more adept at each strategy, they may rely on the entire arsenal of seven strategies to make meaning as they read.

By articulating what readers think while reading, teachers showcase active reading. Teaching comprehension doesn’t necessarily require separate or specialized textbooks. Teachers may incorporate these strategies while helping students decipher their own textbooks.

More than any specific content, imparting these skills of comprehension will help students grow into lifelong learners. Ultimately, we would like all students to think like readers and read like thinkers.

The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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