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Reading Comprehension

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

The ultimate goal in reading is, of course, to make meaning from text. That is, to comprehend the information that is conveyed in the text. What that means is that, at the least, the reader should gain some understanding of the message that  is being conveyed by the author. Moreover, however, comprehension should go beyond simply understanding the explicit message that is being conveyed by the author. To truly comprehend text is to make connections between the information in the text and the information in the reader's head, to draw inferences about the author's meaning, to evaluate the quality of the message, and possibly even to connect aspects of the text with other works of literature. 

Reading comprehension has always been the goal of reading instruction, but it is not a concept well understood or easily assessed.

The Simple View of Reading that has been described under "S is for Simple View," states that reading comprehension is the product of Language Comprehension skills and Decoding skills, and that view is accurate as far as it goes. All that means is that Language Comprehension also depends upon a person's ability to draw inferences, make evaluations, and make connections. And research has shown that as children develop these skills in reading comprehension, the skills generalize to language comprehension, and vice versa.

It is important to understand that Reading Comprehension (and Language Comprehension) has multiple facets or constructs. It is possible for a reader to understand all of the words in a passage of text, but still to fail to comprehend the text as a whole. Similarly, it is possible for a reader to understand the explicit information contained in a passage of text, but to fail to grasp the implicit message contained "between the lines." Similarly, it is possible for a reader to appreciate the implicit message contained in the text, but to fail to elaborate on that message, failing to connect it to other text or background knowledge.

Consequently, there are important implications for the assessment of Reading Comprehension. Most of the Reading Comprehension assessments I am familiar with follow the same format: There is a passage of text (usually narrative for younger children and expository for older children), and there are comprehension questions that follow the text (almost always focusing on information explicitly contained in the text, and rarely focusing on deeper inferential or evaluative comprehension). 

There have been other formats for Reading Comprehension assessment that have been tried, the most common being the "cloze" format assessment wherein selected words are deleted from passages of text, and the reader has to fill in the missing words.  Cloze assessments almost always load heavily on explicit comprehension, and often load heavily on vocabulary knowledge.

There are several troubling consequences for our current approaches to Reading Comprehension assessment.  First, most Reading Comprehension assessments focus only on one genre of text -- typically narrative, sometimes expository, almost never poetry or argumentative essay.  Comprehension in one genre does not guarantee comprehension in other genres.  Different text serves different purposes, and to comprehend the text, the purpose needs to be considered.

Second, Reading Comprehension assessments almost always contain short passages of text.  It is one thing to comprehend a 500 word passage of text, and it is something entirely different to comprehend substantial, authentic text.

Third, Reading Comprehension assessments are usually superficial.  Comprehension instruction depends upon teachers using deep questioning techniques, but Bloom's taxonomy has not found its way into comprehension assessment.

Finally, Reading Comprehension assessments typically describe the child's "reading level," and that is a very misleading description.  Reading Comprehension is multi-faceted and complicated, and suggesting that different children are simply reading at different "levels" ignores this complexity.  Different children read at different "levels" for very different reasons, and sometimes two different children can be reading at the same "level" for very different reasons. Reading Comprehension assessments should be more diagnostic than they currently are, and children should be challenged to attack different genres of text and critically examine the text in a variety of ways, gathering explicit information, drawing inferences, and making evaluations.

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Last Updated 8-7-03