The 4 Sub-Skills of Comprehension

Reading comprehension has four sub-skills, three that lead to comprehension and one that occurs throughout the reading process. They are as follows.

Understanding: knowing the content

Making Sense: considering the content and message

Applying: deciding what to do with, and using, the information

Self-Monitoring: reflecting on whether or not you understand what you are reading

When we say that a student comprehends a text, we mean that the student can do the first three sub-skills. These sub-skills are not separate, and all three are required for comprehension.

Not only are these three skills necessary for comprehension but also they are used in order. First, a student needs to know and understand the content. The student needs to understand what the words mean and what information they communicate. Second, a student needs to reflect on and interpret the content. But there is one more step: applying. Once the student understands the content and has analyzed it, the final step is to determine what to do with the information.

The fourth sub-skill, self-monitoring, is what strong readers do while they are using the first three sub-skills. It is how students know they are doing the first three.

Explaining The Comprehension Sub-skills

Understanding: In the context of reading comprehension, “understanding” means knowing what information the text is communicating. The first stage of understanding is knowing what the words mean. The second stage is putting those words together to understand the information. Understanding is about the facts being presented, the information about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Understanding, alone, is not comprehension. Instead, understanding is the first necessary step towards comprehension.

Making sense: With the sub-skill of making sense, students think critically about the information. This includes summarizing, identifying main ideas and themes, comparing the new information to other information, and evaluating the information. This is the sub-skill where the concept of schema is so important. Making sense of the information requires the student to interpret the text. In fact, based on the discussion above, a student cannot help but to interpret the information.

When I discuss Bloom’s Taxonomy and Depth of Knowledge a bit later, you will see that making sense is most of what students do once they understand the content. Making sense is the “heavy lifting” in comprehension because it requires the most mental work. In the meantime, here is a partial list of the types of activities students engage in when they are making sense:

categorizing, comparing and contrasting, concluding, critiquing, discriminating, evaluating, generalizing, interpreting, modifying, organizing, predicting, proving, recommending, supporting, synthesizing, testing, verifying

Also, in the section below on discussion, which is the most effective strategy for comprehension instruction, you will see that discussion provides the training, opportunity, and support for making sense.

Applying: After figuring out what information is in the text (understanding) and interpreting the text (making sense), the student has to determine what to do with the information. This stage can seem tricky because it contains so many possibilities. Depending on the age and reading level of the student, the student may apply his or her understanding in the following ways:

  • Decide to learn more about a topic, read more within the genre, or select other texts from an author;
  • Participate in a discussion;
  • Present the results of the analysis (through a speech, essay, picture, graphic etc.) and try to convince other people that the student’s interpretation is correct;
  • Follow the steps, advice, or perspective presented by the author;
  • Create new ideas or change current ideas based on the information;
  • Write something that demonstrates support, disagrees, or presents alternatives; or
  • Conduct a demonstration.

This is a very small sample set of possible applications, but it demonstrates that students have many types of options for applying what they read.

Application has one more purpose: assessment. When students can apply the information in a text, they demonstrate that they understand the content and have reflected, analyzed, and interpreted it. When students apply the information, you can assess their comprehension.

You can assess their understanding of the content, which is the first sub-skill, but you can only assess their comprehension when they use the sub-skill of application.

Self-monitoring: Self-monitoring is the most important sub-skill. As you read, or as a student reads, self-monitoring helps you decide whether or not you understand what you are reading. Strong readers do this continuously. Even while they are reading, they are assessing their level of understanding. They are always thinking about and questioning their understanding, always asking themselves, “Do I understand this?”

If they answer “yes,” they continue reading. If they answer “no,” they determine why they do not understand and seek to improve their understanding. Perhaps they do not understand the words, in which case they use various vocabulary skills to learn what the words mean. Perhaps they have missed some important information, in which case they re-read prior sections of the text. Perhaps they do not understand the concepts, in which case they may do a little research or review what they know and how it relates to the new information.

Good readers stop reading when they do not understand, and they do something to correct their lack of understanding. Because they are monitoring their understanding, strong readers are more likely to comprehend the text.

Weak readers, on the other hand, just keep reading. When they finish reading, they are left wondering what it was about.

Self-monitoring is a learned behavior. Although some students learn to do this naturally, many students need encouragement and activities that require them to stop reading and to gauge their understanding. Some students may believe that they will be punished or ridiculed if they admit to not understanding, so they don’t do it. Others may have learned the mistaken idea that the point of reading is to get to the end, so they don’t bother stopping to confirm their understanding. In most cases, however, weak readers simply never developed the habit of questioning their understanding.

Students can develop this habit. Instructional activities need to require self-monitoring, and teachers need to encourage and reward self-monitoring. It is the single most important difference between strong and weak readers.