What Is Comprehension?

Comprehension is the goal of reading programs. Teachers often ask students, “What does it mean?” Sometimes, they tell students, “This is what it means.” Most often, though, they ask the who, what, when, where, and why types of questions. Through these questions, teachers want to know the same thing: does the student understand the text?

Comprehension is much more than being able to recall information in a text. In fact, on the scale of comprehension, knowledge of the content is right at the bottom. When we discuss comprehension, here is what we mean.

Definition of Comprehension

Ability to develop a justifiable, personal interpretation of a text

Have you ever had this experience? You and a friend read the same news article about a new law that the government is trying to pass. You think the law is a terrible idea and that it shows how out of touch the government is. Your friend thinks the law would be a pretty good idea and that it shows the government understands how “common people” feel. You read the same article, but you have different reactions.

Perhaps you and a friend are reading the same book. The main character is going through a difficult time. You are bored by the book and think the main character is unrealistic. You think the story is predictable. Your friend is enthralled by the book and thinks the main character accurately represents what people actually experience during hardship. Your friend cannot wait to find out how the story ends. Again, you read the same text, but you have different reactions.

These are two very simplified examples, but there is a reason two people can read the same thing and have different impressions. When you read a book, article, advertisement, manual, etc., something very interesting happens. You interpret the text based on your existing knowledge, your experiences, your perspectives and philosophical outlook, and your general mental alertness and emotional state. When you are reading, you bring your whole self to the process.

Whether you are reading fiction or non-fiction, you will interpret the text. You will respond to the ideas and content, you will form an impression of the author, you will compare it to what you already know, and you will judge the value of the text as a whole. Your interpretation, your impression, of the text will, ultimately, be a combination of the words you read and your schema.

The concept of schema is critical to comprehension. In psychology, a schema is the way you perceive the world. Your schema is a merger of your perspectives, beliefs, experiences, and knowledge. It is the way you see the world and respond to new information and experiences. When you read something, you filter it through your schema to arrive at an interpretation. This is why two people can read the same thing and have two different reactions to it: they each have their own schema.

The concept of schema also relates to a concept that I mentioned in Chapter Two, “The Principles of Reading Instruction.” In that chapter, I discussed how you learn new things based on what you already know. What you already know is part of your schema.

The Goal of Comprehension Instruction

You might be asking, “Well, this is all interesting, but what does it mean for reading instruction?” Another good question is “What am I supposed to do with this information?” Perhaps the real question is “So what?” Here’s what.

The purpose of comprehension instruction is to help students make a justifiable, personal interpretation of a text. The interpretation will be based on the information in the text according to the student’s schema. Let’s look at the key words in this definition.

Justifiable: demonstrate knowledge of the content and make a reasonable, logical conclusion about the information in the text

Personal: based on the student’s (not the teacher’s) schema

In practical terms, you ask the student, “What does this mean to you and why?” In this process, you do two things.

First, you help the student understand the words, information, and concepts in the text. You help the student learn what the words mean, as well as the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the information in the text. Too often, comprehension instruction stops here. Once a student demonstrates knowledge of the content, the teacher moves on. This is very low level understanding, but there is more!

Second, you help the student determine the quality, value, usefulness, and application of the information. Even young children can do this. For example, with young readers, you might ask the following questions:

  • Why do you think the character did [something]? (fiction)
  • Have you heard any other stories like this? (fiction)
  • Did you like it? Why? (fiction and nonfiction)
  • Would you like to try something like this? Why? (fiction and nonfiction)
  • Do you think this is true? Why? (nonfiction)
  • Do you want to know more about this [person or information]? Why? (fiction and nonfiction)
  • What would you do in this situation? Why? (fiction and nonfiction)

Very often, teachers ask to students to read and study a text and then tell them what it means and how students should respond. They indicate that there is one correct interpretation and that the student’s interpretation is wrong if it is different. This is not comprehension instruction. If it were, the students might as well skip reading altogether and just wait for the teacher to tell them the “moral of the story.” To help students comprehend the text, the correct approach is to ask the students what the text means to them and then to ask them why.

Of course, you want to make sure students understand the words and information. You want them to make sense of what they read. These are steps towards comprehension. Once students get to that point, however, the focus of comprehension instruction shifts to evaluating and analyzing the information, combining or synthesizing the information with information from other text or experiences, and deciding what to do with the information.

And then you ask them, “Why?”

As it turns out, “why” is a powerful word. To answer that question, a student has to

  • understand the content,
  • think critically about the information,
  • consider how the information relates to what he or she already knows,
  • make logical conclusions, and
  • communicate his or her ideas convincingly.

If a student can do this, you can conclude that the student comprehends the text. The goal of comprehension instruction is to make sure students can answer, and justify their answer to, “Why?”