Reading Comprehension: The Key to Learning

Part 6 of the Science of Reading Simplified Series

In this sixth installment of the Science of Reading Simplified blog series, we discuss the three main elements that lead to reading comprehension and show educators that by knowing what to look for when a student isn’t comprehending texts, they then can provide more targeted, effective instruction.

Savvas Insights Team

What is Reading Comprehension and How Can It Be Taught?


The goal of learning to read — from phonics to fluency — is reading comprehension. When students are able to read words, know the meanings of words, and have adequate background knowledge to be able to understand what they’re reading, they can unlock fascinating new ideas, discover thrilling stories, and learn content in school that will help them succeed.

The Science of Reading Simplified“All reading instruction is done in the name of comprehension,” said Savvas author and literacy expert Sharon Vaughn. “We want students to understand, learn from, and appreciate what they read.”

Reading comprehension, however, doesn’t come automatically once a student knows how to decode words and read with fluency. While those components are critical to comprehension, students may need further instruction to help them make inferences as they read, make connections across text, or be able to look for a deeper meaning from the reading.

Since comprehension is the key to learning and the key to instilling a love of reading, it’s important that teachers know how to monitor a student’s understanding of what they read, and then know how to teach for those areas where they may need support.

What Is Reading Comprehension?

Science of Reading research shows us what works in teaching students to learn to read, and comprehension instruction is an important component of that. It’s easy to think that once students learn phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, and vocabulary then they should automatically be comprehending the texts they read. But it’s not that simple. In fact, research has shown that students can be proficient in their foundational as well as fluency and vocabulary skills and still have poor comprehension.

girl with a book smiling at the camera

“Students need to know how to read the words. They have to know what they mean. And they have to have adequate background knowledge. Then, they will understand what they read,” said Sharon. “If any one of those elements isn’t present, they will struggle with reading comprehension.”

The following is a simple formula educators should consider when thinking about teaching reading comprehension: Word Reading + Vocabulary + Background Knowledge = Reading Comprehension. Here’s a breakdown of why each of those elements are an important contributor to fully understanding texts.

  • Word Reading: Some students may have the skills to be able to read most words. But as they get older, they will encounter more and more complex words with multiple syllables. If they don’t have the tools to be able to decode those words, they may just skip over them and miss a critical key to understanding the reading.
  • Vocabulary: The more words and their meanings a student knows, the better chance that they will have at understanding new texts they read. Providing many opportunities to access new words and their meanings is a critical element to comprehension.
  • Background Knowledge: Background knowledge is the information a student has accumulated, both in their education and lived experiences. In order to understand increasingly complex texts, students will need to apply previously learned concepts. Many studies point to background knowledge as being an essential part of reading comprehension.

If an educator observes that a student is not able to fully comprehend their reading, they can use this formula as a guide to pinpoint the area (or areas) where the student needs more support and it will help them to provide the most effective, targeted instruction.

Reading Comprehension in the Classroom

Over the years, there have been many strategies for teaching reading comprehension. However, if a student cannot read the words, doesn’t know the meaning of the words, or lacks adequate background knowledge, then those strategies may not be very effective. By identifying which of those three areas a student may be struggling and then focusing instruction there, educators will have better success in helping students understand their reading.

“All reading instruction is done in the name of comprehension. We want students to understand, learn from, and appreciate what they read.”

“We’re not really teaching reading comprehension, we’re testing reading comprehension,” said Sharon. “When we can find out if a student is not understanding what they read, then we can get to the bottom of why and teach for that.”

For example, if you find that a student isn’t reading fluently — i.e., reading too slowly and without expression — then that is a good sign that the area of instructional focus should be on word reading. If a student tends to skip over longer, more complex words, that is also a sign that word reading is an area of need. It is a signal to educators that a student may need to sharpen their decoding skills or work more with the patterns of words and word parts through practice with high-frequency words. Some educators believe that if they could just find a text that interests the student, then that will help too. But that’s not always the case.

“It’s not only about finding the right text to engage students in reading,” said Sharon. “It won’t matter what the text is if they can’t read the words. So helping them read the words is critical.”

If a student is able to read the words fluently but still cannot answer questions to demonstrate that they comprehend what they’ve read, that could be a sign the student needs access to more vocabulary instruction to learn the meaning of the words or doesn’t have the adequate background knowledge to understand the context. An educator can assess these two areas by simply asking them to answer questions about their reading.

elementary students reading in a classroom

A great way to help students build up both of those areas is through access to nonfiction informational texts. Not only do informational texts build vocabulary, they also help build background knowledge because they introduce students to new people, places, historical events, and a variety of ideas that come with new, more complex words.

“You want to help students build background knowledge by giving them informational texts early on, so, as they get older and start reading about microbiology, they know what a cell is because they read about it in second grade,” said Sharon. “People need a heavy dose of informational texts from age four to age four hundred.”

Helping Students Find Wonder and Motivation in Their Reading

Imagine that you have just taken up a new activity like knitting or playing a sport like soccer for the first time. Because you’re still learning, it’s difficult to get motivated, or excited about your new hobby when you’re still making mistakes in your knitting pattern, or never quite able to get the ball in the goal. It’s frustrating. Now, imagine how a child feels when they’re just learning to read, but still can’t read the words or answer questions about the text correctly. Why would they be motivated to read when it’s just a frustrating process for them?

“We’re not really teaching reading comprehension, we’re testing reading comprehension. When we can find out if a student is not understanding what they read, then we can get to the bottom of why and teach for that.”

“The relationship between ability and motivation is important,” said Sharon. “We’re just not motivated to do the thing that frustrated us. It’s not so much that they lack motivation. They lack the knowledge and skills to perform.”

Aside from identifying in what area a student might need more support, e.g., word reading, vocabulary, and/or background knowledge, we have to help students wonder about the texts they read. Help students want to pause on something they don’t understand in the reading to wonder about it enough to figure it out. You can do this by asking them, if they answer questions incorrectly, “I wonder what made you think that?” Show them that you’re wondering about their answer and ask them to wonder about what they read.

“The way you get more motivated is that you get better at something,” said Sharon. “But how do you help kids see that they’re getting better? We have to somehow figure out how to get students to wonder about what they read and wonder about texts. They have to not only learn from what they read, they have to enjoy what they read.”

Put Reading Comprehension Into Practice!

Now that we’ve learned what components are critical to a student’s ability to comprehend their reading, take a look at these ideas to consider when teaching for comprehension in the classroom, sharing strategies with families, and when making decisions about teaching resources that will best support this area of instruction.

  • For Teachers

    Here are a few strategies you can use in the classroom to support the key elements of reading comprehension:

    • Use Read-Alouds and Audio Books: Many early readers use a lot of energy to decode words as they read, making it difficult to fully comprehend texts. Read-alouds and audio books allow students to concentrate on the story and its structure without focusing on decoding words.
    • Use Big Words and Give Their Definitions: Working more complex vocabulary into your normal, everyday speech helps to expose students to new words. You can describe something as “enormous, or really big,” defining the words as you speak.
    • Provide Lots of Informational Texts: In order to help students build a solid foundation of background knowledge that they can carry with them while they’re introduced to more and more text, incorporate a lot of informational texts into instruction starting at a very early age. Learning about the world around us builds necessary background knowledge for good comprehension skills.
  • For Sharing with Families

    Help extend learning beyond the classroom by giving families some tips on how to help their children with reading comprehension at home. Let them know that simply reading and enjoying books together everyday is immensely helpful to their child’s journey in learning to read, but by asking them questions about the reading, they will be nurturing their ability to better comprehend it.

    Before Reading

    • What do you think this story will be about?
    • Do you think this story is made up or about real life?
    • Do you think this will be a funny story? Or a serious story?

    During Reading

    • How do you think the character feels right now?
    • What do you think will happen next?
    • What is your favorite part so far?

    After Reading

    • Who was this book about?
    • Where did the story take place?
    • How did this book make you feel?
  • For Administrators

    When researching new core or supplemental reading programs to bring into your school or district, be sure that the following elements are included in order to provide the most effective instruction that will eventually lead to reading comprehension:

    • Explicit and systematic instruction of foundational reading skills, such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics so that students have the tools to be able to read new and unfamiliar words.
    • Vocabulary instruction that provides students with access to many words in many different contexts, such as written, oral, and print.
    • Practices that include nonfiction informational texts starting in the early grades introduce students to new information and ideas, providing a solid background knowledge that they can apply across subjects and throughout the grades.

About The Author

Sharon Vaughn, Ph.D.

Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education and executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on several research initiatives (Institute for Education Sciences, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and U.S. Department of Education) investigating effective interventions for students with reading difficulties and students who are English language learners.