What is Reading Comprehension, and How Do We Assess It?

Reading comprehension is a hard concept to define, and an even harder one to assess. Though when asked, most people will say something on the order of “It means what you understand,” that’s really just substituting one undefined word for another. How can we get to the heart of the matter?

According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, comprehension is the “capacity of the mind to perceive and understand.” Reading comprehension, then, would be the capacity to perceive and understand the meaning communicated by what we read. Again, that’s substituting one unknown for another.

Jeff Wilhelm of Scholastic says, “Facile definitions coupled with the complicated nature of reading comprehension is what keeps us from understanding it fully, and from teaching it as well as we can.”[1] He goes on to try to fill in the gaps a simple definition creates and describe the nature and processes inherent in good comprehension.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated that readers do not simply “get” the meaning that is IN a text. Instead, expert readers build meaning WITH a text. The reader brings his own purpose and life experiences with him when he reads, and this interaction is what results in the meaning that we call comprehension. Comprehension always derives from what is written on the page, but its ultimate meaning also depends upon the reader’s background experiences, purpose in reading, and his feelings at the time or his thoughts about the subject. That complicated interaction is what allows us to read the same book or story again and have a very different experience the second time or find meanings that were not evident before. We, as readers, are an equal and active partner with the text, and together we create the process of comprehension.

What is the process involved in comprehending material? Though the exact order may vary from reader to reader, according to Wilhelm, it is generally accepted that readers will:

  • Activate prior knowledge about the topic and decide on its relevance to the reading. If a student has no prior knowledge of a subject, comprehension becomes impossible.
  • Establish a purpose for reading this particular text
  • Predict what will happen as the text progresses
  • Decode the text by identifying word and sentence meanings
  • Summarize the material as you go, adding new details to prior knowledge to create different and greater meanings
  • Visualize by creating mental models of the characters, settings, situations, movements, and ideas (this is not possible, though, in people suffering from aphantasia)
  • Question the material as you go, asking yourself critical questions about how the characters, settings, situations, etc. develop and how this changes both your initial perception and your purpose in reading
  • Monitor your understanding. Good readers often know why they are not comprehending the material and can take corrective measures (i.e. look up words, discuss a new concept, etc.) to remedy the situation
  • Reflect on what you have read and see how you can apply its meaning, or any new conclusions you have formed, to new situations

Yet while these reading strategies are necessary to achieve comprehension in all situations, they are usually insufficient to achieve total comprehension on their own. Readers of any text generally use more sophisticated engagement strategies to create a mental world in which they can assess and evaluate the words and ideas being presented to them. And, as students get older and read more sophisticated texts, they must also learn how to create meaning with new text structures (argument, classification, satire, definition, fable, etc.) and new task-specific conventions (like foreshadowing, symbolism, unreliable narrators, etc.). Comprehension is, in truth, a very complicated process.

Now that we know what comprehension is, the question becomes how do we assess it? This question has caused contentious debate among educational researchers for some time.

Traditional reading comprehension assessments present students with a series of passages and responses (test questions), where the reason to read and answer is to get a good score. However, according to the researchers at the Reading for Understanding initiative, especially the researchers from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), this approach does not sufficiently measure comprehension or motivate students to achieve. They have been working to create and use a scenario-based design approach known as GISA (Global, Integrated, Scenario-based Assessments). These assessments would take into account the potential effect of motivation and other factors that may affect how well the student performs. These factors are referred to as performance moderators. Such moderators may consist of knowledge, a skill, or a disposition such as motivation that can explain why a student performed in a particular way.

Their assessments would also be, in part:

  • Scenario-based — Each assessment uses a scenario-based approach to structure its set of items and tasks. That is, students are given a realistic purpose for reading a collection of diverse materials and are asked to make decisions and solve problems.
  • Structure and Sequence-Oriented — Tasks and activities are structured and sequenced to help scaffold performance for less skilled readers and provide more information on potential student strengths and weaknesses. Performance moderators such as background knowledge and motivation are measured and can be used to help interpret the reading scores.
  • Component-Measuring — Associated component reading skill tasks (such as word recognition, decoding, and vocabulary) have also been developed to further understand or qualify the performance of students who may have basic reading skill difficulties that interfere with comprehension performance.[2]

These new assessments are still works-in-progress. To learn more about the ETS team’s approach, see “Assessing Comprehension in the Real World.

While AceReader might appear, at first glance, to fall into the “passage and questions” category of comprehension assessment, there is actually quite a bit more going on behind-the-scenes. Tasks and activities are sequenced to provide a progression scale for learners. Test Sets are both themed and leveled (13 comprehension levels), allowing students to acquire subject knowledge at their level and then advance to more difficult material. Word recognition and vocabulary appear in both the Reading Comprehension Tests and in the Games. If you would like to learn more about how AceReader effectively assesses student comprehension, please leave us a comment in the section below or email us at info@acereader.com.


[1] Wilhelm, Jeff. (nd) Understanding Reading Comprehension. Retrieved from https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/understanding-reading-comprehension/

[2] Educational Testing Service. (nd) Reading for Understanding. Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/research/topics/reading_for_understanding/

Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

1 thought on “What is Reading Comprehension, and How Do We Assess It?”

Leave a Reply