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What Do We Mean by Reading Comprehension?

by Dr. Jack Dempsey, Director of Research

Comprehension of the Written & Spoken Word

By the time children start learning to read, they already possess the ability to understand most uses of their language(s). Not only do pre-literate children understand thousands of individual words, but they are also able to understand declarative sentences, requests, questions, and commands, all of which can be realized differently in any given language. Importantly, children bring these language comprehension skills with them when they start to read, a concept made clear by Gough and Tunmer’s [1] Simple View of Reading. This view of reading comprehension, consistent with the Science of Reading and familiar to many reading educators, argues that reading comprehension is a product of general language comprehension and word-level decoding. Put plainly, when children learn how letters on a page represent words they already know, they do not need to relearn the meaning of that word – it’s already there!

Of course, difficulties in comprehending texts abound both while children are learning to decode and after:

  • Vocabulary grows in complexity [2].
  • Students encounter unfamiliar and complex grammar not common in spoken language.[3]
  • Students transition from learning to read and begin Reading to Learn


Although many students struggle with this leap, as evident by recent national reading scores [5] and calls for educational reform in several states [6], reading comprehension has a great deal of untapped potential across the US and the globe. This end result, however, is not as well defined as one might hope, leaving educators with the question: What exactly does it mean to comprehend a word, a sentence, or a text?

Comprehending Words

The meaning behind “comprehension” at the word level may seem intuitive, but even if children can decode perfectly, they still need to rely on contextual cues to understand what individual words mean. For example, consider the two sentences below:

Amy loved reading her book.
Amy needed to book her flight.

In the first sentence, the word ‘book’ is a noun referring to a bound packet of written language; however, it can also take the less common form as a verb in the second sentence, meaning something similar to ‘reserve.’ This difference is not captured by the decoding process – ‘book’ is decoded the same way in both sentences despite their different meanings. So, we might ask children to sound out the word in both sentences as a way of measuring their ability to decode, but it’s not really successful “word recognition” if context isn’t successfully integrated into the word-level meaning.

Comprehending Sentences

The term ‘comprehension’ becomes even more vague when applied to children’s interpretation of written sentences. Consider the following sentence:

“After the party was over, Mark went to the store to buy the ham for dinner.”

What does it mean to “comprehend” this sentence? We could ask the child a simple question like “where did Mark go?,” but that would only answer one piece of information. In fact, there are many different meanings for readers to unpack when interpreting even a small sentence like this one:

  • When did Mark go to the store?
  • Who went to the store?
  • Where did Mark go?
  • Why did Mark go to the store?.
  • What was the ham for?


So how do we measure the comprehension of a single sentence? Do we ask students more than five questions for every single sentence they encounter in a given passage? Any parent, educator, or former student can easily see how that quickly becomes impractical!

Comprehending Longer Texts

Now consider a continuation of that last sentence:

“After the party was over, Mark went to the store to buy the ham for dinner. He realized that he had forgotten his wallet, so he bought some hot dogs instead with the change he had left over from the bus.”

In this two-sentence story, readers need to maintain all of the information from the first sentence and also need to take in new information as they read the second sentence. Not only does this second sentence present new information, but the information from the first sentence needs to be integrated into the second sentence to build a mental model of the text. For instance, after reading the second sentence, a reader should infer that Mark took the bus to the store after the party, and they should infer that ‘instead’ refers to the original goal of buying ham.

What we end up with is a longer and longer list of concepts that need to be integrated into our mental model while we read, and this problem continues to grow as texts get longer and longer!

So how do we actually determine what we mean by reading comprehension?

Tips for Measuring Comprehension

So how can educators truly understand the level of comprehension their students are attaining? Here are a few tips:

  1. Narrow your definition. Decide whether you’re testing your students’ knowledge of ‘who did what to whom,’ word-level decoding, word recognition, inference building, or integration across sentences. Each type of comprehension is different and uniquely meaningful!
  2. Use multiple tools for converging evidence. Using one tool to measure comprehension can give you results that are only specific to that tool. To be sure that a student’s comprehension is being accurately assessed, use several types of measurement if available and compare what they show you! You might find that Student A does well on multiple choice tests while Student B does better in open-ended assessments.
  3. Simplify the language used in questions wherever possible. There is a difference between measuring student test-taking abilities and student reading comprehension.
  4. Don’t overgeneralize! If a student does poorly when answering questions related to who did what to whom, don’t assume that the student doesn’t understand the order of events or can’t remember details very well – they may just have trouble understanding the grammar in the passages. And if that’s the case, Cascade Reading can help with that!


Dr. Jack Dempsey

Director of Research, Cascade Reading


[1] Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and special education, 7(1), 6-10.

[2] Montag, J. L., Jones, M. N., & Smith, L. B. (2015). The words children hear: Picture books and the statistics for language learning. Psychological science, 26(9), 1489-1496.

[3] Montag, J. L. (2019). Differences in sentence complexity in the text of children’s picture books and child-directed speech. First language, 39(5), 527-546.

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