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Reading Comprehension, What Works: An In-depth Look at One Study

Updated on February 4, 2017

Reading Comprehension: A Current Problem

No one has to argue the case for teaching reading comprehension. Everyone---parents, teachers, and children---understand its importance. A few years ago, the “No Child Left Behind” movement resulted in an accountability movement for schools and teachers to assure that all children are able to read on grade level as quickly as possible. The effects of having elementary students who read below grade level can reach far into the children’s future and prove to be costly for the students and for the nation as a whole. By the time these students complete twelfth grade, their low reading levels will affect their ability to get jobs or attend college. Therefore, parents and schools should deal with the problem as early as possible---in elementary school---rather than later in life.

Brief History

Although “No Child Left Behind” brought the issue of low reading levels to the forefront of the news and caught the attention of the American public, America has actually been dealing with the problem of low student reading levels for almost 200 years. The following anecdote reveals something of this problem.

In the 1830s, one of the teachers at Cornell approached Ezra Cornell, the college president, and complained that too many of his students could not read. Mr. Cornell then replied to the professor, “Well, if that’s what they need, then teach them to read!” The professor then replied, “Sir, am I hired to teach the alphabet?” Cornell’s quick retort, “You teach them whatever they need!”

When students graduate from high school with uncorrected reading difficulties, they realize they are unprepared for college. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, several of America’s colleges were offering developmental or “remedial” courses, with reading one of these courses. By the 1960s, more students who read below grade level graduated from high school and needed developmental or “remedial” reading upon entering college. By the 1980s, as many as 55% of seniors graduating from America’s high schools needed some type of remediation upon entering college, and most of these needed remedial reading courses.

By 1999, the state of Florida estimated that almost two-thirds of graduating seniors needed remediation in reading, and by 2000, the United States Department of Education reported that too many twelfth graders were seriously deficient in reading. In fact, a report called The Condition of Education (2002, Indicator 9) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), indicate that of the students who graduate from high school with deficiencies, most of these low test scores are in reading.

What Is Effective Comprehension?

Reading is a process that involves active participation from the reader. If students are reading below grade level, this deficiency may indicate a need for additional instruction in reading comprehension. For years, reading researchers have pointed out that students must be able to engage in reading actively as they search for meaning because reading is not a passive activity (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). One view of effective comprehension suggests that the student shifts from answering questions as they read to asking questions as they read (Singer, 1980).

Comprehension can be both literal and inferential. Literal comprehension refers to comprehending or understanding information that is directly expressed in the reading selection. The reader can look over the passage and point to the answer in the passage. On the other hand, inferential comprehension, which is occasionally referred to as “reading between the lines,” refers to information or ideas that the reader cannot find in the passage. The passage will contain suggestions that can lead the reader to figure out the answer to a question, but the answer will not be clearly stated in the wording of the passage. Developing inferential comprehension skills often requires that someone, a parent, teacher, or possibly a tutor, guide the student in developing skills in inferential comprehension.

Explicit Instruction and Improved Comprehension

Since reading comprehension involves both literal interpretation of what is read, as well as inferential interpretation, knowing how to develop skill in inferential comprehension is essential for effective reading. Since the 1970s, researchers have supported the view that inferential comprehension requires explicit instruction (Hansen & Pearson, 1983; Pearson, Hansen, & Gordon, 1979).

An In-depth Look at One Study with First-Graders

A more recent study on explicit comprehension with first-graders indicates that explicit instruction is important for effective remediation. An in-depth examination of this study reveals several components of effective reading instruction. However, the most notable finding of this study is that students benefit when teachers (or parents) use explicit instruction to teach inferential reading strategies. McGee and Johnson (2003) found positive effects for both skilled and less skilled readers when teachers gave them explicit instruction in inferential training. This study focused on 75 subjects, children whose ages ranged from 6 years, 6 months to 9 years 11 months. They were all English first language students from a nondenominational school. Researchers assessed their reading level with the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (NARA) Form 2 for the pretest.

The researchers used the Yuill and Oakhill (1988) standard, which was that the less skilled readers “having a reading accuracy score above or equal to their chronological age, but a comprehension score below their chronological age, and at least 6 months below their reading accuracy score.” The researchers also required that the skilled readers have a reading accuracy level equal to or above their chronological age but a comprehension age that exceeded their chronological age. Therefore, at pretest, some of the subjects were skilled comprehenders, and the other subjects were low comprehenders. After researchers removed the students who did not meet the above criteria, 20 students remained in the study, and these students were assigned to 2 groups, ten students in each group. They were cross-matched in each of four conditions for accuracy and comprehension ability.

Comprehension Instruction and Inference Training

This study was a 2 x 2 between-subjects design. One group was given comprehension instruction, and the other group was given inference training. The 20-minute sessions met twice each week for a total of six weeks. Subjects were pretested with Form 2 of the NARA and posttested with Form 1 of the NARA. The ANOVA was used for analyzing the performance on the pre and posttests (NARA Forms 1 and 2). The results revealed considerable differences in comprehension levels at pretest, but at posttest, the low comprehenders scored as well as the higher level readers. Intervention raised the comprehension scores of all participants in both groups (P=.01).


One notable result of this study is that the low comprehenders who received inference training achieved the greatest gains in comprehension at posttest, increasing from 7 years 6 months at pretest to 9 years 2 months at the post assessment. This increase was a gain of 20 months for the low comprehension group who received inference training. The higher comprehenders (at pretest) showed a gain in comprehension ability of 9 months at posttest.


The McGee and Johnson study (2003) is only one of hundreds. Readers can watch for additional articles on effective research-based reading instruction strategies at simondixie’s hub pages. Many of the forthcoming articles will focus on teaching reading and writing together. No matter what strategy the parent or teacher uses, when helping children with reading comprehension or vocabulary development, the most important consideration to ask, “Does current research support this strategy?”


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    • simondixie profile image

      Nancy McLendon Scott 3 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you! Your comments are always so encouraging and insightful. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      Very well written and presented. I find reading with comprehension is almost a must for all students from the early age of five. It is something that takes skill and practice. Voted up.

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