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Comprehension: Defining the Key to Understanding

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Updated on
Modified on September 28, 2023
Quick Takeaway
Comprehension forms the foundation for academic success across all subjects. It’s a multidimensional process that involves understanding language, linking new information to prior knowledge, and filling gaps with inferences. Several interconnected components such as background knowledge, vocabulary, cognitive processes, and text structure contribute to comprehension, which can be influenced by reader, text, and context variables. By nurturing comprehension, teachers create a robust learning environment.

Whether it’s reading a book, listening to a lecture, or engaging in a conversation, comprehension plays a crucial role in our daily lives. And while some of this ability to comprehend may be the product of nature, there is also a huge component of nurture to the idea and skill of comprehension.

Reading comprehension plays such an important role in education. It is not just a textbook skill to be used throughout one’s educational journey; it is a skill to be used throughout life.

As a previous blog post, Strategies for Teaching Reading Comprehension, suggests, “We are constantly surrounded by written words in our daily lives, whether it’s in the form of books, newspapers, websites, or social media. Without the ability to comprehend written text, it would be difficult to understand and learn from these sources of information.”

Comprehension, especially reading comprehension, serves as the foundation for academic success across all subject areas. Proficient comprehension skills enable students to access and analyze information, engage in critical thinking, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Therefore, to develop these comprehension skills, teachers and students alike must feel equipped with comprehension strategies they can use to address different factors and variables that may arise.

What Is Comprehension?

Comprehension involves constructing mental representations of the information presented, connecting it to existing knowledge, and making inferences to fill in gaps. Comprehension goes beyond mere decoding of words; it encompasses the understanding of ideas, concepts, and relationships conveyed through language.

Inevitably, this makes comprehension a vital counterpart to everything a student learns. For example, reading. A student may know how to read, but the physical act of reading is not the end goal. 

In the introduction of Reading Comprehension, What We Know, the authors state, “Reading in and of itself is not enough: in addition, an individual needs to be able to break down, to analyze, and to re-organize ideas and information. A person needs the ability to understand what the writer is attempting to communicate.” Several factors can affect comprehension. Reader variables, such as individual traits, prior knowledge, motivation, and reading abilities, intertwine with text variables encompassing complexity, vocabulary, and writing style. Moreover, context variables, including reading purpose, topic familiarity, and environment, further shape the landscape of comprehension.

Now that we’ve discussed a foundational understanding of comprehension, let's delve into the practical aspects by exploring synonyms and example sentences that shed light on the multifaceted nature of this vital cognitive process.

Components of Comprehension

Effective comprehension involves several interconnected components that work together to facilitate understanding. These components include background knowledge, vocabulary and language skills, cognitive processes, and text structure and organization.

Background knowledge refers to the information and experiences a reader brings to a text. It serves as a foundation for comprehension by allowing readers to make connections, draw upon prior knowledge, and relate new information to what they already know.

Vocabulary and language skills play a crucial role in comprehension. Basic word comprehension is a foundational skill that is taught early on to build more vocabulary and oral language skills. A strong vocabulary allows readers to grasp the meaning of words and phrases in a text, while language skills enable them to understand syntax, grammar, and discourse patterns.

Comprehension involves various cognitive processes, including attention, memory, inference, and critical thinking. Attention enables readers to focus on relevant information, while memory helps retain and retrieve information during the reading process.

Text structure and organization refer to the way information is presented in a text. Well-structured texts with clear headings, subheadings, and logical sequencing facilitate comprehension. Some teaching strategies to foster text comprehension may involve previewing text features before reading a text, actively asking clarifying questions while reading a text, and summarizing or retelling after reading a text. 

These comprehension skills are especially important when it comes to reading comprehension. Within each of these skills, different comprehension strategies can be used by teachers to help stimulate comprehension throughout a lesson. 

In the article, Reading Comprehension Strategies To Support Struggling Students, it states, “Reading comprehension used to be taught with methods based on observations of effectiveness, but today, there are a variety of ‘effective’ ways to teach comprehension. Research confirms there is a science of reading comprehension.” 

These components are the basis for comprehension skills within learning, and therefore the basis for comprehension strategies for teaching as well.

Factors Affecting Comprehension

Several factors, or variables, can influence comprehension, including background knowledge, vocabulary, cognitive abilities, motivation, and prior experience with the topic. These variables impact an individual’s ability to understand and derive meaning from written or spoken language.

Text variables encompass the features of the written or spoken material, such as complexity, vocabulary level, sentence structure, and coherence. Texts that are too challenging or contain unfamiliar vocabulary can hinder comprehension, while texts that are appropriately leveled and well-organized enhance understanding.

Context variables refer to the situational and environmental factors that influence comprehension. These include the purpose of reading, the reader’s familiarity with the topic, and the social and cultural context in which reading occurs. 

The Role of Comprehension in Education

Comprehension skills enable students to access and analyze information, engage in critical thinking, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Educators play a vital role in fostering comprehension development by providing explicit instruction, offering scaffolding, and creating opportunities for practice and reflection. 

According to Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy, the researchers argued, “Education leaders will need to strengthen teacher preparation programs and professional development to ensure teachers are prepared to use evidence-based practices to meet the literacy needs of their students.” 

These programs and practices must start early in a child’s learning journey to lay a strong foundation.


Comprehension is integral in education, and educators play a powerful role in nurturing a student’s ability to comprehend what they are learning. By implementing effective strategies, both educators and learners can work together to unlock the power of comprehension. Voyager Sopris Learning’s reading intervention programs, such as LANGUAGE! Live® and REWARDS®, emphasize comprehension and are based on the science of reading.
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