Four Factors that Play Into Literacy Comprehension

Photo Credit: Nithi Anand / Indian school boy reading the book / CC by 2.0


When a reader selects a text, it’s not immediately apparent whether he or she will be able to comprehend it.  Teachers typically use a text’s Lexile or reading level, but there’s more to reading comprehension than that. Beyond text complexity, here are four factors that play important roles in literacy comprehension.


Prior Knowledge


When a student has prior knowledge about a subject they’re reading about, there’s an opportunity for connection-making.  Students don’t have to know everything about a subject to have an understanding and opinion on it. Prior knowledge allows students a shortcut to learning new information.  The more topics they know about, the easier it is to comprehend texts and continue the learning process. For example, when students read a story and the characters are using a rotary phone, if students have prior knowledge about early telephones, they’ll be able to infer multiple things about the text, including that it’s written about a previous time in history.  


Prior Experiences


A form of prior knowledge, having rich experiences, greatly benefits students.  While a student may know about Bengal tigers from reading about them or learning about them in school, it’s another matter entirely to have an actual experience with one.  Whether it’s at the zoo or on safari, the knowledge gained through a rich experience is one that sticks with students and often gives them important insight into additional learning because experiences are what stick with students.  It’s impossible to remember everything, but experiences are the easiest to recall. Do you remember any field trips from when you were in school? There’s a reason why these authentic experiences stick in our minds. Use them to your advantage with students.  




Students must reach a certain level of maturity before they’re able to truly understand some topics.  For example, students aren’t taught algebra prior to the middle grades because it requires abstract thinking, which doesn’t develop until around this age.  Attempting to teach it to a student too early will result in possibilities that range from decreased comprehension to complete failure to understand. There are also topics that are inappropriate for readers, depending on their age.  If it’s not possible to incorporate an age-appropriate text, hold off on the topic until the reader is more mature. I’m reminded of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s far too powerful for young children to experience, so they created a special, age-appropriate children’s museum tour to teach young people about the Holocaust in a way that matches their maturity level.


Proficiency in Using Language in the Social Context


Effective understanding requires, at the least, a working knowledge of how language works in any given function.  The more ways students can use language and the better they are at using them directly aids in comprehension. For instance, if a student is familiar with how science reports are written, they’ll have a better understanding of how to comprehend one.  That knowledge of how language is used, and for what function, pushes or inhibits understanding.


Use these four factors to increase your students’ understanding.  Provide opportunities for students to create and build upon prior knowledge.  The best way to do this is to give your students rich and varied experiences. But fear not, if you can’t take your students on field trips and expose them to new things, building prior knowledge from wide, varied reading is the next best thing!  Give your students chances to connect to and reflect on texts. Be mindful of the maturity of your students and embark on learning experiences that are age and grade level appropriate. And last, give students opportunities to learn and grow by using language in various social or communicative contexts.  Keep these four factors in mind before reading to ensure your students are comprehending at the maximum level. Happy reading!


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