What is reading comprehension? And why is it important?

Here we take an introductory look at reading comprehension, as well as some of the popular reading techniques. In its simplest form, reading comprehension is about understanding what you read. Our definition of reading comprehension is based on an article by Lene Storgaard Brok and Søren Eefsen, in which they state the following:

“The goal of reading is to be able to understand what you read. Understanding what you read is a complex cognitive and linguistic process that involves the reader actively interpreting the written message based on the knowledge with which the reader encounters the text.”

It seems simple and straightforward. But is it really?

Reading comprehension is a matter of preunderstanding

Reading comprehension is an interesting area to study as it involves several layers, all of which are worth taking a closer look at. For example, the quote above states that comprehension of a given text is a complex cognitive and linguistic process that involves active interpretation by the reader based on their existing knowledge. This can sound complicated, because what does it mean that comprehension is a cognitive and linguistic process? And how do you interpret a message based on your preunderstanding.

It is in answering these and potentially more questions that makes reading comprehension interesting to work with. To begin with, we will therefore look at two main elements that constitute reading, as well as the idea of encountering the text with the knowledge you already possess, which you then use to interpret the text.

Reading can be seen as a combination of two elements: decoding and comprehension. While reading the text, the individual words and sentences are decoded, and the reader then attempts to understand their collective meaning by contextualising them. Roughly put. The actual decoding of words and sentences is not relevant to us at this point, but we’ll come back to that. Right now, however, we need to look at a preliminary element of the comprehension aspect itself. If we look at the above definition by Brok and Eefsen, it may seem that we are simply inferring a meaning, already predestined by the author, as if we were simple unwrapping a gift. This is not entirely accurate. In an article from 2010, Jonna Astrup emphasises that reading itself also creates meaning.

“‘Reading comprehension is about extracting and creating meaning by examining and interacting with a written text’ (Bråten, 2008). This definition clearly has two aspects: inferring meaning and creating meaning. The latter part of the definition requires the reader to actively interact with the text – not just retrieving information from the text, but adding meaning to it as well. Comprehension is therefore not just about blindly adopting the author’s and text’s meaning, but about the reader creating their own meaning by connecting the text’s content with their own pre-existing knowledge of the text’s subject matter.”

Reading comprehension is about actively interacting with the text, both retrieving and adding meaning by interweaving the content with your preunderstanding. As Astrup points out, you don’t just blindly adopt the author’s viewpoint; you actively engage with the text. In this way, you utilise your prior knowledge to understand the content of the text while at the same time linking the content of the text to your existing knowledge.

Preunderstanding is therefore an essential part of reading comprehension, but how do you acquire it to begin with? To find the answer, we need to look at reading techniques. In the last article, we briefly reviewed a number of techniques used by the learning portal EMU and Aalborg University, among others. Essential to many reading techniques is that you should first think carefully about the content of the text before reading from chapter 1 onwards. In practical terms, this preparatory reading phase can be done by reading the conclusion first, skimming through parts of the text and/or reading the table of contents and preface. This phase is about building expectations and knowledge of the text so that you can better orientate yourself and select the key parts of the content. In this way, you can acquire a preunderstanding of the content that helps you to better understand the content of the text, while at the same time using the content to expand your understanding. In other words: With the right reading technique and preparation, you can gain appropriate preunderstanding that you can use to infer and add meaning to the material you read.

The cognitive and linguistic process

As promised earlier, we return to decoding, where we will deal with the cognitive and linguistic processes. Reading comprehension consists of a number of components, with preparation and preunderstanding certainly being among them. A number of the points below will therefore be characterised as being primarily about preunderstanding, but there are, however, a number of differences worth highlighting.

Merete Brudholm, co-author of the book The Fantastic Four of Reading Comprehension, highlights 6 reading components, all of which influence our reading comprehension:

Knowledge of language: Knowledge of language structures, sentences and words. The reader’s vocabulary and understanding of sentences, as well as grammatical rules and structures, is a crucial factor in whether a text is understood.

Knowledge of the world: Having background knowledge or acquiring preunderstanding of the text’s content.

Knowledge about texts: Knowledge of text structures and genres that help to set expectations about the content and structure of texts.

Knowledge of own comprehension (metacognitive): Being aware of one’s own comprehension skills and strategies that can be used to increase comprehension.

Knowledge of reading comprehension strategies: Knowledge of, for example, memory strategies and organisational strategies to achieve optimal reading comprehension.

Cognitive skills: Being able to form inferences, where you can think in terms of causality in the text, and visualise the read content.

While the categories can be debated, it is safe to conclude that reading comprehension is a combination of mental and physical resources that are utilised both consciously and unconsciously while reading. Reading comprehension is the reader’s ability to infer and add meaning to the read text based on vocabulary, linguistic and personal comprehension skills, and background knowledge of the given topic.

You can read more about reading comprehension here.