The term reading comprehension has several different definitions. While most experts agree that reading comprehension is the meaning gained from what is written on the page, they often disagree about the source of meaning. Currently the three most common models are the bottom-up, top-down, and interactive models of reading to improve comprehension. The bottom-up model emphasizes the material being read and is often described as text driven. Proponents of this model believe that the material being read is more important to the process of reading than the person who reads the material. The top-down model emphasizes the reader and is often described as concept driven. Proponents of this model suggest that the reader is more important to the process of reading than the material being read. This is because readers usually have some prior knowledge, or schema, about the topic. Using prior knowledge, the reader makes predictions about the meaning of the material. In other words, the reader’s prior knowledge can be a powerful influence on his comprehension of the text.

The interactive model of reading was developed to describe the reading process as both concept and text driven, a process in which the reader relates information stored in his mind with new information in the text. Most experts subscribe to the interactive model, believing that comprehension is a process of constructing meaning by interacting with the text. Many of the suggestions presented in the Recommendations section stress interactive strategies as the most effective way to develop reading comprehension.

Several factors about the reader affect his comprehension of the reading material. Other factors that affect a student’s comprehension are related to the material he reads. Some factors that affect comprehension in terms of the reader are:

  1. The knowledge the reader brings to the subject.  This means that what a student knows about a particular subject is directly related to how much he will understand about that subject when he reads. This is, of course, a major tenet of the interactive model.
  2. The reader’s interest in the subject.  A student will understand more of what he reads if he is particularly interested in the subject. This interest is often a reflection of the student’s prior knowledge of the subject.
  3. The reader’s purpose for reading.  A student who has a purpose for reading is more likely to understand more of what he reads than a student reading the same material who has no purpose for reading. For example, if a student wishes to learn how to operate a computer to play a particular game, he will be more likely to understand more of what is read than a student of equal ability who has no desire to operate the computer or to play a particular game on that computer.
  4. The reader’s ability to decode words rapidly.  If the student must stop to puzzle over new words, he cannot be expected to comprehend well. When many of the words are not easily decoded, the whole process of reading becomes mind boggling. The student must give so much attention to the decoding of new words that attending to comprehension to any degree is difficult, if not impossible. Teachers often experience a similar problem when they are reading a book out loud to a group of students. The demands of oral reading, watching the students in the group, and showing the pictures may cause the teacher to have little or no comprehension of the story being read.

Some factors that affect comprehension in terms of the material being read are:

  1. The number of unfamiliar words.  Unfamiliar words are usually considered to be those that are not on a particular word list according to a readability formula. This means that the more words on a higher grade level, the more difficult to comprehend the material is likely to be.
  2. The length of the sentences.  Research has consistently shown that longer and more complex sentences within a passage are more difficult for most readers to comprehend than shorter, simpler sentences.
  3. The syntax.  Syntax is the way words are put together. Some writers use syntax in ways that make material more difficult to comprehend.

Studies on the nature of comprehension have shown that although teachers of reading often refer to comprehension subskills, they cannot really prove that these subskills exist. Reading researchers definitely know that comprehension involves both a word or vocabulary factor and a group of skills that might be referred to as “other comprehension skills.” Even though they cannot prove that these other comprehension skills exist, many teachers find them useful for teaching purposes. These skills include the ability to

  1. Develop mental images
  2. Recognize main ideas
  3. Recognize important details
  4. Follow directions
  5. Predict outcomes
  6. Recognize the author’s organization
  7. Read critically