Comprehension refers to the ability to read, understand, and remember ideas and information in a written text. Reading comprehension lays a foundation for independent learning and all types of academic literacy. It’s also essential for literacy in the workplace, in the community, and at home. Understanding how to read complex, challenging texts is the starting point for most academic activities in college, including following instructions, reading critically, studying for exams, and taking texts.
It’s important for college students to understand that reading is an active, social process (NCTE; Holschuh and Paulson). Readers create meaning from what they read based on their previous experiences with literacy and with the subject that they are studying. Readers also draw from their cultural, social, and personal backgrounds to make sense of what they read.
David Bloome (an expert on literacy and reading) describes three different social aspects of reading:
First, all reading events involve a social context. Social interaction surrounds and influences interaction with a written text. Second, reading is a cultural activity. That is, reading has social uses which are an extension of people’s day-to-day cultural doings. And third, reading is a socio-cognitive process. Through learning to read and through reading itself, children learn culturally appropriate information, activities, values, and ways of thinking and problem solving. (134)
Each reading activity that you complete for a college course takes place within a specific social and cultural situation. Your own background, knowledge, and previous learning experiences shape your understanding of a written text and how you read it. Your purpose for reading, what you learn from a text, and how you use learning from reading in a course depend partly on the social interactions that take place in a classroom or online with an instructor and other students. Further, as you read texts written for a particular course within a field of study, you will learn about and begin to develop ways for thinking, knowing, and doing work in that academic discipline, trade, or profession. Instructors also have expectations for what students need to do with reading assignments that are based on their own academic backgrounds and their personal teaching preferences. As a college reader, you need to adapt your reading strategies and habits based on many different social reading situations.
Comprehension monitoring is the process that active college readers use to pay attention to their own understanding of a written text, including
- monitoring (paying attention to) whether the reader understands the text
- developing self-awareness of the reader’s own reading processes
- identifying which parts of a text are difficult to understand
- figuring out how to adapt reading strategies to increase comprehension
- taking steps to correct problems with reading comprehension
- Do I understand what I am reading enough to achieve my reading purpose? If not, why not? What strategies can I use for increasing my understanding?
- Are the reading strategies or methods that I am using working for me? Why or why not?
- If a method or strategy isn’t working, what might work better for the purpose of this particular reading task?
Reading strategies are purposeful steps or actions that readers take to increase their reading comprehension and successfully use a written text for a specific purpose. Strategic reading means adapting to different reading situations and adjusting reading strategies based on the purpose of a reading task.
Skilled college readers need to select reading strategies that fit each unique reading assignment and course. Many different factors shape a reading situation and influence the choices that experienced readers make, including
- the academic discipline or field of study for a course
- type of text (genre)
- the difficulty level (complexity) of the text
- requirements of related coursework (what students are expected to do with the text)
- whether students need to memorize concepts from a text for a quiz or test
- how texts will be used for course learning activities in a classroom or online
- prior knowledge about (or lack of experience with) the topic and content
- the cultural, social, or historical background knowledge required for understanding the text
- instructor expectations
- prior experiences with other texts written for similar audiences and purposes
- reading clues and study resources available in a textbook or online
Other personal factors can affect the choices that a college reader makes at a particular moment in time, including alertness, fatigue, physical and mental wellness, overall academic workload, available time, distractions, location for studying, and access to personal resources. Ideally, college readers select the most effective study strategies that will work for a particular assignment and course. However, college students also need to balance the need to understand and remember what they read for a course with other demands on their time by developing strategies that work effectively but aren’t time consuming. College reading strategies must be flexible enough that readers can adapt them based on personal needs and the requirements of a course.
Active reading means engaging fully in the reading process, including
- applying reading strategies to increase comprehension
- adapting reading strategies based on the purpose of a reading situation
- selecting reading strategies that work for a particular field of study or course
- interacting with a text (instead of just taking in information)
- monitoring (self-assessing) reading comprehension
- reading critically (questioning, evaluating, analyzing ideas in a text)
- varying their reading rate (speed) according to the purpose and difficulty level of an assignment
- asking questions and making predictions as they read (sometimes subconsciously)
- studying selectively (choosing which parts of a text memorize, skim, or even skip)
- understanding and learning new words by using reading clues within the text
- examining the structure of a text for clues about how to read it
- making connections between the text and previous learning experiences
One of the most important parts of active reading is developing an awareness of reading as a process. Most reading comprehension strategies are part of a three-stage reading process:
Before Reading (Prereading)
Prereading strategies are techniques that students use to prepare for reading a challenging text or studying new information. Examples of prereading strategies include previewing the structure and content of a text, identifying resources in a textbook chapter, reading an abstract (summary) of a research article, and skimming through an introduction to identify the main point. Identifying what the reader already knows about a topic is another example of a prereading strategy. If a college reading assignment is especially challenging, some students do background reading on the topic before reading the assigned text.
Expert readers use a variety of different strategies while they read and adjust those strategies as they monitor their reading comprehension. Note taking is one of the most commonly used reading strategies because the process of taking organized notes can both increase comprehension and serve as a resource for exam preparation. Examples of other reading strategies include asking questions, making predictions, connecting the reading assignment to material from class lectures and activities, using words in bold or italics to identify important vocabulary, and using headings as a tool for understanding the content of a section.
Post-reading strategies are techniques that help students review what they have learned, continue to monitor their understanding of course concepts, and prepare for tests. Often the best time to use a post-reading strategy is immediately after reading instead of waiting until it’s time to study for an exam or write a paper. Examples of post-reading strategies to prepare for exams include creating test review materials, independently creating a quiz, or working in a study group to review learning from reading assignments. Examples of post-reading activities to prepare for writing assignments include reviewing notes to identify ideas to include in an essay, reviewing the main point and key supporting evidence in a text, making connections between more than one text assigned in a course, and participating in reading discussions with classmates. Many college courses now include online resources that help students review for exams.
If you are enrolled in an integrated reading and writing course, you will probably learn about how to develop and apply active reading strategies as part of your class activities.
- Which reading comprehension strategies (if any) have you used most frequently as a student? How have those strategies helped you understand and remember what you read?
- In the courses that you are currently taking, which reading assignments are most challenging for you? How might you increase your understanding of difficult college assignments by using reading comprehension strategies?
[Continue to the next section: “Reading to Learn and Remember.”]
Resources for Further Study
- Ellen Carillo. A Writer’s Guide to Mindful Reading. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017.
- Lumena Learning, “Reading Strategies.”
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Learning Center, “Reading Comprehension Tips.”
Bloome, David. “Reading as a Social Process.” Language Arts, vol. 62, no. 2, 1985, pp. 134–142.
Holschuh, Jodi Patrick and Eric J. Paulson. “The Terrain of College Developmental Reading.” College Reading and Learning Association, July 2013.
National Council of Teachers of English, “The Act of Reading: Instructional Foundations and Policy Guidelines.” NCTE, 5 December 2019.