Reading Comprehension: Can it be measured?

Often reading comprehension comes up as a question for families and instructors. This is reasonable – given we read to understand and acquire knowledge. However, screening for comprehension with an assessment tool rarely felt like it got it right.

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Below are a few of my anecdotal and experiential thoughts, in case they are interesting or helpful in any way.

And more importantly, I recommend checking out this post from a reading blogger – which gave validation to my instincts and speaks to why those tests never felt right.

Here is the link.  I encourage checking it out if you are wondering about your learner’s reading comprehension. This article was brought to my attention from an Emily Hanford post. From what I can find on the blog, it is unclear who the “The Reading Ape” is, but the points ring true to my experience and the post is well-documented with research references. See what you think, and let me know your perspective.

A Few Notes from my Direct Experience

When trying to screen for comprehension, I have often felt unsatisfied with measures to try to quantify comprehension skills with an assessment tool. Usually, students are asked to read a small passage, and then answer an array of questions in different categories – such as details, facts, inferences, and vocabulary. Usually, there are 5 questions. There may also be questions for predicting and summarizing orally. Frankly, it all felt pretty random. Sometimes my students might know a lot about the topic – maybe it was about animals or baseball – or they might know nothing. Those who already know about the topic clearly had an advantage if the passage happened to connect to their experience. This brings me to one of the first and most memorable things I was taught about reading comprehension in my early training that surprised me, stuck with my, and has borne out in experience: the best predictor for comprehension is background knowledge.


There are other factors to reading and thinking style, that didn’t seem to be valued or addressed by the comprehension measures, and I was often trying to make choices about what to ‘count’ technically to keep with the measurement tool. And at that point, it all starts to feel subjective. For example, some of my students are creative thinkers, who would go on flights of fancy or tangents that related to the text, but weren’t exactly among the ‘correct responses,” nor did it seem an indicator of not understanding what they read. Other students seemed to understand what they read, but perhaps didn’t recall an exact detail, and yet they weren’t allowed to revisit the text. In real reading, you can flip back and recheck details. This is more about memory for details than comprehension. It is even possible to remember all the details but not really understand what the text is about.


For the reading comprehension skills tests – I can teach my students strategies to help them find answers, perhaps without even reading the text or all of it. That can look like comprehension in an outcome, but it’s more about learning how to score well on a comprehension test. This can have value for the demands of school, however, it doesn’t seem to me to be authentic comprehension.


What I Have Found

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Here are factors that do matter, can be taught, and can be measured: Accurate decoding; knowledge of word parts (roots and affixes), and strategies for attending to text. These are essential for comprehension. Most often, the biggest challenge for my students is building accurate decoding skills, and then developing ease with their experiences with text. This allows them to continue to practice reading outside of sessions, to become more consistent readers, build momentum and gain traction that creates a loop of success.

If accurate decoding is in place, and comprehension still comes into question, then a more interactive and connected approach to understanding text is needed. My sense is that having rich conversations about the text, connecting with peers, family, and instructors by talking about a book to link to background knowledge, to backfill information as needed, and discuss vocabulary are key areas of value. Modeling connected interactions with text will build understanding and inspire a love of learning through reading.


Comprehension is complex and layered. There is a lot that can be discussed when considering if it is measurable. If you have thoughts or insights to add, happy to hear them.

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