Reading Comprehension

The principal thought behind reading comprehension lies in vocabulary. Vocabulary facilitates the writing process in three ways:

  • Thinking—a large vocabulary gives the reader/writer more control over ideas…for example, it might help them to compose a very specific thesis for their paper.
  • Understanding—the more words the reader/writer is aware of, the less time he or she will spend hesitating between words or sentences; thus, the understanding will be continuous rather than fragmented. Allowing the reader to maintain a constant speed, vocabulary will not only enhance the reader's comprehension, but will also enable them to read more quickly.
  • Writing—increasing vocabulary will result in long term benefits as the writer, understanding the items read, will be able to compose papers or essays based on understanding rather than guesswork.

General principles

The more extensive the vocabulary, the better the comprehension.

A reciprocal relationship exists between reading and writing. Individuals are born with a mental grammar which, placed in context, allows the individual to place a meaning upon that particular word or phrase in an appropriate context. Contextual practice will assist individuals in activating that mental placement, enhancing their understanding of different materials.

The more active the mind while reading, the better the comprehension and the retention of material; for example, pre-reading activities help with comprehension. The following are suggestions for pre-reading activities:


  • Look at the title, and call up all previous knowledge about the subject.
  • Look at the subheadings.
  • Ask questions such as what do you expect to learn? What type of information is being presented?


Read in short sessions. Thirty-minute periods are suggested for maintaining effective concentration. Take breaks and complete quick reviews.


Develop note-taking strategies. Suggested strategies:

  • Outline text. Extend the author's main points.
  • Agree or disagree with the text, and list your reasons for that dis/agreement.
  • List what the author has neglected to say about a subject.
  • Compare one of the author's points with another essay. Make a list of comparisons and contrasts.


Activate student involvement. Reading comprehension exercises must be followed with a transfer exercise in which the student applies the understanding he or she has gained.


  1. For example, have the student write a paragraph in which he or she develops a thesis and provides several supporting points. Have the student explain how he or she would support his or her theories with proof and what types of evidence would be used.
  2. Then taking a paragraph written by another author, have the student identify the elements he or she previously used in the above paragraph.

Techniques to Promote Reading Comprehension


  • the author's thesis in the chapter or article (located towards the end of the introduction; repeated in the conclusion.)
  • the key supporting points (located in topic sentences in body paragraphs; or ask who, what, when, where, why, how.)
  • the most important details functioning as evidence for the key supporting points.

Distinguish between:

  • the topic and the author's opinion of the topic
  • the factual information and the author's interpretation
  • the author's opinion and the reader's opinion
  • the key information and the redundant details
  • the literal meaning and the inferences


  • the author's purpose in writing this article
  • the date it was written
  • the audience it was intended for
  • the pattern(s) of organization (for example, time order, cause/effect, problem/solution, description, classification, definition)
  • the scope of the author's research
  • the evidence provided for the claims (How convincing is it?)
  • the relationship of any graphical information to the text
  • the style and tone (word choice, sentence length and variety, etc)

A Study Reading Method--SQ4R: Six Steps to Successful Reading

Note:  Each step should be repeated section by section.

  1. Survey
  2. Question
  3. Read
  4. Recite
  5. (w)Rite
  6. Review


  • preview the entire reading
  • think about the title
  • read the chapter objectives, introduction, and summary or last paragraph
  • note the headings and subheadings and their relationships
  • glance at any graphs or visuals
  • notice any study questions for the chapter


  • formulate questions for each section of the chapter
  • ask, "What's important here and do I understand it?"
  • anticipate the sorts of questions your instructors may ask on the test
  • turn each heading into a question with wh- words
  • as you read, change or add questions to accommodate the new information
  • write your questions down


  • read each section with the intent to answer the questions
  • vary your speed according to the importance of the material
  • mark/highlight important items only


  • look away from the book, read your questions and say the answers out loud (Putting the ideas into your own language makes them your own.)
  • be selective; only recite the most important information
  • use your preview and the class notes to determine what is important


  • write brief study notes, only key words, phrases, lists that are needed to recall the whole idea
  • make the notes visually meaningful by using diagrams, white space, color, etc
  • write a summary sentence of especially important or difficult sections
  • *Now repeat steps 2 through 5 for each successive section until the chapter is complete.


  • review soon and often to complete the learning process
  • review all your questions and answers before you end the session (immediate review)
  • use the questions to test yourself; be sure you can give out the information, not just understand it
  • review several chapters again within a week (delayed review)

Successful study reading requires the use of many skills, which take practice to acquire. SQ4R, or your adaptation of it, may seem tedious and overwhelming at first, but with time it will become an unconscious process in your reading.


Chaffee, John. Thinking Critically. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Kennedy, Mary Lynch and Hadley M. Smith. Reading and Writing in the Academic Community. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Kollaritsch, Jane M. Reading and Study Organization Methods for Higher Learning. 4th ed. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1990.

McWhorter, K.T. College Reading and Study Skills. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.

Pauk, Walter. How to Study in College. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Created by Megan Johnston, in consultation with Ms. Lyndall Nairn, Assistant Professor of English at Lynchburg College.