Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy

Reading comprehension is one of the most complex cognitive activities in which humans engage, making it difficult to teach, measure, and research. Despite decades of research in reading comprehension, international and national reading scores indicate stagnant growth for U.S. adolescents. In this article, we review the theoretical and empirical research in reading comprehension. We first explore different theoretical models for comprehension and then focus on components shown to be important across models that represent potential targets for instruction. In the last part of the article, we consider solutions for translating research to practice and policies for improving instruction. Improving reading scores will require a concerted and collaborative effort by researchers, educators, and policy makers with a focus on long-term solutions. An early and sustained focus on developing background knowledge, vocabulary, inference, and comprehension monitoring skills across development will be necessary to improve comprehension.

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The use of new technologies for improving reading comprehension.

\r\nAgnese Capodieci*

  • 1 Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Padua, Italy
  • 2 Azienda Sociosanitaria Ligure 5 Spezzino, La Spezia, Italy

Since the introduction of writing systems, reading comprehension has always been a foundation for achievement in several areas within the educational system, as well as a prerequisite for successful participation in most areas of adult life. The increased availability of technologies and web-based resources can be a really valid support, both in the educational and clinical field, to devise training activities that can also be carried out remotely. There are studies in current literature that has examined the efficacy of internet-based programs for reading comprehension for children with reading comprehension difficulties but almost none considered distance rehabilitation programs. The present paper reports data concerning a distance program Cloze , developed in Italy, for improving language and reading comprehension. Twenty-eight children from 3rd to 6th grade with comprehension difficulties were involved. These children completed the distance program for 15–20 min for at least three times a week for about 4 months. The program was presented separately to each child, with a degree of difficulty adapted to his/her characteristics. Text reading comprehension (assessed distinguishing between narrative and informative texts) increased after intervention. These findings have clinical and educational implications as they suggest that it is possible to promote reading comprehension with a distance individualized program, avoiding the need for the child displacements, necessary for reaching a rehabilitation center.


Reading comprehension is a fundamental cognitive ability for children, that supports school achievement and successively participation in most areas of adult life ( Hulme and Snowling, 2011 ). Therefore, children with learning disabilities (LD) and special educational needs who show difficulties in text comprehension, sometimes also in association with other problems, may have an increased risk of life and school failure ( Woolley, 2011 ). Reading comprehension is, indeed, a complex cognitive ability which involves not only linguistic (e.g., vocabulary, grammatical knowledge), but also cognitive (such as working memory, De Beni and Palladino, 2000 ), and metacognitive skills (both for the aspects of knowledge and control, Channa et al., 2015 ), and, more specifically, higher order comprehension skills such as the generation of inferences ( Oakhill et al., 2003 ).

Recently, due to the diffusion of technology in many fields of daily life, text comprehension at school, at home during homework, and at work is based on an increasing number of digital reading devices (computers and laptops, e-books, and tablet devices) that can become a fundamental support to improve traditional reading comprehension and learning skills (e.g., inference generation).

Some authors contrasted in children with typical development the effects of the technological interface on reading comprehension vs printed texts ( Kerr and Symons, 2006 ; Rideout et al., 2010 ; Mangen et al., 2013 ; Singer and Alexander, 2017 ; Delgado et al., 2018 ). Results were consistent and showed a worse comprehension performance in screen texts compared to printed texts for children ( Mangen et al., 2013 ; Delgado et al., 2018 ) and adolescents who nonetheless showed a preference for digital texts compared to printed texts ( Singer and Alexander, 2017 ). Regarding children with learning problems, only few studies considered the differences between printed texts and digital devices ( Chen, 2009 ; Gonzalez, 2014 ; Krieger, 2017 ) finding no significant differences, suggesting that the use of compensative digital tools for children with a learning difficulty could be a valid alternative with respect to the traditional written texts in facilitating their academic and work performance. This conclusion is also supported by the results of a meta-analysis ( Moran et al., 2008 ), regarding the use of digital tools and learning environments for enhancing literacy acquisition in middle school students, which demonstrates that technology can improve reading comprehension.

Different procedures and abilities are targeted in the international literature concerning computerized training programs for reading comprehension. In particular, various studies include activities promoting cognitive (e.g., vocabulary, inference making) and metacognitive (e.g., the use of strategies, comprehension monitoring, and identification of relevant parts in a text) components of reading comprehension. Table 1 reports the list of papers proposing computerized training programs with a summary of the findings encountered. Participants involved cover different ages and school grades, the majority belonging to middle school and high school. The general outcome of the studies is positive due to a significant improvement in comprehension skills after the training program with long-lasting effects also during follow-up; indeed, the majority of participants involved in training programs outperformed their peers assigned to comparison groups and maintained their improvements. Specifically, several studies ( O’Reilly et al., 2004 ; Magliano et al., 2005 ; McNamara et al., 2006 ) used the iSTART program with adolescents and young adults. This program promotes self-explanation, prior knowledge and reading strategies to enhance understanding of descriptive scientific texts. Results demonstrated that students who followed the iSTART program received more benefits than their peers, improving self-explanation and summarization. Additionally, strategic knowledge was a relevant factor for the outcome in comprehension tasks including multiple choice questions: students who already possessed good strategic knowledge improved their accuracy when answering to bridging inference questions, whereas students with low strategic knowledge became more accurate with text-based questions. Another program, ITSS, was used with younger students ( Meyer et al., 2011 ; Wijekumar et al., 2012 , 2013 , 2017 ), with the objective to support activities based on identifying main parts and key words in a text and classifying information in a hierarchical order. Positive outcomes were found also with such program since students who followed the ITSS program significantly improved text comprehension compared to their peers in the control group.

Table 1. Synthesis of the main results of the computerized training programs on comprehension present in the literature.

Although most of the literature deals with typical development, also cases of students with learning difficulties were considered. For example, Potocki et al. (2013) (see also Potocki et al., 2015 ) examined the effects of two different computerized programs with specific aims: one focusing on comprehension features, such as inference making and the analysis of text structure, the other considering decoding skills. Both training programs brought some benefits to reading comprehension, however larger effects were found with the program focused on comprehension with long-lasting effects in listening and reading comprehension (see also Kleinsz et al., 2017 ). Studies by Johnson-Glenberg (2005) and Kim et al. (2006) , using respectively the programs 3D Readers and CACSR, were able to promote reading comprehension abilities in middle school students through metacognitive activities. Thanks to these programs students also became more aware of reading strategies and implemented them more successfully during text comprehension. In particular, a study by Niedo et al. (2014) , obtained positive results on silent reading in a small group of children struggling with reading using the “cloze” procedure. This procedure proposes exercises in which parts of a text, typically words, are missing and participants are required to complete the text guessing what is missing.

Thus, computerized programs generally seem to improve reading comprehension skills. However, it should be noticed that, in most cases, students were trained at school, without the personalized support of a clinician taking into consideration the cognitive and psychological needs of the child. In particular, to our knowledge, no program examined the effects of an internet-based distance reading comprehension program which allows the child to be trained at home in a personalized way. A useful aspect of an internet-based distance training is that the psychologist can monitor with the application ( app ) the child’s results and activities and write him/her some motivational messages, reducing the attritions present in programs carried out at home with the only supervision of parents. Literature concerning distance trainings is still rare, however, some evidence suggests that these programs may represent a good integration to other types of intervention, usually carried out at school, in a rehabilitation center or at home (e.g., Mich et al., 2013 ).

Therefore, despite still preliminary, we think that it is relevant to present data about a distance program developed in Italy named Cloze ( Cornoldi and Bertolo, 2013 ), devised for rehabilitation purposes but with potential implication also for educational contexts. Cloze has been developed to promote inferential abilities both at a sentence- and discourse-level using the “cloze” procedure. Several findings in the literature demonstrate that abilities, such as anticipating text parts and inference making, bring improvements in text comprehension (e.g., Yuill and Oakhill, 1988 ) and it has been shown that one way to promote inferential competences is to improve the ability to predict parts of the text that are missing or that follow, considering the available information: the “cloze” technique appears to be one of the most successful ways for this purpose (e.g., Greene, 2001 ).

In the current study the effectiveness of this training program has been tested on a clinical population who exhibited, for various reasons, difficulties in reading comprehension. Participants were 28 children (16 male and 12 female) attending a private practice for learning difficulties in the city of La Spezia, in the north-west of Italy, from 3rd to 6th school grade (5 of 3rd, 9 of 4th, 11 of 5th and 3 of 6th grade), with a mean age of children of M = 9.79 years (SD = 1.03). Seventeen children had a current or past speech disorder: of these children 10 also had a LD (Learning Disabilities) and one was bilingual (speech problems were not due to bilingualism). The other 11 children had a LD or important learning difficulties, and one of them had also ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). For the goals of the study, all these children were considered together as they all presented a severe reading comprehension difficulty as reported by parents and teachers and confirmed by the initial assessment.

All children had received a comprehensive psychological assessment (see Table 2 ), adapted to their particular needs and ages. In particular all children had an IQ >80 assessed with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-IV (WISC-IV; Wechsler, 2003 ) and did not have anxiety disorders, mood affective disorders or other developmental disorders, with the exception of the cases with language disorder and the case with ADHD. Children were not receiving any additional treatment, including medication. Written consent was obtained from the children’s parents in the context of the private practice.

Table 2. Main characteristics of the sample in terms of reading and cognitive abilities.

Materials and Methods

Pre-/post-test assessment and procedure of the training.

Each child started a training program through the distance rehabilitation platform Ridinet, using the Cloze app, after the assessment of learning and cognitive abilities, including comprehension assessment with two texts, one narrative and one informative ( Cornoldi and Carretti, 2016 ; Cornoldi et al., 2017 ). Connection to the Ridinet web site was required in order to access to the app, three or four times a week for more or less 15/20 min. The period of use was of 3 months for 6 children and 4 months for 22 children. After this period children’s comprehension was assessed again. Additionally, some questions were asked to parents and children about the app’s utility and pleasantness. In particular, children were asked: “Do you think the program helped you improve your text comprehension skills?,” “Did you like doing this program instead of the same exercises on paper?”; and parents were asked: “Was it difficult to start the Cloze activities on days when it had to be done?,” “Compared to the beginning of the treatment, how do you currently judge the ability of your child to understand the texts?”. For all questions, except the last one, the answer had to be given on a 5-point scale with 1 = not at all, 2 = a little, 3 = enough, 4 = very, 5 = very much. For the last question the answer changed on a 4-point scale with 1 = got worse, 2 = unchanged, 3 = slightly improved, and 4 = greatly improved.

Comprehension Tasks

Reading comprehension was assessed with two texts, the first narrative and the other informative, taken from Italian batteries for the assessment of reading ( Cornoldi and Carretti, 2016 ; Cornoldi et al., 2017 ). The texts range between 226 and 455 words in length, and their length increases with school grade (in order to have texts and questions matching the degrees of expertise at different grades the batteries include a different pair of texts for each grade). Students read the text in silence at their own pace, then answer a variable number of multiple-choice questions (depending on school grade), choosing one of four possible answers. There is no time limit, and students can reread the text whenever they wish. The final score is calculated as the total number of correct answers for each text. Alpha coefficients, as reported by the manuals, range between 0.61 and 0.83. For the purposes of the study we decided to use the same two comprehension texts, at pre-test and post-test, as the procedure offered the opportunity of directly examining and showing to parents changes in comprehension and previous evidence had shown the absence of relevant retest effects with this material in a retest carried out after 3 months ( Viola and Carretti, 2019 ).

Distance Rehabilitation Program: Cloze

Cloze ( Cornoldi and Bertolo, 2013 ) is an app for the promotion of text comprehension with the specific aim to recover processes of lexical and semantic inference. At each work session the child works with texts that lack words and must complete the empty spaces by choosing the correct alternative from those automatically proposed by the app, so that the text becomes congruent. The program is adaptive, as text complexity and proportion of missing words vary according to the previous level of response, and is designed for children who have weaknesses in written text comprehension, mainly due to poor skills in lexical and semantic inferential processes. The app also allows to enhance a set of language skills (phonology, syntax, semantics) which contribute to ensuring the fluidity of text and production processing. The recommended age range for the use of this program is between 7 and 14 years. In this study the semantic mode (only content words may be missing and no syntactic cues can be used for deciding between the alternatives) was proposed to 21 children and the syntactic mode (where all words may be missing) to 7 children. The mode type selected for each child depends from the performance at pre-test and diagnosis. A clinician, co-author of the present study (LB), monitored the child’s results and activities with the app and sent him/her from time to time some motivational messages. The motivational messages were typically sent once a week for congratulating with children for the work done and check with him/her possible problems emerged. Training lasted from 3 to 4 months and involved between 3 and 4 sessions of 15–20 min per week. The variation in duration depended on the decision of each individual family. In fact, children were required to use the software for about 4 months or in any case for a minimum period of 3 months (choice made by six families).

Effects on Reading Comprehension of Cloze Training

All analyses were carried out with SPSS 25 ( IBM Corp, 2017 ). A preliminary analysis found that all the examined variables met the assumptions of normality (K-S between 0.106 and 0.143, p > 0.05). Then, we compared the reading comprehension performance of children before and after the computerized training with Cloze . For this analysis, a repeated measure Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was conducted on comprehension scores to examine the differences in the whole group of children between the scores obtained before and after the training. A significant difference was found for both comprehension texts [ F (1,27) = 22.37, p < 0.001, η 2 p = 0.453 and F (1,27) = 38.90, p < 0.001, η 2 p = 0.599, respectively]. Possible differences between the two training modalities (semantic vs syntactic) and between different training periods (3 months vs 4 months) were then analyzed; no significant differences emerged between groups in both cases [ F (1,27) < 1].

Secondly, to analyze the role of individual differences at pre-test, the standardized training gain score (STG; Jaeggi et al., 2011 ) – computed by subtracting post-test score minus pre-test score, divided by the SD of the pre-test – was calculated for the two texts comprehension. Pearson correlations were computed between the STG and the variable collected at pre-test (reading speed and errors, WISC IV – Full scale IQ, Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Reasoning, Working Memory and Processing Speed indexes). The only significant correlation was between STG of the narrative text and Verbal Comprehension Index of the WISC-IV Scale ( r = 0.38, p = 0.048). Finally, individual improvements from pre- to post-test were also confirmed considering changes in performance in terms of standard deviation in relations to norms (provided by the manual). Table 3 shows the number of children for each comprehension text who improved their performance moving from a performance at least 2 standard deviations or between 1 and 2 negative standard deviations under the mean to a performance above one negative standard deviation.

Table 3. Changes in performance in relations to norms (provided by the manual) after the training program Cloze.

Perceived Utility, Pleasantness, Parents and Child’s Improvements of Cloze

Results concerning the answers of parents and children about utility, pleasantness and self-perceived efficacy of the app, were also analyzed. At the first question, addressing children’s perceived improvement in comprehension skills, more than half of the sample chose the alternatives “very” or “very much” (15 “very” and 5 “very much”), only 1 child answered “a little” and the others chose “enough.” At the second question, about the pleasure of doing this kind of activity instead of pen and paper activities, all children answered “very” or “very much.” Concerning parents’ questions, at the first question about the difficulty to start the Cloze activity, only one parent answered “enough,” a quarter of the sample chose “a little” (seven families) and all the other 20 families chose the alternative “not at all.” At the last question about the perceived training efficacy on their child’s performance, the large majority of the families chose “slightly improved” or “greatly improved” and only three parents thought their children’s ability had remained unchanged. However, no correlations between parents and child’s perceived improvements and STG in reading comprehension were found.

The present study examined the effects of the use of Cloze , a distance rehabilitation program focused on inference skills, for improving reading comprehension, on the basis of the hypothesis that, being inference making related to reading comprehension at different ages (e.g., Oakhill and Cain, 2012 ), positive effects of the training activities on reading comprehension should be found.

Concerning the efficacy of computer-assisted training programs, literature highlights that many training programs are devised for an educational context. Results are generally encouraging with positive effects on reading comprehension, measured with materials different from those practiced during the training. However, few studies analyzed the efficacy in children with specific reading comprehension problems, and no studies considered the possibility of carrying out a training at home under the distance supervision of an expert. The latter characteristics are those that make the Cloze peculiar compared to the existent literature. Cloze is indeed based on a rehabilitation online platform which allows the child to complete personalized training activities several times a week, without moving from his/her home, and concurrently enabling the clinician to monitor the child’s progress or manage activities’ characteristics. The advantage of this procedure is twofold: on one hand it increases the potential number of training sessions per week, on the other hand it permits to save the necessary time to reach the center for rehabilitation and to reduce the costs of the intervention.

The preliminary data on Cloze were generally positive: children, working on either two slightly different versions of the same program, showed a generalized improvement in reading comprehension tasks and, together with their families, expressed appreciation for the pleasantness and the efficacy of the program. Encouraging results emerged also from the analysis of individual improvements referring to normative scores, as reported in Table 3 : most of the children’s performance migrated from a highly negative level to an average level.

It is noticeable that the efficacy of the training was assessed with materials different from those practiced during the training sessions, since reading comprehension tasks required to read a paper text and complete a series of multiple-choice questions. In future studies it would be interesting to analyze the effects of the program on skills known to be related to text comprehension, such as vocabulary or comprehension monitoring, for example. There is good reason to believe that since these variables are highly predictive of comprehension skills (and given that training in these skills sometimes improve comprehension; e.g., Beck et al., 1982 ; see also Hulme and Snowling, 2011 ), training that specifically targets comprehension might, in turn, lead to improvements in vocabulary or comprehension monitoring skills. Further studies are needed to explore this hypothesis.

A second relevant finding of the present study is the presence of a positive correlation between the gain obtained in one of the reading comprehension text (the narrative one) and the Verbal Comprehension Intelligence Quotient (VCIQ) index of the WISC-IV battery, showing that children who started with more resources in verbal intelligence achieved greater improvements in text comprehension at least with one type of text through the Cloze . The activities probably required to develop some kind of strategies, and for this reason students with larger verbal intellectual resources, who were presumably more able to develop new strategies, were more advantaged. Indeed, this amplification effect is usually found when training activities require the development of strategies ( von Bastian and Oberauer, 2014 ). Such result has clinical and educational implications, inviting professionals and teachers to consider children’s starting resources and, if necessary, to combine activities conducted through distance rehabilitation programs with personal intervention sessions that could teach strategies and promote a metacognitive approach to reading comprehension. However, some limitations of the present study must be acknowledged. Firstly, study did not include a control group, therefore findings should be taken with caution, although normative data and previous results obtained with the same test offer support to the robustness of our results and the use of normative data offers a control measure of how reading comprehension skills are acquired in typically developing children without specific training, therefore functioning as a sort of passive control group. Secondly, the treated group, although characterized by a common reading comprehension difficulty, was partly heterogeneous, as children attended different grades and could have different diagnoses. Unfortunately, the limited number of subjects, with the consequence that it was not possible to form groups defined both by the grade and the diagnosis, did not permit to make analyses taking into account the grade and the diagnosis as between-subjects factors. Future studies should examine a more homogeneous population or consider a larger sample of children, giving more information about the efficacy of training in different children population. Additionally, the fact that the treatment was concluded with the post-training assessment did not offer the opportunity to further examine the procedure and maintenance effects with a follow-up. Despite the limitations, this study offers evidence concerning the efficacy of new methods, based on computer-assisted training programs that could be beneficial in training high-level skills such as comprehension and inference generation. Such tools can be extremely worthwhile for struggling readers who may need to receive further attention in mastering higher level reading comprehension.

Data Availability Statement

The datasets generated for this study are available on request to the corresponding author.

Ethics Statement

Ethical review and approval was not required for the study on human participants in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. Written informed consent to participate in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardian/next of kin. Written informed consent was obtained from the individual(s) for the publication of any potentially identifiable images or data included in this article.

Author Contributions

AC, CC and BC contributed to the design and implementation of the research. LB provided the data. BC organized the database. AC performed the statistical analysis. ED did the literature research and wrote the section about the review of the literature. AC and BC wrote the other sections. CC contributed to the manuscript revision, read and approved the submitted version.

The present work was carried out within the scope of the research program Dipartimenti di Eccellenza (art.1, commi 314-337 legge 232/2016), which was supported by a grant from MIUR to the Department of General Psychology, University of Padua and partially supported by a grant (PRIN 2015, 2015AR52F9_003) to Cesare Cornoldi funded by the Italian Ministry of Research and Education (MIUR).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Cornoldi, C., Carretti, B., and Colpo, C. (2017). Prove MT-Kit Scuola. Dalla valutazione degli Apprendimenti di Lettura E Comprensione Al Potenziamento. [MT-Kit for the Assessment In The School. From Reading Assessment To Its Enhancement]. Firenze: Giunti Edu.

Cullen, J. M., Alber-Morgan, S. R., Schnell, S. T., and Wheaton, J. E. (2014). Improving reading skills of students with disabilities using headsprout comprehension. Remed. Spec. Educ. 35, 356–365. doi: 10.1177/0741932514534075

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Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., and Salmerón, L. (2018). Don’t throw away your printed books: a meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educ. Res. Rev. 25, 23–38. doi: 10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.003

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Wijekumar, K. K., Meyer, B. J., and Lei, P. (2013). High-fidelity implementation of web-based intelligent tutoring system improves fourth and fifth graders content area reading comprehension. Comput. Educ. 68, 366–379. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2013.05.021

Wijekumar, K. K., Meyer, B. J., and Lei, P. (2017). Web-based text structure strategy instruction improves seventh graders’ content area reading comprehension. J. Educ. Psychol. 109, 741–760. doi: 10.1037/edu0000168

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Keywords : reading comprehension, training, distance rehabilitation program, digital device, Cloze app

Citation: Capodieci A, Cornoldi C, Doerr E, Bertolo L and Carretti B (2020) The Use of New Technologies for Improving Reading Comprehension. Front. Psychol. 11:751. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00751

Received: 20 November 2019; Accepted: 27 March 2020; Published: 23 April 2020.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2020 Capodieci, Cornoldi, Doerr, Bertolo and Carretti. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Agnese Capodieci, [email protected] ; Laura Bertolo, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Research Zeroes In on a Barrier to Reading (Plus, Tips for Teachers)

How much background knowledge is needed to understand a piece of text? New research appears to discover the tipping point.

Photo collage illustration concept for reading comprehension and background knowledge

By now, you’ve probably heard of the baseball experiment. It’s several decades old but has experienced a resurgence in popularity since Natalie Wexler highlighted it in her best-selling new book, The Knowledge Gap .

In the 1980s, researchers Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie asked middle school students to read a passage describing a baseball game, then reenact it with wooden figures on a miniature baseball field. They were surprised by the results: Even the best readers struggled to re-create the events described in the passage. 

“Prior knowledge creates a scaffolding for information in memory,” they explained after seeing the results. “Students with high reading ability but low knowledge of baseball were no more capable of recall or summarization than were students with low reading ability and low knowledge of baseball.”

That modest experiment kicked off 30 years of research into reading comprehension, and study after study confirmed Recht and Leslie’s findings: Without background knowledge, even skilled readers labor to make sense of a topic. But those studies left a lot of questions unanswered: How much background knowledge is needed for better decoding? Is there a way to quantify and measure prior knowledge?

A 2019 study published in Psychological Science is finally shedding light on those mysteries. The researchers discovered a “knowledge threshold” when it comes to reading comprehension: If students were unfamiliar with 59 percent of the terms in a topic, their ability to understand the text was “compromised.”

In the study, 3,534 high school students were presented with a list of 44 terms and asked to identify whether each was related to the topic of ecology. Researchers then analyzed the student responses to generate a background-knowledge score, which represented their familiarity with the topic. 

Without any interventions, students then read about ecosystems and took a test measuring how well they understood what they had read.

Students who scored less than 59 percent on the background-knowledge test also performed relatively poorly on the subsequent test of reading comprehension. But researchers noted a steep improvement in comprehension above the 59 percent threshold—suggesting both that a lack of background knowledge can be an obstacle to reading comprehension, and that there is a baseline of knowledge that rapidly accelerates comprehension.

Why does background knowledge matter? Reading is more than just knowing the words on the page, the researchers point out. It’s also about making inferences about what’s left off the page—and the more background knowledge a reader has, the better able he or she is to make those inferences.

“Collectively, these results may help identify who is likely to have a problem comprehending information on a specific topic and, to some extent, what knowledge is likely required to comprehend information on that topic,” conclude Tenaha O'Reilly, the lead author of the study, and his colleagues.

5 Ways Teachers Can Build Background Knowledge 

Spending a few minutes making sure that students meet the knowledge threshold for a topic can yield outsized results. Here’s what teachers can do:

  • Mind the gap: You may be an expert in civil war history, but be mindful that your students will represent a wide range of existing background knowledge on the topic. Similarly, take note of the cultural, social, economic, and racial diversity in your classroom. You may think it’s cool to teach physics using a trebuchet, but not all students have been exposed to the same ideas that you have.
  • Identify common terms in the topic. Ask yourself, “What are the main ideas in this topic? Can I connect what we’re learning to other big ideas for students?” If students are learning about earthquakes, for example, take a step back and look at what else they should know about—perhaps Pangaea, Earth’s first continent, or what tectonic plates are. Understanding these concepts can anchor more complex ideas like P and S waves. And don’t forget to go over some broad-stroke ideas—such as history’s biggest earthquakes—so that students are more familiar with the topic.
  • Incorporate low-stakes quizzes. Before starting a lesson, use formative assessment strategies such as entry slips or participation cards to quickly identify gaps in knowledge.
  • Build concept maps. Consider leading students in the creation of visual models that map out a topic’s big ideas—and connect related ideas that can provide greater context and address knowledge gaps. Visual models provide another way for students to process and encode information, before they dive into reading.
  • Sequence and scaffold lessons. When introducing a new topic, try to connect it to previous lessons: Reactivating knowledge the students already possess will serve as a strong foundation for new lessons. Also, consider your sequencing carefully before you start the year to take maximum advantage of this effect.  

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Intervention based on science of reading and math boosts comprehension and word problem-solving skills

by University of Kansas


New research from the University of Kansas has found that an intervention based on the science of reading and math effectively helped English learners boost their comprehension, visualize and synthesize information, and make connections that significantly improved their math performance.

The intervention , performed for 30 minutes twice a week for 10 weeks with 66 third-grade English language learners who displayed math learning difficulties, improved students' performance when compared to students who received general instruction. This indicates that emphasizing cognitive concepts involved in the science of reading and math are key to helping students improve, according to researchers.

"Word problem-solving is influenced by both the science of reading and the science of math. Key components include number sense, decoding, language comprehension and working memory. Utilizing direct and explicit teaching methods enhances understanding and enables students to effectively connect these skills to solve math problems . This integrated approach ensures that students are equipped with necessary tools to navigate both the linguistic and numerical demands of word problems," said Michael Orosco, professor of educational psychology at KU and lead author of the study.

The intervention incorporates comprehension strategy instruction in both reading and math, focusing and decoding, phonological awareness, vocabulary development, inferential thinking, contextualized learning and numeracy.

"It is proving to be one of the most effective evidence-based practices available for this growing population," Orosco said.

The study, co-written with Deborah Reed of the University of Tennessee, was published in the journal Learning Disabilities Research and Practice .

For the research, trained tutors implemented the intervention, developed by Orosco and colleagues based on cognitive and culturally responsive research conducted over a span of 20 years. One example of an intervention session tested in the study included a script in which a tutor examined a word problem explaining that a person made a quesadilla for his friend Mario and gave him one-fourth of it, then asked students to determine how much remained.

The tutor first asked students if they remembered a class session in which they made quesadillas and what shape they were, and demonstrated concepts by drawing a circle on the board, dividing it into four equal pieces, having students repeat terms like numerator and denominator. The tutor explains that when a question asks how much is left, subtraction is required. The students also collaborated with peers to practice using important vocabulary in sentences. The approach both helps students learn and understand mathematical concepts while being culturally responsive.

"Word problems are complex because they require translating words into mathematical equations, and this involves integrating the science of reading and math through language concepts and differentiated instruction," Orosco said. "We have not extensively tested these approaches with this group of children. However, we are establishing an evidence-based framework that aids them in developing background knowledge and connecting it to their cultural contexts."

Orosco, director of KU's Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Neuroscience, emphasized the critical role of language in word problems, highlighting the importance of using culturally familiar terms. For instance, substituting "pastry" for "quesadilla" could significantly affect comprehension for students from diverse backgrounds. Failure to grasp the initial scenario could impede subsequent problem-solving efforts.

The study proved effective in improving students' problem-solving abilities, despite covariates including an individual's basic calculation skills, fluid intelligence and reading comprehension scores. That finding is key, as while ideally all students would begin on equal footing and there would be few variations in a classroom, in reality, covariates exist and are commonplace.

The study had trained tutors deliver the intervention, and its effectiveness should be further tested with working teachers, the authors wrote. Orosco said professional development to help teachers gain the skills is necessary, and it is vital for teacher preparation programs to train future teachers with such skills as well. And helping students at the elementary level is necessary to help ensure success in future higher-level math classes such as algebra.

The research builds on Orosco and colleagues' work in understanding and improving math instruction for English learners. Future work will continue to examine the role of cognitive functions such as working memory and brain science, as well as potential integration of artificial intelligence in teaching math.

"Comprehension strategy instruction helps students make connections, ask questions, visualize, synthesize and monitor their thinking about word problems," Orosco and Reed wrote. "Finally, applying comprehension strategy instruction supports ELs in integrating their reading, language and math cognition…. Focusing on relevant language in word problems and providing collaborative support significantly improved students' solution accuracy."

Provided by University of Kansas

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Khan Academy Blog

The Science of Reading in a Nutshell

posted on March 22, 2024

4 actionable lessons teachers can use today

research on reading comprehension

By Allison Leedie , M.Ed,  partnerships manager at Khan Academy Kids and former teacher and literacy coach

Planning time is limited, the copier is jammed, and a classroom observation is imminent. Sound familiar? Me too. 

As a former teacher and literacy coach, I know that sometimes what is most helpful are actionable lessons and activities you can deploy right now with little preparation but tons of engagement. 

Search no further! Below are four activities you can use today to support best practices in the science of reading, no matter what stage of literacy development your learners are engaged in


For our very youngest students, actual reading and writing may be a ways off. Pre-literacy is the period of time before a child can read or write on their own. Children start developing pre-literacy skills as soon as they are born, and there is a body of research that shows a solid pre-literacy foundation will lead to long-term success both in and out of school. 

Pre-literacy can include:

  • Narrative skills
  • Vocabulary development
  • Print Awareness
  • Print Motivation
  • Letter knowledge

Use it today :

This video of Reya talking about the parts of a book is an excellent example of how Khan Kids reinforces the pre-literacy skills your students are developing. You can show this video and then have students handle books to identify different print features mentioned in the video.

Explore more:

The Khan Academy Kids app has activities for children as young as 2 years old and includes many pre-literacy activities. In the Library, make sure you’ve set the dropdown menu to select Kindergarten or Pre-K. In the Videos tab, check out the Early Reading and Language collection. This will also give you models for pre-literacy skills to call upon during whole or small-group instruction.

Phonics is the connection between letters and the sounds that they make. Phonics instruction covers many different skills and often takes years to master. It’s typical for a child to begin their phonics journey between the ages of 3 and 5 and keep working on these skills well into 3rd grade. During this process, students will learn:

  • The sounds each letter makes
  • How to identify and say the beginning, middle, and end sounds of words
  • How to identify and say short and long vowel sounds 
  • The sounds pairs of letters can make together (“sh” or “th” for example)
  • How to decode words (how to break a word into parts and say each part)
  • How to blend words (how to put separate sounds together to read a word smoothly)

Use it today:

Check out this video , where we learn about the letter S from our friend Ollo. You can share this video with your students and then practice finding the letter S in books, around the classroom, or in friends’ names.

This video of Kodi talking about beginning sounds is an example of how your students will be introduced to different elements of phonics, such as phonemes (individual sounds), in our app. You can share this video and then play a similar game with students with items “locked” in a box until they can isolate the beginning sound.

Download the free Khan Academy Kids app and explore the Letters tab. Here you’ll find lessons and practice activities on every upper and lower case letter, as well as isolated letter sounds and beginning, middle, and ending sounds. You can easily differentiate letter practice by assigning certain letters to individual students. 

Because phonics practice can span such a long period of time in your student’s lives, it’s important to follow a sequence to make sure they’re building skills in a helpful order. Check out the Reading Foundational Skills practice in the Reading tab of the Library. You can adjust the grade level to find easier or more challenging phonics activities at each level.

When a child begins to move into the world of independent reading, there are several skills and strategies we can use to help them become happy, confident readers. 

After a student has the building blocks of reading, the main focus shifts to developing a child’s fluency as they begin to read independently. A fluent reader will have an easier time understanding what they read and is more likely to enjoy reading. To help students develop fluency, you can provide practice with sight words and decodable texts.

As a class, watch this video on the sight word “come.” Then practice writing that word using the Create tab in the Khan Kids app. Students can also play other sight word games inside the app to help strengthen their automaticity and accuracy when reading a sight word.

research on reading comprehension

Khan Academy Kids has decodable texts throughout our library. In the Books tab, scroll down to the Early Readers section of the Library. These stories are written using only sight words and words a young reader should be able to sound out. First, have them listen to the story read aloud by selecting the “Read to Me” button. Next, have them read the same story, this time choosing “Read by Myself.” Have your students read the book aloud and repeat the reading until they sound fluent. Be sure to stop or go back to listening to the book if they start to feel frustrated. For older learners, you can try this same process using the 1st and 2nd Grade Early Readers in the Library. These books are also decodable, but they will have more difficult phonics patterns. 


Good readers don’t just say words aloud—they form a picture in their mind of the story, making a mental movie to help them imagine the events as they happen. Readers who are good at comprehending also think beyond the story. They make connections to what they already know, make inferences and predictions, and think about the story after they are done reading. Students have been developing comprehension skills since birth but now must combine this knowledge with their independent reading abilities.

Use it now:

Khan Academy Kids has an entire series of lessons dedicated to explicit comprehension practice. For example, you could watch this video about making inferences about characters. Then, pick a story to read aloud together as a class. Use an anchor chart to list clues you notice about the characters. 

Reading and thinking about what you read are the best ways to build comprehension skills. Luckily, Khan Academy Kids has over 400 books built right into our app! You can see all the books in one place by going to the Books tab in the Library. Here, your students can either have the book read aloud to them or read it on their own.

Another way to view our books is by clicking on the Reading tab in the Library. When students select a book in the Reading tab, they will be asked supporting comprehension questions as they read. This can be really helpful as they work on developing their mental movie and comprehension skills. Encourage students to pause and answer the question aloud before turning the page.

research on reading comprehension

Find out more

If you’re using Khan Academy Kids for the first time in your classroom, we’ve got plenty of resources to get you started here .  

If you’re an administrator looking to bring high-quality literacy practice to your school or district, get in touch with us here . 

We’re excited to support your students as they enter the magical world of reading!

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  1. Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension: Second Edition

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  1. Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy

    Reading comprehension is one of the most complex behaviors in which humans engage. Reading theorists have grappled with how to comprehensively and meaningfully portray reading comprehension and many different theoretical models have been proposed in recent decades (McNamara & Magliano, 2009; Perfetti & Stafura, 2014).These models range from broad theoretical models depicting the relationships ...

  2. The Science of Reading Comprehension Instruction

    Decades of research offer important understandings about the nature of comprehension and its development. Drawing on both classic and contemporary research, in this article, we identify some key understandings about reading comprehension processes and instruction, including these: Comprehension instruction should begin early, teaching word-reading and bridging skills (including ...

  3. The Use of New Technologies for Improving Reading Comprehension

    The present paper reports data concerning a distance program Cloze, developed in Italy, for improving language and reading comprehension. Twenty-eight children from 3rd to 6th grade with comprehension difficulties were involved. These children completed the distance program for 15-20 min for at least three times a week for about 4 months.

  4. Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension

    The Handbook of Research on Reading Comprehension assembles researchers of reading comprehension, literacy, educational psychology, psychology, and neuroscience to document the most recent research on the topic. It summarizes the current body of research on theory, methods, instruction, and assessment, including coverage of landmark studies. Designed to deepen understanding of how past ...

  5. Reading comprehension research: Implications for practice and policy

    Reading comprehension is one of the most complex cognitive activities in which humans engage, making it difficult to teach, measure, and research. Despite decades of research in reading comprehension, international and national reading scores indicate stagnant growth for U.S. adolescents. In this article, we review the theoretical and empirical research in reading comprehension. We first ...

  6. How the Science of Reading Informs 21st‐Century Education

    The science of reading should be informed by an evolving evidence base built upon the scientific method. Decades of basic research and randomized controlled trials of interventions and instructional routines have formed a substantial evidence base to guide best practices in reading instruction, reading intervention, and the early identification of at-risk readers.

  7. Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy

    Reading comprehension is one of the most complex cognitive activities in which humans engage, making it difficult to teach, measure, and research. Despite decades of research in reading comprehension, international and national reading scores indicate stagnant growth for U.S. adolescents. In this article, we review the theoretical and empirical ...

  8. The Use of New Technologies for Improving Reading Comprehension

    Introduction. Reading comprehension is a fundamental cognitive ability for children, that supports school achievement and successively participation in most areas of adult life (Hulme and Snowling, 2011).Therefore, children with learning disabilities (LD) and special educational needs who show difficulties in text comprehension, sometimes also in association with other problems, may have an ...

  9. Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy

    Reading comprehension is one of the most complex cognitive activities in which humans engage, making it difficult to teach, measure, and research. Despite decades of research in reading ...

  10. What Research Tells Us About Reading, Comprehension, and Comprehension

    For many years, reading instruction was based on a concept of reading as the application of a set of isolated skills such as identifying words, finding main ideas, identifying cause and effect relationships, comparing and contrasting and sequencing. Comprehension was viewed as the mastery of these skills. One important classroom study conducted ...

  11. Levels of Reading Comprehension in Higher Education: Systematic Review

    This review is a guide to direct future research, broadening the study focus on the level of reading comprehension using digital technology, experimental designs, second languages, and investigations that relate reading comprehension with other factors (gender, cognitive abilities, etc.) that can explain the heterogeneity in the different ...

  12. The Effectiveness of Reading Strategies on Reading Comprehension

    Abstract —This research aimed to investigate the effectiveness. of reading strategies on reading comprehension of the second. year English major students who enrolled to study English. Reading ...

  13. A comprehensive review of research on reading comprehension strategies

    Considering the research foci and findings, we identified seven categories: (a) comparison of the strategy use in L1 and L2 reading; (b) comparison of EAL readers' and monolinguals' comprehension strategy use; (c) different L1 groups' strategy use; (d) the role of languages in the strategy use; (e) the relationship between reading proficiency and comprehension strategy use; (f) strategies in ...

  14. The Role of Background Knowledge in Reading Comprehension: A Critical

    The Role of Domain Knowledge. The Construction-Integration model identifies a critical role for background knowledge in reading (Kintsch, Citation 1998; Kintsch & Van Dijk, Citation 1978).Knowledge can be classified according to its specificity; background knowledge comprises all of the world knowledge that the reader brings to the task of reading. This can include episodic (events ...

  15. PDF Reading Comprehension

    Summary and Keywords. Reading comprehension requires the construction of a coherent mental representation of the information in a text. Reading involves three interrelated elements—the reader, the text, and the activity, all situated into a broader sociocultural context.

  16. Reading Comprehension: Core Components and Processes

    Doing so requires drawing on extant research to understand the core components and processes of reading comprehension. This article reviews the theoretical and empirical literature on the construction of meaning during reading comprehension and derives implications for research, practice, and policy related to instruction and assessment.

  17. PDF Improving Reading Comprehension

    This action research project was conducted to improve reading comprehension with second grade and third grade students. The teacher researchers intended to improve reading comprehension by using higher-order thinking skills such as predicting, making connections, visualizing, inferring, questioning, and summarizing.

  18. New Research on Reading Comprehension (and 5 Tips for Teachers

    The researchers discovered a "knowledge threshold" when it comes to reading comprehension: If students were unfamiliar with 59 percent of the terms in a topic, their ability to understand the text was "compromised.". In the study, 3,534 high school students were presented with a list of 44 terms and asked to identify whether each was ...

  19. Improving Reading Skills Through Effective Reading Strategies

    The research question is, The purpose of this study was to analyze the improvement of the students reading skills after they have taken presentations on reading strategies. 712 Hülya KüçükoÄŸlu / Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 70 ( 2013 ) 709 â€" 714 3.Method Reading proficiency is the most fundamental skill for ...

  20. Intervention based on science of reading and math boosts comprehension

    New research from the University of Kansas has found that an intervention based on the science of reading and math effectively helped English learners boost their comprehension, visualize and ...

  21. The Science of Reading in a Nutshell

    Reading and thinking about what you read are the best ways to build comprehension skills. Luckily, Khan Academy Kids has over 400 books built right into our app! You can see all the books in one place by going to the Books tab in the Library. Here, your students can either have the book read aloud to them or read it on their own.

  22. Reading comprehension and students' academic performance in English

    The focal point of this research is to gauge the relationship between the reading comprehension level, problem-solving skills and academic performance of Grades 6 pupils of all the elementary ...

  23. Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension Revisited: Evidence for High-, Mid

    Although a substantial number of studies have found vocabulary knowledge to be a significant predictor of reading success in L2 learners and have established certain vocabulary size and lexical coverage targets for comprehension (e.g., Hazenberg & Hulstijn, 1996; Hu & Nation, 2000; Laufer, 1992a; Nation, 2006; Schmitt, Jiang, & Grabe, 2011), most of those studies have predominantly focused on ...

  24. The effects of visuospatial working memory on older adults' bridging

    Inference is the activated information during reading that is not ... bridging inference processing in visual narrative comprehension. Feng Zhao a Research Institute of Foreign Languages, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing, ChinaView further author information, Lin Fan b National Research Center for Foreign Language ...

  25. Reading Comprehension Research: Implications for Practice and Policy

    Reading comprehension is one of the most complex cognitive activities in which humans engage, making it difficult to teach, measure, and research. Despite decades of research in reading comprehension, international and national reading scores indicate stagnant growth for U.S. adolescents.

  26. Reading print is better for comprehension, study finds

    Driving the news: "The main conclusion is that leisure reading habits on screen are minimally related to reading comprehension," researchers at the University of Valencia found. By the numbers ...

  27. Students Improve in Reading Comprehension by Learning How to Teach

    Whereas research by Drechsel et al. (2014) indicated that teaching university students how to teach reading strategies can be useful for one-on-one tutoring, our research took this a step further by providing students with the competence to teach a scientifically based reading instruction program to an entire class in regular lessons.

  28. Table 2 from The Effect of Using Read Cover Remember Retell (RCRR

    This research was aimed at finding out the effect of using (RCRR) strategy towards student's reading comprehension on narrative text at the ninth grade of UPT SMP Negri 1 Padang Gelugur. The rationality of this research was based on the students' problems in reading comprehension.