Comprehension Skills: How to Become a Stronger Reader

comprehension skillsLiteracy is nothing without comprehension skills. Just because someone can read and understand the surface meaning of a text doesn’t mean they fully grasp the significance, or the subtext, of that literature. Reading between the lines, being able to make connections between certain points and symbols, and identifying overarching themes in any written work are the skills that make a strong reader.

Stick with this guide, and we’ll go over some helpful strategies to hone your comprehension skills, for either you or someone you’re helping learn the ins and outs of reading. Check out this TOEFL iBT reading comprehension preparation course for more tips.

What are good comprehension skills?

A reader can be said to have strong comprehension skills when they remember what they’ve read, but this isn’t the only thing that makes a good reader. Comprehensive readers can also pull information they’ve just learned from the text and apply it to their current knowledge, extract unwritten meaning from the text, identify themes and patterns within the body of work, and connect significant points and elements in the literature with other points within.

Good comprehension is the construction of meaning via critical reading and analyzing of a text, rather than a mere understanding of the events depicted inside. Take the following paragraph, for instance.


John passed the beggar on the corner of 5th and King. The beggar was holding up a cup for charity, and John dug into his pockets with his free hand. He expected to feel the cold metal of coin, leftover from lunch earlier that day, but he came up dry instead. John walked into the coffee shop across the street and withdrew $20 from the ATM, breaking it at the counter for two cups of hot chocolate and some change to spare. When he left the cafe, the corner of 5th and King was desolate. John walked sadly and awkwardly back home with two cups of cocoa and an uncomfortable weight in his pockets.

If you ask someone with weak comprehension skills to recount the story, they might say that it’s about a guy named John, who sees a beggar on the street, then goes to get some hot chocolate and walk home. The text never explicitly states that John wants to give the beggar some money,  but an alert and conscious reader can reasonably deduce this meaning from the story, based on a couple descriptive lines.

For instance: when John feels no change in his pockets, he seeks out an ATM. Why would he do that, if not to have some extra money to give away? He also buys two hot chocolates, one presumably for the beggar, who ends up leaving before John can reach him; thus, John walks awkwardly home. With this, and the way the change in John’s pockets is described as “uncomfortable,” a comprehensive reader might draw the conclusion that John is a very giving person, who feels upset that his endeavors failed that day.

All of this, from a very basic story. This kind of critical and comprehensive reading doesn’t always come naturally. It’s learned and practiced. Below, we’ll go over some comprehension skills strategies you can practice yourself.

You can also check out this SAT reading skills and comprehension course or this class on critical reading skills for more help.

Comprehension Skills: Strategies

There are a number of different practices and approaches you can take to reading that will greatly increase your comprehension skills, naturally.

Ask questions

One method is to keep an open mind while you read a text. Understand that, if you’re struggling with comprehension, you will need to make an extra effort to be better at it. While you read, ask yourself a lot of questions. Even better, keep a notepad with you and write questions as you go. You can also annotate the text in the margins.

Once you’ve gotten through the text, go through the points of confusion you’ve jotted down, find the answers, and read through the text again. Does it make more sense this time? This exercise is valuable because it spotlights the parts of reading that you struggle with most, and lets you address these concerns on your own terms. It’s something you can do easily, without the help of a mentor, and something that will only become more natural with practice.

Eventually, you won’t even need a notepad. You will just have a constant, inner monologue as you read, and feel more comfortable seeking additional reading material to aid your comprehension further.

To get started, here are some sample questions you can ask:\

  • What does _____ mean?
  • Why did _____ do  this in the story?
  • What does this word mean?
  • Why does  the author emphasize  _____ so much?
  • What does _____  look  like?
  • Does _____ relate to _____?

This is the kind of thinking that leads to awesome literary analysis, which you can read more about here.

Make connections

If there is something that is heavily emphasized in a text, keep it in the back of your mind while reading. It might be hard to figure out what’s emphasized and what’s not if your comprehension skills are not strong – this is something that will have to come with practice. If you practice the first exercise listed above, you’ll begin to notice a trend and gain the insight you need to pick up on emphasized themes and symbols more naturally while reading.

Once you do, hold onto those points in the text, and when you see them appear again, even as a hint, put on your critical thinking helmet. Ask yourself why this point is being brought up again, if it’s something of particular interest to the literature at large, and what this connection might mean for the rest of the story or essay. Through these connections, you will find meaning.

Learn how to foster this kind of conscious analysis with this course on critical thinking.

Visualize events

Sometimes, people struggle with comprehending text simply because it’s too much information for them to process. Critical thinking, making connections – that’s all fine for them, if they could just remember what even took place in the story, or what the essayist was even talking about for ten pages straight!

For this kind of struggle with reading comprehension, it’s best to visualize in your mind what is taking place in the story. Some instructors describe this as making a “movie” in your head. Picture the events playing out like a film. Add and subtract elements as you read so that the story makes sense, and that you have another point of reference with which to comprehend the text by.

You might say that the the consistency of your imaginary movie depends on your ability to comprehend the text in the first place, and you’d be right. But what imagining a movie in your head does is force you to slow down while you’re reading, process elements in the text in a different way, and interpret them accordingly.

Check out this guide on literacy strategies for more methods of improving your comprehension skills.

Teaching Comprehension Skills

The methods of teaching good comprehension skills to another are different than if you were to teach yourself. While some strategies overlap, if someone has a mentor or instructor there to teach them, it does have a lot of advantages.

One thing you can do, as a teacher, is ask your student to read a text aloud, and ask questions when they need to. This will alert you to any pattern or trend that might signify your students’ weak points when it comes to reading comprehension, allowing you to address their difficulties directly. You can also be there for your student when and if they have any questions. For someone with weak or poor reading comprehension skills, having a reliable resource like an instructor present during their time of struggle is vital to the growth of their literary ability.

At the same time, it’s good for students who struggle with reading comprehension to be distraction-free while they read. Every student is different, though, and their struggles with comprehension may stem from different issues. If your student is easily distracted, try to remove intrusive elements from their environment while they read – even yourself! – and revisit them after they’ve finished their assignment to go over the material.

Making students take tests or answer questions after they’ve read the material allows them to practice mentally returning to the text, identifying important points, and analyzing them. You can have the student practice reading these questions before starting on the text, and then after completing it, so they can see the difference that alert reading can make.

If you’re trying to instruct younger students, you might benefit from this guide on 6th grade reading comprehension, or this guide on how to adjust your teaching methods for a younger crowd.

The TOEFL iBT test is a way to measure your reading skills against a university level. If you’re trying to improve your reading comprehension skills, a good end goal is to ace this exam. Check out this TOEFL iBT listening comprehension course, and finally this TOEFL iBT online test preparation course to get a head start on your studies, and become the critical, alert, and comprehensive reader that you want to be.