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Recipes for Effective Literacy Instruction

Comprehension 101

What are the key critical reading skills, and how do we use them to comprehend?  And why does background knowledge matter?

This section presents my latest thinking on comprehension with The Comprehension Process Staircase as a visual aid.

(Illustration by Sandy Gingras, whose Website is here.)

Here's an important essay on why background knowledge matters: "There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test" in The American Prospect by E.D. Hirsch and Robert Pondiscio (June 13, 2010)


Here are two video training modules that explain key topics on this page:

Comprehension Process MODULE:

This 23-min SELF-PACED video explains The Comprehension Process Staircase and how to use the Quadrant Analysis Approach to images (reinforcing the comprehension process with visual analysis).

For more resources to support your work around comprehension, please check out the following:


4 Key Critical Reading Skills MODULE:

This 20-min SELF-PACED video explains the four key critical reading skills (paraphrasing, inference, vocabulary in context, and summarizing/inferring main idea) and how to teach them. NOTE: Watch The Comprehension Process MODULE before this one.

For more resources to support your work around key critical reading skills, please check out the following:



BIG PICTURE ADVICE: Check out these two TLC Blog posts!


Here are the 4 key critical reading skills: 


(AKA Literal Comprehension)

“The man fell down.”-> “He collapsed.” 

Paraphrasing means “translating literally” or “putting something in your own words.”  This requires you to:

  • Unpack vocabulary (attack roots; use prior knowledge and context clues).
  • Unpack syntax and grammar (unpack clauses and phrases; pay attention to punctuation).
  • Draw inferences from idioms. 

NEW: For a useful strategy, see How to Paraphrase-3rd grade Practice, How to Paraphrase-MS Practice, How to Paraphrase-HS Practice.  For tips on how to create critical reading questions, see How to Create Critical Reading Questions: A Recipe.

See also Rewordify.com, a powerful, free, online software that intelligently simplifies difficult English, for faster comprehension (IN OTHER WORDS, it paraphrases for you).

  • Facts
  • In other words
  • According to the story/passage
  • What does this mean?
  • Plot-related
  • Paraphrase

(AKA Extended Reasoning)

“The man fell down.”-> “He must have been sick.” 

Inference entails drawing a conclusion, making a prediction/guess, or figuring something out.  To do this, you need facts/information, and you need to ask questions about the given information.  See the comprehension process described below for more explanation.

NEW: Paraphrasing and Inference Organizer AND Quotations to Paraphrasing and Inference in the Download Zone will help students practice these skills.  Also check out Character Traits: Quote and Explain and Question-Inference-Evidence & Explanation ORGANIZERQuestion-Inference-Evidence & Explanation ORGANIZER MODEL, and Question-Inference-Evidence & Explanation ORGANIZER MODEL LESSON PLAN

Here's a fun way to invite students to apply their inference skills: Read "The Conversation Piece" by Ned Guymon (which originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1950) and figure out what is going on in this dialogue.

  • Infer
  • Suggest
  • Conclude
  • Because/why
  • Most likely
  • Probably
“They’re not interested in being diverted from their direction with alternative routes.”  The word “diverted” in this context means

A) amused 
B) less experienced 
C) taking the same route 
D) sent in a different direction

Vocabulary in context requires you to infer meaning of words using the context and your prior knowledge.

  • What does ____ mean in this context?
  • Based on the passage, what does ____ mean?
NOTE: At least one distractor will use an alternative meaning of the word in question.  In this example, “A” is the distractor.

(AKA Summarizing)

The main idea of this passage is
  1. The yearly festival in Pamplona, Spain, always includes the Running of the Bulls.
  2. Running alongside the bulls as they are moved from the corral to the bullring in Pamplona, Spain, has become an exciting and dangerous sport.
  3. The bravest runners carry newspapers with which they touch the bulls as they run through the streets.
  4. The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, has been going on for about three hundred years.
Finding the main idea/argument, AKA summarizing, requires you to infer the key message(s) from the text.  Your ability to do this is based on how well you are able to paraphrase, infer, and determine vocabulary meaning from context.  Also, you have to understand the difference between ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE.  See the comprehension process described below for details.
  • After reading the article/passage/story…
  • The central idea
  • The theme
  • This passage is mostly about
  • The author would probably agree
  • The best summary


How do we use these skills to comprehend?  See below.  Start at the bottom. 



Draw new inferences and generate more explanations.  These join your prior knowledge/skills.



Ask more questions…



Paraphrase, etc.  This “text” may confirm or challenge your prior knowledge/previous inferences.

FOR EXAMPLE: If the next sentence says, "He had had a fever all day," your prior inference is confirmed.  If, however, the next sentence is "He should've bought the shoes with velcro straps," you would correct your incorrect prior assumption/inference.





Draw inferences in response to your questions, and support them with explanations.  These infererences and explanations join your prior knowledge/skills.

FOR EXAMPLE: Given no additional information about the man who collapsed (no mention of shoelaces or attackers) and knowing that healthy people are generally able to stand up without falling down, you might infer that he fell down BECAUSE HE WAS SICK.  NOTE: You will continue to think this until new information challenges your thinking.



Ask questions based on paraphrasing/translation and your prior knowledge/skills.

FOR EXAMPLE: Given the case of the falling man, you might ask, "WHY did he collapse?"  You might recall prior instances of seeing people tripping over shoelaces, fainting, or being knocked down.







PARAPHRASE: Put the “text” in your own words.  NOTE: “Text” could be almost anything: words, pictures, or a situation (e.g., reading the defense on a basketball court).

  • Unpack vocabulary.
  • Unpack grammar/syntax.
  • INFER from idioms.

FOR EXAMPLE: Given the text "The man fell down," you could paraphrase this as "He collapsed."  For a useful strategy, see How to Paraphrase-3rd grade Practice, How to Paraphrase-MS PracticeHow to Paraphrase-HS Practice in the Download Zone.






Start here. 

You approach the "text" with your prior knowledge, which includes:

  • Previous experiences
  • Context
  • Texts read/academic content knowledge
  • Knowledge of conventions (genre, grammar, syntax)

NOTE: If your "prior knowledge" is incorrect, it will affect your ability to process the "text."

FOR EXAMPLE: If you believe that 5 times 5 is 30, then when faced with a math word problem requiring the multiplication of 5 x 5, you will not solve the problem correctly.

For more information on strategies for teaching the 4 key critical reading skills, see Reading Comprehension Strategies Overview in the Download Zone.  For a "Sample LESSON PLAN to LABEL CRITICAL READING QUESTIONS," see MS English Lessons & Units.  Want to review the FOUR CRITICAL READING SKILLS (paraphrasing, inference, vocabulary in context, and summarizing/inferring main idea) and teach your students how to identify test questions that deal with these skills?  Check out this Sample LESSON PLAN TO LABEL CRITICAL READING QUESTIONS and HANDOUTS for the lesson. Also, see READING Home Page for other helpful subsections.

Sometimes, to demonstrate comprehension, we want students to explain quotations.  Check out the Explanatory Quote Response Organizer and Explanatory Quote Response Organizer MODEL.

For additional excellent resources on reading instruction (esp. nonfiction text support), even if your state doesn't use PARCC assessments, check out the PARCC Prep page.

On a separate but related note, you might want to check out "Classroom Reading Groups: What Works and What Doesn't" by Sarah Schwartz, EdWeek, Aug. 15, 2023.

IN THE DOWNLOAD ZONE for Comprehension 101:

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