Main Body

4. Language Comprehension Ability: One of Two Essential Components of Reading Comprehension

Maria S. Murray


After a brief commentary on the overall importance of knowledge to language comprehension ability, learning, and memory, this chapter then goes on to describe in more detail the elements that contribute to language comprehension. Language comprehension is one of the two essential components for learning to read in the Simple View of Reading. The other is word recognition, which was covered in Chapter 3. Similar to the previous chapter that emphasized word recognition, this chapter presents the skills, elements, and components of language comprehension using the framework of the Simple View of Reading. The Simple View is a representative model explaining that during reading both word recognition and language comprehension coordinate to produce skillful reading comprehension, and it also portrays the many elements that combine to build each component. Each element that ultimately contributes to strategic language comprehension is described, and an explanation of its importance along with suggested instructional activities is provided.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. discuss the importance of knowledge for language comprehension, learning, and memory;
  2. explain the underlying elements of language comprehension;
  3. identify instructional activities to provide and activate background knowledge, teach vocabulary, and teach language structures;
  4. discuss how the underlying elements of language comprehension contribute to successful reading comprehension.


As noted in the previous chapter on word recognition’s contribution to reading comprehension, the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) is a research-supported model of the reading process. It portrays skillful reading comprehension as a combination of two separate but equally important components—word recognition skills and language comprehension ability. In other words, to unlock comprehension of printed text (as opposed to other modes such as visual or audio that would not require a person to aim for reading comprehension), two keys are required: the ability to read the words on the page and the ability to understand the meaning of the words (Davis, 2006). The previous chapter (Chapter 3) discussed the importance of improving word recognition and methods for doing so. This chapter will cover the other essential component of successful reading comprehension—language comprehension. As you will see, the elements required for language comprehension are all related to gaining meaning from what is being read.


Figure 1. Strands of early literacy development. Reprinted from Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice, by H. S. Scarborough, in S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), 2002, Handbook of early literacy research, p. 98, Copyright 2002, New York, NY: Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission.
Figure 1. Strands of early literacy development. Reprinted from Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice, by H. S. Scarborough, in S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), 2002, Handbook of early literacy research, p. 98, Copyright 2002, New York, NY: Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission.

The two essential components of the Simple View of Reading are represented by an illustration created by Scarborough (2002). In her illustration, seen in Figure 1, the two necessary braids that contribute to reading comprehension are themselves comprised of underlying skills and strands. Because the Simple View of Reading represents the progression toward proficient reading comprehension as requiring two components, it is termed “simple.” In actuality, each of the components is complex due to its underlying elements. In the case of language comprehension discussed in this chapter, students need to steadily accumulate a fundamental base of background knowledge, vocabulary, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge (see below for definitions and explanations of each), and the ability to strategically apply these elements during reading to comprehend texts. To apply strategically means that during the reading of text, readers must continually monitor how well they comprehend its meaning, and bring forth any knowledge they have about the topic, words, sayings, and more. This process is called “metacognition,” or thinking about thinking. After a brief commentary about language comprehension below, the importance of overall knowledge for three elements that lead to the strategic, metacognitive application of the skills and elements in the service of language comprehension will be presented, and instructional methods for each will be provided.

Language Comprehension and Its Connections to Knowledge

Davis (2006) wrote that “even the best phonics-based skills program will not transform a child into a strong reader if the child has limited knowledge of the language, impoverished vocabulary, and little knowledge of key subjects” (p. 15). Language comprehension consists of three elements that must be taught so that students apply them strategically (as opposed to automatically) during reading. As students interpret the meaning of texts, they must strategically apply their background knowledge, their knowledge of the vocabulary, and their understanding of the language structures that exist between words and within sentences.

First consider how reading comprehension is typically developed. Remember that in this textbook (see Chapter 1), reading comprehension includes “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (Snow, 2002, xiii), as well as the “capacities, abilities, knowledge, and experiences” one brings to the reading situation (p. 11). In line with the first part of this definition, it is expected that once children have been taught sounds and letters, how to blend them together to decode so that they read text fluently, along with lessons in vocabulary, they will be on the way to successful reading comprehension. Reading instruction in schools focuses so heavily on developing reading comprehension because this ability is the ultimate goal of reading.

A surface skim through the teachers manuals from published reading programs will reveal that a multitude of comprehension skills and their corresponding strategies are often taught at each grade level (e.g., finding main idea, summarizing, using graphic organizers), but ultimately these skills and strategies do not necessarily transition students to successfully comprehending texts. Reading comprehension ability is complex and multifaceted; it is comprised of understanding a text’s vocabulary, knowledge of the particular topic, and comprehension of its language structures (see Cain & Oakhill, 2007). Recall from Chapter 1 that language comprehension includes the interaction among someone’s background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures like grammar, verbal reasoning abilities, and literary knowledge (e.g., genres). Language comprehension is a more general term than listening comprehension, which is the ability to understand and make sense of spoken language.

One of the many aspects of reading comprehension that is often overlooked during instruction is students’ language comprehension. For example, a student who has general difficulty with reading comprehension, may, in actuality, comprehend a text about sharks or reefs quite well if his/her parents are marine biologists because he or she has accumulated experiences with ocean-related “language”—its words, phrases, and facts. This same student may not comprehend the next text about ham radio operation or the Appalachian Trail. Successful reading comprehension, then, often depends on the language of a text because the more familiarity and knowledge students have with its language, the stronger comprehension will be. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often struggle with reading comprehension, despite being able to decode accurately and read fluently. They are often believed to have poor reading comprehension ability when in actuality the snag is a lack of language comprehension stemming from less overall knowledge which in turn stems from fewer experiences aligning with the language encountered in school and school texts. Reading comprehension strategy instruction, which involves teaching children how to comprehend or remember written text using deliberate mental actions, entails instruction in questioning, visualization, and summarizing, for example. However, teaching children how to apply such strategies during reading simply cannot replace a lack of knowledge.

Not surprisingly, in the earliest grades, an important facilitator of reading comprehension is automatic word recognition (see Chapter 3), since comprehension of a text cannot take place if its words cannot be read or recognized. However, once students become more competent at word recognition, the dominant factor driving reading comprehension transforms to become language comprehension (Foorman, Francis, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1997). The reason for this boils down to one word—knowledge. Once students can read the words, they extract meaning from texts using their overall knowledge and experiences (background knowledge), their knowledge of words (vocabulary), and their knowledge of how words go together to create meaning (language comprehension). This accumulation of knowledge can last a lifetime and really never be considered “finished.” In fact, knowledge is so important to consider, that a brief commentary on its contribution to reading comprehension is next, before going on to discuss the three elements in Scarborough’s (2002) braid that lead to language comprehension, and ultimately reading comprehension.

Subtle differences exist between the terms “knowledge” and “background knowledge.” In this chapter, “knowledge” is broadly defined as the total accumulation of facts and information a person has gained from previous experiences (it is also called general knowledge). Knowledge is composed of concepts, ideas and factual information, which eventually come together to contribute to understanding in various situations. One does need facts and concepts and ideas to perform a procedure (e.g., putting historical events on a timeline, editing a paper for mechanical errors, reading a map), but they are even more vital when partaking in situations or conditions that require synthesizing a lot of information (e.g., write a comprehensive essay on a topic, comprehend an author’s message while reading a book) (Marzano & Kendall, 2007). “Background knowledge,” on the other hand, is a term used in education for a specific subset of knowledge needed to comprehend a particular situation, lesson, or text (it is also called “prior knowledge”). When reading a text about dog training, readers are going to use their background (prior) knowledge of dog behavior, vocabulary related to dogs, aspects of training, and so on, to comprehend text. They will not need to apply any of their knowledge of outer space, photosynthesis, or baking (any of their general, overall knowledge) in this particular instance. It is not possible for educators to teach the required background knowledge for every text that students will encounter as they progress through their school years. They can, however, provide the next best thing—a wide base of general knowledge that can be drawn upon and applied as background knowledge to problem solve and create meaning.

General knowledge comes from years of exposure to books, newspapers, knowledge-rich school curricula, television programs, experiences, and conversations. Its value cannot be understated. Willingham (2006) summarizes the findings in cognitive science regarding the significance of knowledge in education this way:

Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes—the very ones that teachers target—operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become. (p. 30)

Both the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, 2013) and the National Research Council’s Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills (NRC; 2012) call for an increase in rigorous content knowledge in order for today’s students to achieve college, career, and citizenship readiness. According to the CCSSO (2013), students must also be able to demonstrate “their ability to apply that knowledge through higher-order skills including but not limited to critical thinking and complex problem solving, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and learning how to learn” (p. 6).

Difficulties comprehending complex texts encountered in college and careers have been attributed to a lack of general knowledge. To illustrate this difficulty, Schweizer (2009), a professor who taught freshman composition classes at Duke University, wrote about an eye-opening incident he experienced during his classes. After assigning both his remedial and advanced classes a four-page article on climate change from a popular college-level anthology of essays (see McKibben, 2006), he realized his students’ comprehension of the essay was “flat, anemic, and literal rather than deep, rich, and associative” (p. 53). Upon questioning his students on the general knowledge items within the text—general facts, figures, locations, words, and common expressions—he reached a sobering conclusion. In the remedial class, just one student could identify Gandhi, none knew Ernest Hemingway, and two knew that Job was a character in the Bible. In the more advanced class, four out of 15 students recognized Gandhi or Hemingway, none knew the word “quixotic,” and few could comprehend certain expressions within the text (e.g., “something is in the offing”) or its allusions (e.g., “the snows of Kilimanjaro are set to become the rocks of Kilimanjaro”). Reflecting on the literacy-related consequences of this lack of word and world knowledge, Schweizer noted that his students were “not only hampered by a lack of factual knowledge, but that this shortcoming translates into problems with diction and literacy as well” (p. 52). Interestingly, to have comprehended this paragraph alone, you need to be familiar with and comprehend the importance and meaning of these words and phrases: Duke University, attributed, “eye-opening incident,” remedial, anthology, “sobering conclusion,” and allusions. A lack of language comprehension related to these words will hamper your reading comprehension indeed!

Background Knowledge

One of the three elements necessary for language comprehension is background knowledge. As mentioned above, background knowledge is a particular subset of knowledge (e.g., facts about the world, events, people, sayings and phrases) that is needed to comprehend and learn from a particular situation, lesson, or text. Young readers learn to strategically apply their background knowledge in order to interpret a text’s meaning. As a small example, consider the following sentence: “Initially Richard was upset when police told him they found bugs in his office, but to avoid prosecution he agreed to let them remain until the investigation was completed.” To comprehend this sentence either in isolation or within the context of an entire text, one will need to have learned that “bugs” are spying devices, to understand that people might get upset when they discover they are being spied on, and to infer that Richard has created an arrangement of cooperation with the police. Without background knowledge, the author’s intended meaning may be misconstrued as having to do with insects.

Why background knowledge is important

Knowledge leads to more knowledge, making learning easier (Willingham, 2006). Consider another example in which students read a story about a boy who is angry that he was not selected to play on the football team. The boy insists, “I really didn’t want to play football anyway!” His mother responds, “Sounds like a case of sour grapes to me!” Students familiar with the Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes” will understand the reference to “sour grapes” in this particular story and in all subsequent texts, and they will be able to interpret the subtle nuances of resentment that comes about after rejection. A student with no exposure to the fable may believe that the boy really did not want to play football and will not understand why the mother is talking about grapes. Meaning will be incomplete. Background knowledge allows readers to strategically infer the author’s meaning with a lot less effort. Drawing inferences from a text is so much easier when a reader is already familiar with what the author is talking about.

Willingham (2006) summarized some of the findings in cognitive science regarding how background knowledge helps students comprehend what they read and remember what they have learned. Most obvious, and as seen in the sour grapes example, background knowledge of a text makes it so that fewer instances are necessary of having to stop or reread for clarification. The author’s point is comprehended right away. Less obvious, background knowledge allows readers to arrange sequences of events in texts into connected, meaningful units or sequences that can be more easily analyzed, understood, and remembered. Without background knowledge, words and sentences in a text easily become disjointed, unrelated, random sequences. For instance, imagine a passenger in a small plane who has no background knowledge of mechanics or technical things. This passenger is asked by the pilot to read off the items from preflight checklists. Due to lack of background in technical things, the items seem arbitrary and unrelated. Dozens of unfamiliar words and terms are essentially meaningless (e.g., throttle 2000 RPM, magnetos max drop 175 RPM, press-to-test annunciator panel, electric fuel pump off, fuel pressure check), and if asked after the flight, it is unlikely that the passenger would be able to remember them. Conversely, if the next traveler possesses background knowledge related to how mechanical things work and is asked to read the same checklists, his or her comprehension and recall would be greater because the items on the list would be familiar and meaningful. It would be understood that some of the items were related to engine speed, while others had to do with the fuel system and they would be retained in memory because this passenger would assign them to meaningful categories and sequences. The background knowledge of the second passenger would not only create better comprehension of the experience, it would also enable greater storage and recall of most of the events. The second passenger would have learned more and would have remembered more.

A similar phenomenon related to how meaningful categories (or “chunks”) are related to memory and learning is the frequently cited experiments of DeGroot (1946/1978) and Chase and Simon (1973). Differences in background knowledge (via the experiences) between master and novice chess players were examined in both studies, as well as how this knowledge influenced their memories. Chess masters who had experienced thousands of chess matches, and thus, had more background knowledge were pitted against novices in a simple experiment. For just a few seconds, chess masters and novices were shown pictures of chessboards in which the pieces were configured in positions from advanced level matches. The pictured pieces were not arranged on the boards randomly; their positions were realistic. After momentarily viewing the pictures, players reconstructed the positions of each piece using a real board. Masters recreated the positions almost perfectly, while the novices placed about half of the pieces successfully. The accuracy of recall was attributed to the masters’ ability to categorize and chunk information, or, in the case of chess, to chunk together multiple, meaningful groups of pieces. The novices could only memorize positions of single pieces, whereas the masters memorized positions of sets of pieces that made sense to them in terms of familiar play-structures. They had background knowledge of similar set-ups.

A video recreating this experiment with chess grandmaster Patrick Wolff (Simons, 2012) reveals his strategy in recreating the board placements. Wolff states that he noticed where the pieces clustered and that he noted the logical connections between the pieces. He recognized the meaningful chunks. In a book about how practice and effort contribute to talent, Colvin (2008) comments on chess player experiments, noting that, “instead of seeing twenty-five pieces, they may see just five or six groups of pieces” (p. 100). In any realm, meaningful chunks can only be formed by those having the knowledge and background experiences to understand what belongs with what. In the case of chess players, certain pieces defend others in strategically particular positions. For skilled readers, certain letters chunk together within long words, enabling them to be read rapidly and accurately, and certain words and ideas chunk together meaningfully, enabling comprehension of an author’s message. An example of how words and ideas chunk together meaningfully to aid reading comprehension is provided by Meurer (1991), who wrote about reading schemata. Reading schemata are patterns that organize knowledge in our minds while we read. Meurer explained that readers have schema for various concepts, such as when something “breaks.” Along with this understanding, they may possess subcomponents and ideas having to do with “breaks”: items that can be broken, ways that things can cause things to be broken, and what it means for something to be broken, just to name a few. He then provided an example of a sentence: “The karate champion broke the cinder block.” The author of that sentence does not explicitly tell the reader what the champion used to break the cinder block. It is the reader’s schema for “break” and “karate champion” that allows him or her to successfully infer that what broke the cinder block was not a hammer or a chisel, but the karate champion’s hand. Without the ability to automatically chunk together and activate various words and ideas, reading comprehension will suffer.

In any field, setting, or circumstance, new material that has familiarity is more readily learned because it is easier to understand and because it is supported by and connected meaningfully to what is already known. The beauty and value of background knowledge is that it provides the familiarity that is crucial for connections that both create new learning and allow for the new learning to be remembered.

Background knowledge instruction

As educators, we cannot teach the “big umbrella” of background knowledge since it evolves from a multitude of life experiences. However, we can provide it or activate it, and suggestions for both are described below.

Providing background knowledge

Meaningful contexts from a content-rich curriculum spanning a wide variety of content areas are ideal for providing the background knowledge that will scaffold future learning. Many curricula are deliberately designed to provide an integrated sequence of rich, engaging, multicultural content spanning history, science, music, visual arts, mathematics, language arts, and more. Without such a curriculum, knowledge from each of these areas that is likely to appear in texts in subsequent grades can still be provided. In the earliest grades, before students can read books independently, the content and concepts that build background knowledge are usually developed through teacher read-alouds of a wide variety of texts, such as nursery rhymes, rhyming poems, fairy tales and fables from a variety of cultures, and engaging nonfiction texts, to name a few.

Children’s books and other written sources of information are an authentic and abundant source of knowledge about every imaginable subject (see Chapter 7 for further discussion about children’s literature), suitable for building knowledge at all grade levels (Stanovich & Cunningham, 1993). Children’s books feature rich concepts and a high percentage of unique and sophisticated words (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Hayes & Ahrens, 1988). Reading a number books or stories to students featuring similar themes or domains (e.g., farms, seasons, culturally diverse folklore, Egypt, music, currency, weather) provides a beneficial repetition of words and concepts that build valuable background knowledge. As students hear multiple versions of a similar theme or receive repeated instruction in a particular domain, newly developed background knowledge will lead to better comprehension of the material (Cervetti, Jaynes, & Hiebert, 2009). Davis (2006) recommends twenty to thirty read-alouds per domain (e.g., from a variety of children’s books, chapters, short pieces, poems) for developing background knowledge; just two short read-alouds a day can cover 10 to 15 domains in a school year (see also Hirsch, 2006). Although read-alouds are typically done in the elementary grades, there is likely to be benefit in building background knowledge at the older grades as well.

Activating background knowledge

In addition to providing background knowledge, we can also activate existing background knowledge. Activation of background knowledge that students already possess is frequently a focus of comprehension instruction. Teachers understand the value of activating background knowledge and as a result many tend to apply a series of strategies at the expense of providing knowledge. There is not a lot of research on teaching a multitude of comprehension strategies prior to third grade, primarily because beginning readers in the early grades are learning how to decode fluently. Also, too much of an emphasis on teaching strategies for reading comprehension may not be effective (Stahl, 2004), particularly if the text is easy to understand. For young students, particularly when using complex text, comprehension strategies should still be worked on (see the Institute of Education Sciences’ practice guide (Shanahan et al., 2010) for a summary of recommendations on improving reading comprehension for children in grades K-3), but the decoding constraint may still stand in the way. In later grades, simply applying comprehension strategies such as visualizing or predicting will not automatically enable students to understand science. If we want students to comprehend science texts, they must know something about science. Students do better if they read and write about things they know about. While isolated facts are certainly important and necessary, they will not suffice to enable meaningful comprehension unless background knowledge is developed within meaningful contexts.

Activating background knowledge is under scrutiny since the introduction of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010) because students are now expected to extract information from texts by focusing on what the author intended for them to understand, rather than relying too heavily on their prior knowledge, experiences, or opinions to construct meaning. Teachers are encouraged to downplay any lengthy, explicit focus on their students’ existing knowledge before reading, and in discussions about the CCSS, some propose that this may serve to equalize the outcomes for children who have varying degrees of knowledge about various topics. However, as Shanahan (2014) explains, avoiding discussion altogether of background knowledge will not serve to allow children to interpret and comprehend texts more equally, because it would be next to impossible for children who do possess background knowledge about a topic to avoid using it to construct meaning while they read. Those without the background knowledge will not have this advantage, and will be wrongly viewed as having poor comprehension, when in fact it is their lack of knowledge that is to blame. Shanahan (2014) provides some practical instructional suggestions for activating background knowledge before and during reading. An abridged and modified list appears below:

  1. When introducing texts, avoid lengthy introductions or potentially ineffective pre-reading strategies such as a “picture walks” and tedious contributions of students’ prior knowledge that could potentially impair comprehension. A simple statement such as “We’re going to read a story about how animals camouflage themselves” may suffice. The goal is to be brief and strategic (e.g., what is the purpose of the text, what will students bring to it, and what information absolutely needs to be provided; note all the other suggestions below for more clarification). Otherwise time spent during pre-reading activities may take time away from the actual reading, become boring or repetitive, and possibly steer children to the wrong focus, ruining the entire experience. See an additional blog post in which Shanahan (2012) speaks specifically about this topic
  2. When introducing a topic or genre that students will be reading, avoid revealing information that you will want them to extract from the text(s) on their own.
  3. Preteach necessary information students will need if it is not in the text (e.g., a text on climate change may not have been written for young students, so vital references to geography or technology may need explanation).
  4. Do not focus on activating background knowledge about topics in the text that are not needed for its comprehension (e.g., a text focusing on how an octopus camouflages itself does not require discussion or instruction about oceans).
  5. When using multiple texts to develop background knowledge, introduce them in an order that will support and reinforce those that may come before or after. Initial texts may cover a particular topic in a general manner, followed up by texts that cover the material in the initial texts and delve deeper into the topic.
  6. Attend to the differing background knowledge needs of students from diverse cultures by considering information you may need to pre-teach in order for them to comprehend particular texts.


Having just read about background knowledge, it is probably easy for you to imagine how vocabulary—the knowledge of the meaning of words in a text—adds significantly to the construction of the meaning of texts. Vocabulary knowledge is a prominent predictor of reading comprehension and is depicted as a central thread in the language comprehension component of the Simple View of Reading because of its connections to background knowledge and language structures (Scarborough, 2002).

The development of a child’s vocabulary begins at infancy, when a baby starts hearing speech and babbling. Oral language experiences, such as in-person conversations, dialogue heard on TV, or language heard during the reading of children’s books are primary means for accumulating vocabulary. By the age of two, children usually speak about 200 to 300 words and understand many more, and once in school, they learn approximately 3,000 words per year, and can comprehend many more than they can read (Nagy, 2009). To accomplish this rate of word learning, it is critical to ensure that students are learning new words each day. This is especially true for many students from less advantaged backgrounds, who are exposed to millions fewer words in their first three years of life than students who come from more privileged backgrounds (Hart & Risley, 1995). This disparity results in students from more affluent households knowing thousands more words upon entering school, which benefits their ability to understand, participate in, and profit from the language of instruction that is predominant in U.S. school settings.

Why vocabulary is important

As stated previously, the level of a child’s vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading comprehension (Duncan et al., 2007). This seems obvious since not knowing the meaning of words in a text makes it quite difficult to comprehend it. As Adams (2010) eloquently points out, “What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford. The reason we need to know the meanings of words is that they point to the knowledge from which we are to construct, interpret, and reflect on the meaning of text” (p. 8).

Vocabulary instruction

Instruction in vocabulary should begin with thinking about the different levels of “knowing” a word. Upon hearing a word, we can say (a) we have never heard of it, (b) that we have heard of it but we do not know it, (c) that we know it, or (d) that we both know it and can use it (Nagy, 2009). The more deeply we know a word, the more likely we will be to understand it when we hear it or read it, and the more likely we will be to use it when we speak or write. Ideally, instruction makes it so that students reach the level of knowing and using words when they converse, write, or read. Vocabulary learning occurs either incidentally (words are learned through exposure and experiences) or intentionally (words are deliberately and directly taught). The majority of words in our vocabularies are learned incidentally, through conversations or independent reading (Adams, 2010). This means that most vocabulary learning will not occur through explicit instructional means but through opportunities available in the child’s environment to encounter and resolve meanings of new words. Children who have learned to read independently are at an advantage in terms of learning words incidentally because they are able to independently encounter new words and infer their meaning while reading.

Incidental vocabulary instruction is enhanced through rich and varied oral language dialogue and discourse experiences, and independent reading. Even though “incidental” learning occurs as a result of some activities that do not involve any deliberate teaching, incidental learning still often involves a level of intentionality on the part of teachers. Teachers should consciously fill their everyday classroom language with rich, unique words so that they can be learned incidentally. A classroom that is rich with words promotes awareness of new vocabulary and a curiosity for learning new words. Rather than simplifying language for students, conversations should be embedded with sophisticated words: “Jordan, why don’t you amble over here and let me glance at that,” “Please shut the door; those third graders are causing quite a commotion! What a ruckus!” and “Oh my, Jake, the lion on your t-shirt has such sinister eyes! It terrifies me!” A resource for building language rich classrooms to promote oral language, vocabulary, and comprehension is Dodson’s (2011) 50 Nifty Speaking and Listening Activities. While it is not a scientifically based intervention, it provides a multitude of listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities that adhere to a sequence of language development for students ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Many words, phrases, and sayings require intentional instruction. Vocabulary words that should be intentionally taught are those essential for understanding texts, those that are likely to be encountered across multiple texts, or those that are particularly difficult to understand (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Activities for directly teaching vocabulary include using graphic organizers (for a collection of free graphic organizers visit, or analyzing words’ semantic features (i.e., listing their attributes—hard/soft, tall/short, exciting/dull).

Text Talk (Beck & McKeown, 2001) is an evidence-based vocabulary (and comprehension) building intervention that can be easily built into daily read-alouds. Teachers pre-read the selected text, choosing three to five vocabulary words that are “Tier 2” words. Tier 2 words are sophisticated, occur frequently in conversation and print, and are used across multiple domains and contexts. Examples of Tier 2 words are unique, convenient, remarkable, and misery (See Beck et al., 2002). Tier 1 words are those that are basic and, for speakers of English, do not require instruction in school (e.g., wall, water, fun), and Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are specific to domains or content areas (e.g., photosynthesis, Constantinople). During a read-aloud that is done in Text Talk fashion, open-ended comprehension questions are asked. Open-ended questions require a meaningful interactive response rather than a one-word reply. Examples of an open-ended question are “How do you think that made the boy feel?” and “Why did the fox decide to share his food?” To answer each of these questions requires an extended, multiple-word response. Examples of close-ended questions requiring only a single word response include “Is the boy mad?” and “Which food did the fox share?” Interactive extended responses and dialogue promote oral language development and allow the teacher to monitor students’ vocabulary use and comprehension. After the read-aloud or during a second reading of the story, the preselected Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined by the teacher using simple, child-friendly definitions (e.g., “To coax someone means to use your words to get them to do something”). The meanings of the words are discussed within the context of the story (e.g., “The mother coaxed her daughter to take a bath, meaning she used words to convince her to get into the bathtub”), and the teacher provides examples of the words within other contexts (“When my mother got older, I had to coax her to join us on vacation”). Finally, the students are asked to apply their knowledge and use the words in a personal context to ensure that they have the correct understanding of their meanings (“Jared, can you share an example of a time when someone coaxed you to do something?”). Additionally, during the read-aloud, it is beneficial to read the text before showing the pictures so that the illustrations do not interfere with attention or comprehension. This procedure is effective in getting students to pay attention to the words being read, and thus, is helpful toward their comprehending the language of the story (Beck & McKeown, 2001). It fosters their ability to comprehend decontextualized language—language that is “outside the here and now” (p. 10)—and leads to comprehending the vocabulary and text without relying on pictures. Teachers typically read children’s books aloud on a daily basis. Modifying read-alouds a bit to include the suggestions here fosters rich Tier 2 vocabulary and language comprehension through open-ended questions and by drawing attention to the vocabulary and meaning in texts.

Language Structures

The final element contributing to language comprehension is language structure—the relationships between the words and sentences in a text. Looking back at the model of skilled reading in Figure 1, it is evident there are many facets to language structures, including knowledge of grammar, being able to make inferences, and having knowledge of literacy concepts, such as what reading strategies to use for different types of texts (e.g., poems versus informational texts). To simplify and streamline these for the purpose of this chapter, they will be categorized as having to do with the major components of language that are interconnected: form, content, and use (see Bloom & Lahey, 1978).

Why language form is important

Language form comprises the rules for how words are structured (see ‘morphology’ described below) as well as the rules for the arrangement of words within sentences and phrases (see ‘syntax’ described below). The act of constructing meaning while reading is complex, so it is not surprising that morphology and syntax also contribute to reading comprehension.

Morphology is the study of morphemes in a language. Not to be confused with phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound in spoken words, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in words (to remember this, consider that “morphemes” and “meaning” both begin with the letter “m”). Words contain one or more morphemes, or units of meaning. For instance, “locate” is a word that is a freestanding morpheme because it has just one unit of meaning and can stand on its own. By attaching another morpheme, the suffix “-tion,” to create “location,” there are now two units of meaning: “locate” and the action or condition of locating, “tion.” “Tion” is a bound morpheme because its meaning depends on its connection to other words; it cannot stand on its own. A third morpheme, the prefix “dis,” changes the meaning of the word yet again—dislocation. In sum, the word “dislocation” is made up of three morphemes, each of which contributes its own meaning. Similarly, “cat” is a freestanding morpheme (a singular feline animal), but adding the bound morpheme—s—signals a change in meaning and the reader now pictures more than one cat.

Another aspect of language form, syntax, is commonly referred to as grammar. It is the combining and ordering of words in sentences and phrases that enables comprehension of a text. For example, in English, when the article “a” or “an” appears in a sentence, it is expected that a noun will follow. Syntax includes sentence construction elements like statements, commands, and combined sentences as well as particular sentence components such as nouns, adjectives, and prepositional phrases. These are important for future teachers to know, because effective use of these will allow students to comprehend text more successfully, and they will also allow students to demonstrate command of the conventions of the language in their writing pieces.

Language form instruction

Typically, rules of morphology and syntax are taught directly. For example, morphology instruction includes root words, prefixes, and suffixes along with derivations of Greek and Latin roots (e.g., “chron” is the Greek root for “time” in chronicle, synchronize, and “cred” is the Latin root for “believe” in creed, incredible, credulous). Morphology charts of root words, prefixes, and suffixes can be compiled over time and displayed on a wall so that students can refer to them while reading or writing. Charts could feature a list of suffixes that indicate people nouns (e.g., -er, -or, -cian, -ist), suffixes that create verbs (e.g., -ize, ify), or base words that change spelling and pronunciation (e.g., sign/signature/design, deep/depth). Incidental exposure to such morphology elements enhances word awareness (the act of noticing and attending to features of words), vocabulary, and, of course, language comprehension.

Why language content is important

Language content that is comprised of the meaning of the relationships that exist between words, phrases, and sentences is known as semantics. Semantics is different from vocabulary because it extends beyond the individual meaning of words. Note that once again, there is an “m” in this “semantics,” but it is in the middle of the word, which may help you to remember it has to do with the meaning that ties words (and sentences) together. Understanding the semantics of language enables comprehension because it clarifies the content—the network of events and relationships that exists in texts. For example, reading a sentence about a jug breaking and glass being scattered all over the floor might cause confusion, since jugs are typically not thought of as being made of glass.

Language content instruction

Semantics requires knowledge of vocabulary (a word’s meaning, and perhaps its synonyms and antonyms), as well as syntax. Just as important is background knowledge in order to form correct judgments about the context being read. Part of this knowledge includes the meaning of humor, slang, idioms (i.e., combinations of words having a figurative meaning as in “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “he was feeling blue”), metaphors (a comparison of two things as in “she is my sunshine”) and similes (comparisons of two things using “like” or “as” as in “her laughter is like sunshine”). Languages have thousands of common and often subtle semantic attributes that involve analogy, exaggeration, sarcasm, puns, and parables to convey world knowledge. Teachers can explicitly teach these attributes so that they are recognized more readily, explicitly define particular sayings and expressions, and demonstrate examples and nonexamples. For example, a teacher could demonstrate examples and nonexamples of exaggeration (“I have a million papers to grade!” vs. “I have three papers to grade”). As soon as schooling begins, semantic conventions should be taught, such as in the way that “once upon a time” signals the beginning of a fairy tale. Like vocabulary, the majority of semantic knowledge is derived from previous experiences and background knowledge. Teaching students phrases through exposure to discussions, reading, and other venues like television, movies, and online videos does a lot to promote this language comprehension element.

Why language use is important

Language use is termed pragmatics. Pragmatics are the rules of language that lead to appropriate use in assorted settings and contexts. Each setting (e.g., school, home, restaurant, job interview, playground) or context (e.g., greeting, inquiry, negotiation, explanation) has a particular purpose. To communicate appropriately, students must learn patterns of conversation and dialogue that occur in assorted settings. For example, use of language can vary according to a person’s status, so whether talking at home to a parent (a more casual use of language) or talking to a teacher at school, (a more formal use of language), the setting and the status differ, and language use must adapt accordingly. Understanding the nuances of pragmatics contributes to language comprehension, which in turn enables a reader to recognize its uses in written text, leading to more successful reading comprehension.

Language use instruction

The pragmatics of language use in school requires students to comprehend academic language. Students, especially English language learners and students with social difficulties, must comprehend the differences between conversation and academic language. Students’ language use in assorted settings (e.g., playground conversations, discussions with teachers) often requires teachers to provide clarification and elaboration. Students can perform enjoyable skits demonstrating the differences in language use in various situations and teachers can monitor and model language use as students tell stories, describe events, or recount personal experiences.


To help students develop language comprehension, the underlying meaning-based elements of reading—background knowledge, vocabulary, and language structures—must be taught and monitored. Unlike teaching students to recognize words accurately and automatically so that they become fluent readers, teaching the elements of language comprehension must be done so that students become increasingly strategic about extracting the meaning from texts they read. This is an incremental, ongoing, developmental process that lasts a lifetime. With each new bit of background knowledge, each new vocabulary word, and each new understanding of language use, students can integrate this knowledge strategically to comprehend text.

The two essential components of the Simple View of Reading, automatic word recognition and strategic language comprehension, contribute to the ultimate goal of teaching reading: skilled reading comprehension. Once students become proficient decoders and can automatically identify words, the role of language comprehension becomes increasingly important as students shift from paying attention to the words to paying attention to meaning.

Teachers must be ever mindful of the presence or absence of background knowledge that students bring to the task. As important as it is for students to monitor their comprehension, it is equally important for teachers to continually monitor each student’s background knowledge and comprehension so that they can step in to build and supply what is missing in their understanding. The value of the knowledge that students bring to their reading should never be sacrificed for the sake of comprehension strategy instruction. They must go hand in hand.

Questions and Activities

  1. What are the three underlying elements of language comprehension? How does each contribute to successful reading comprehension?
  2. Which instructional activities are helpful for providing and activating background knowledge, teaching vocabulary, and promoting language use?
  3. Consider a student that you have worked with who has difficulty with reading comprehension. Which of the underlying element(s) of language comprehension (i.e., background knowledge, vocabulary, language use) do you believe may be at the root of this student’s difficulties? How might you develop a new instructional plan to address these difficulties?
  4. Select an informational text that you might use with students. Identify the facts, phrases, vocabulary or other knowledge items that readers would need in order to comprehend the text. Next, consider discussing which facts, phrases, vocabulary, or other knowledge items would a reader NOT necessarily need in order for comprehension to still occur.


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