Reading Comprehension – The Importance of Prior Knowledge

Posted on 09. Jan, 2013 by in Blog, Science and Tech

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Daniel Kroner, M.S.
Seton Hall University

The Importance of Reading

Reading with comprehension, as described by Hume and Snowling (2011), is one of the primary goals of early education. Learning, whether in an academic setting or on one’s own tends to be highly dependent on the comprehension of information from text sources (McKeown, 1990). To quote the largest children’s literacy nonprofit organization in the United States, “Reading is Fundamental.”  Reading truly is fundamental in every academic discipline (White, 2004; Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010) due to the way we share information (Tarchi, 2010). Many of the skills and strategies required for reading comprehension are already present in beginning readers in their ability to comprehend the spoken word. As with the spoken word, meaning is often deeper than a single word, single sentence, or even single paragraph.  Readers must make use of their existing knowledge to make the inferences necessary to uncover these deeper meanings (Hirsch, 2003). However, while a beginning reader might possess a reasonably advanced listening comprehension ability there remains enough difference that reading education continues well beyond their education for listening and speaking. Enough information is removed in the transition from experience and conversation to text that skills and strategies a reader might use when talking with peer or instructor are suddenly unavailable.  Because of this simply being able to decode the individual words, word meanings, and sentences (including syntax) is simply not enough to facilitate reading comprehension (Adams 1977).




Unfortunately, despite the clear importance of reading comprehension, public schools often stop reading instruction in the fifth or sixth grade (White, 2004; Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010). Although there have been efforts to improve the reading instruction students do receive, (Campell, Hombo & Mazzeo, 2000) research by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that comprehension scores remain low. Further, an international assessment found that only 8.6 percent of students are proficient at the highest reading level (OECD, 2007).


While instruction may end as early as fifth or sixth grade, issues with reading comprehension are not unique to youth populations. Issues with reading comprehension can be found even among college students who may struggle with comprehending and identifying important information in textbooks, scholarly books, and journal articles (Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010). Once in college, coursework rarely focuses on reading comprehension despite college students spending the majority of their academically focused time reading and studying (Shaw, 1999). Regardless of evidence for student difficulties, many professors expect that their students are already proficient in reading comprehension due to their academic level (Shefield, R.M., Montgomery, R.J., & Moody, P.G., 2005) and often believe that college level texts are no more difficult than texts students were exposed to earlier in their academic careers (White, 2004; Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010). Increasingly, research has indicated the importance prior knowledge, or, all of the information a reader possesses prior to a reading task, has on reading comprehension. Further, a number of strategies for improving reading comprehension have been developed, ranging from bottom-up strategies of manipulating the text itself before the reader processes it to top-down strategies providing the reader with tools to actively apply to improve their comprehension. This review will discuss a variety of the contributing factors to a reader’s comprehension of a text focusing on top-down and bottom-up processing, the associated interventions, and finally will culminate with a description of an underutilized empirically supported comprehension strategy


What is reading comprehension and how do we test it?

Until the mid-1970’s reading was generally considered to be simply retrieving an author’s message by decoding the words of a text (McKeown, 1990; Adams & Collins, 1977).  Gradually our understanding of reading comprehension has become more complex, recognizing that the reader derives both implicit and explicit meanings from the text (McKeown, 1990; Adams & Collins, 1977).   An explicit understanding of a text is one in which a reader develops a shallow understanding of a text by processing exactly what the author says from the text in isolation from their prior knowledge and experience. If the reader understands the deeper meanings of a text, beyond what the author directly states, they can be said to have an implicit understanding of the text.   At the most complex level, if a reader is able to understand the information as presented by the author (both implicit and explicit) as well as how that information integrates into the reader’s existing knowledge, we can say the reader has successfully comprehended the material (Adams & Collins, 1977).


At first glance, reading comprehension appears to be a hierarchical bottom-up process beginning with the reader’s ability to recognize the individual letters of a text. From this the reader decodes each of the words that are then used to construct the sentences which form the clauses and phrases the reader will use to extract information and meaning (Adams & Collins, 1977). However, as we will expand on shortly, research in the mid-1970’s discovered that the processing of this text hierarchy is bidirectional and that reading comprehension is a dynamic process of constructing coherent representations of inferences and ideas that utilizes both top-down and bottom-up processing (Duke, Pressley & Hilden, 2004; Graesser & Britton, 1996; Adams & Collins, 1977). Currently, most definitions of reading comprehension make note of the important relationship between the text and the reader’s prior knowledge (Alfassi, 2004; Meneghetti, Carretti & De Beni, 2006). This perspective appreciates the bottom up flow of information as it is processed from the text itself and balances this with the top-down processing of this information by higher level strategies, which include the use of existing reader knowledge and the integration of new information with that knowledge.  Existing reader knowledge will be used in a top down manner to make inferences regarding the meanings and significance of unfamiliar terms and topics that are being processed upwards from the text. The readers knowledge of the relationships between ideas will be used to draw connections between ideas in the text that are not explicitly stated as well as connections between new information in the text and their existing knowledge structures.


While research has yet to formalize exactly what demonstrates a reader’s true comprehension of a specific text (Ozuru, Dempsey & McNamara, 2009), a number of assessment methods can be employed to tease apart a reader’s comprehension including free recall, written questions, and key-word sorting tasks to name a few of the popular ones.  Free recall typically reveals the reader’s explicit memory of the text, this can be considered a measure of the text-base representation (McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996) the reader has constructed, a concept that will be expanded on in greater detail later.  Written questions can be a little more broad in their assessment and can tease apart a reader’s understanding of not only things specific to the text but also the reader’s ability to apply the information to novel problems and integrate it with prior knowledge (McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996).  Key-word sorting tasks are also popular methods providing a better look at the reader’s understanding of the relationship between concepts and ideas in the text. During this task the reader will sort key words into categories representing relationships gleamed from the text. A reader’s comprehension can be assessed by determining how strongly these key words are sorted according to their respective categories before and after reading (McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996). Other popular strategies among instructors include essays, multiple choice questions, and vocabulary definitions.


How does the text interact with prior knowledge and influence comprehension?

The prevailing method of differentiating between texts in discourse research is between genres, particularly between narratives and expository texts. Children are typically exposed to narrative type texts beginning from an early age.  This early exposure tends to leave early reader’s more familiar with the text structure of narrative genre texts compared to other genres.  Not only is this structure more familiar to early reader’s but compared to, for example, expository texts, the structure of narratives is better documented in the scientific literature .  Further, the general text structure for narrative texts tends to be less variable than expository texts making them easier for inexperienced and lower skilled reader’s to take advantage of their prior experience with this type of text structure (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998).


Because of these differences in exposure and experience, particularly in regards to children, a great proportion of reading research has utilized narrative type text structures. However, while reader’s may be more familiar and have a greater level of exposure to narrative type texts it is informational texts, or nonnarrative texts, that are most prevalent in academic learning situations. Unfortunately much less research has been conducted looking at reading, specifically reading comprehension and the meaning construction process, using informational nonnarrative type texts despite their importance in academic settings.  (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998)


One aspect of a reader’s prior knowledge that can be exploited is the structure of the text. Due to the early exposure to narrative texts experienced by many reader’s it is not surprising that reader’s are familiar with the general structure of narrative type texts at an early age (Stein & Policastro, 1984; Stein & Trabasso, 1982; Whaley, 1981).  However, in regards to expository texts, research indicates that reader’s understanding of text structure, as well as their ability to utilize this understanding to their advantage, is still relatively undeveloped even beyond the sixth grade level. (Heibert, Englert, & Brennan, 1983; Langer, 1986; Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). The integration of more formal education regarding expository text structures could prove worthwhile at earlier levels of reading instruction.


One of the primary differences between narrative and expository texts is their general content. Early reader’s usually have a reasonable degree of prior knowledge regarding the social and interpersonal relationships depicted in narrative texts as well as the everyday problems that contribute to the story.  The relationships and events of narrative stories are often intertwined through a rather limited set of causal and temporal events of which the reader has little difficulty connecting. Conversely, expository texts are often read in the context of learning new material and thus often contain a large number of concepts and relations that are unfamiliar to the reader.  Less experience with content coupled with less experience with the text structure, which tends to be less consistent and standardized across many types of expository texts, ends up requiring reader’s to rely on a much broader range of logical relationships between different pieces of information in the text.  (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998)


According to a broad array of recent research Linderholm, Everson, van den Broek, Mischinski, Crittenden et al, 2001; McNamara, Kintsch, Songer, & Kintsch, 1996; O’Reilly & McNamra, 2007; Voss & Silfies, 1996 (6) how well a reader will comprehend a specific expository text will be based upon a complicated interaction involving individual differences in the reader (overwhelmingly influenced by prior knowledge) and various text features.  Beyond the text genre and individual differences in readers there are a number of different text characteristics that will influence how easily the reader is able to construct a mental model of the information in the text and this, in turn, will impact their comprehension and the integration of new information with existing knowledge.


One of the more broad ways of looking at reading comprehension comes from an examination of the different mental representations the reader produces when reading a text.  These mental representations are, in essence, the learning that has taken place and is determined by the quality of the text-base representation of the target text as well as the use of prior knowledge to integrate the text-base with existing knowledge structures (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). These two factors, text-base representation and prior knowledge, can be broke down into a two by two graphic depiction of the mental representation produced by a reading task. 


The use of prior knowledge in the construction of the reader’s mental representation can be divided into either a high use of prior knowledge or a low use of prior knowledge while the text-base representation produced by the reader can be described as high quality or low quality. 


(Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998)  


The quality of the text-base constructed by the reader is going to be heavily influenced by the connections between ideas across different sections of the text (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998).  While various strategies and inferences made by the reader are going to have a large contribution in the construction of the text-base there are some factors beyond the readers control.  For example the coherence of the text itself will influence the information acquired from the text as well as the way this information is organized and explained (McKeown, 1990) A texts coherence is determined by the author based on the words they use to make clear the relationship between different ideas in the text as well as the way in which the author organizes the information in a text (McKeown, 1990). In fact, text cohesion has been found to be a major contributor to a readers comprehension (W. Kintsch & Vipond, 1979; van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). Research has also found that increasing the cohesion of a given text can increase readers comprehension, (Beck et al., 1991; Britton & Gulgoz, 1991). This should not be surprising, by definition a highly cohesive text is going to contain much if the information necessary to understand and connect ideas across different areas of the text; however, less cohesive texts will tend to lack this information and in turn rely on the reader to contribute their own prior knowledge to fill the gaps (Ozuru, Dempsey & McNamara, 2009).  Because of this it makes sense that the neither the mental representation of the text, largely influenced by the cohesion of the text or the degree of topic-relevant prior knowledge the reader possesses will act alone to determine their overall comprehension of a text, as shown in the diagram (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998).


Prior knowledge or background knowledge refers to all of the accessible pre-existing information a reader has stored in their long-term memory while topic-relevant prior knowledge refers to the readers pre-existing knowledge related to the specific main concepts and ideas of the specific text being read (Shapiro, 2004).  As noted earlier, the information in an individual text often assumes a certain amount of pre-existing knowledge and as such, tends to lack certain information that is necessary for the construction of coherent mental representations of the given text. One of the big reasons topic-relevant prior knowledge has such a large impact on reading comprehension is because of this information gap. The lack of relevant information in the text requires the reader to fill this gap with information from their prior knowledge (Kintsch, 1988, 1998). Research (Afflerbach, 1986; Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981) has demonstrated the large effect of prior knowledge on reading comprehension, namely that a reader’s prior knowledge both enhances and facilitates reading comprehension.  This is particularly true for reading comprehension of expository texts (Ozuru, Dempsey & McNamara, 2009).  While the research indicates that while a lack of topic-relevant prior knowledge can negatively impact a reader’s comprehension, the breadth of their knowledge also affects the quality of the integration of mental representations constructed by the reader. (McKeown, 1990)

Readers take advantage of the incomplete information in a text to identify and cue information from long term memory to fill in the gaps.  When the reader has the requisite prior knowledge this process allows them to rapidly access the relevant information contained in their long term memory with little effort. Research has actually demonstrated that the impact of prior knowledge on reading comprehension is even greater than that of reading skill (Ozuru, Dempsey & McNamara, 2009). Returning again to our graphic representation of comprehension, the greatest opportunity for learning can be found in the top right quadrant when the reader has produced a high quality mental representation of the text and integrated this representation effectively with their prior knowledge (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998).


Bottom-Up Reading Comprehension Problems

There are a large number of factors that can contribute to an individual’s inability to comprehend textual material. These can range from biology including issues with any component, or components, of the visual system or visual processing systems as well as non-biological issues including basic literacy, various cognitive dysfunction, encoding and retrieval issues, learning and memory problems, and so on.  It is important to be able to narrow down what factors are contributing to an individual’s difficulty in comprehending a text so an appropriate intervention can be planned and enacted. These issues can form somewhat of a hierarchy in terms of the potential interventions available depending on the particular area(s) contributing to the difficulty.  It is not difficult to see how difficulty in one of these domains can compound with others to create increasingly complex issues for a reader trying to comprehend a text.  A student suffering from an undiagnosed biological condition contributing to a difficulty in reading comprehension is going to be at a tremendous disadvantage from the start. Depending on the severity of this issue it may not matter what reading strategies an instructor might convey to the reader if they are physically incapable of reading the words in their proper order or have difficulties in storing information from the beginning of the text for continued use through rest of the text.


In truth, the number of variables that contribute to reading comprehension are increasingly expansive the more specific you are.  For example, I briefly mention the impact of a person’s underlying biology on their ability to read and how issues in this domain can impact comprehension in a number of different ways.  The biology involved in the entire process of reading can be seen as strongly influencing the bottom-up processing of information from the text including the initial visual perception, the retrieval of existing long term memories, the re-encoding of updated mental representations to long term memory and everything in between. This is all incredibly important but beyond the scope of this paper.  Similar levels of complexity can be found in regards to any of the contributing factors to an individual’s ability to read for comprehension depending on how specific and detailed you examine various components of the process and the corresponding literature.  It is useful to try and narrow the focus a bit while still remaining as inclusive as possible.


Top-Down Processing and Reading Comprehension

Early researchers assumed a hierarchical model of reading comprehension that begins at the most basic level, the elements that make up the graphic representation of letters, and builds necessarily from the bottom up towards comprehension of the text as a whole and the integration of this information into the reader’s memory (Adams & Collins, 1977). However, in the mid 1970’s experimental evidence began to suggest that the meaningful whole of a text had an important impact on reading comprehension that could not be elucidated through experimental procedures that looked at letters, words, and sentences in isolation (Adams & Collins, 1977). Adams and Collins’ (1977) succinct analysis of the then developing Schema-Theoretic view of reading notes that, according to Reicher (1969) and Wheeler (1970), people are more easily able to perceive individual letters when they are contained within meaningful words.  Research conducted by Tulving and Gold (1963) as well as Schuberth & Eimas (1977) determined that individual words are identified more easily when they are contained in meaningful sentences while Wittrock, Marks & Docrow (1975) found that unfamiliar words tend to be processed with greater ease if they were read within a familiar story. Finally, research conducted by Pearson (1974) as well as Haviland & Clark (1974) revealed the importance of coherence, finding that the more coherently integrated  the underlying semantic relations are within a sentence, the more easily the reader assimilates these relations (Adams & Collins, 1977). This research challenged the prevailing model of bottom-up only processing and called into question the conclusions drawn from all of the earlier reading research that looked at specific aspects of reading processing in isolation (Adams & Collins, 1977).


Schema Models

While these bidirectional interactions reduce the amount of processing necessary for identifying the letters and words that make up a specific passage, they also confound any complex analysis of that passage (Adams & Collins, 1977). The need for a new model of reading comprehension that considered the bidirectional interaction of processing levels turned the focus of researchers towards the old psychological concept of schemas. A schema, put simply, is a hierarchical framework within which an individual organizes their knowledge of a particular subject or topic.  This hierarchy of ideas and concepts extends in all directions, with each level its own schema, and contains all of an individual’s knowledge and the known relationships between each schema.


As the old bottom-up only models of reading comprehension gave way to new ideas, the schema theory of reading was developed by integrating both  bottom-up and top-down models of information processing. According to the schema theory of reading, bottom-up processing is evoked by inputs from the text. As the most basic pieces information from the text enter the reader’s information processing systems, they are matched to the best bottom-level schemata available to the reader which in turn activate higher level schemata propagating up through the hierarchy (Adams & Collins, 1977). According to this new perspective, while information is fed in through a bottom-up flow of information, top-down processing tries to fit incoming information with the high level schemata that are being predicted based on the aspects of the text already processed (Adams & Collins, 1977).  This analysis should be active at all levels of the hierarchy at the same time (Rumelhart 1975). The data to needed to confirm or reject the anticipated schema and relationships between ideas in the text continually flows in and up through bottom-up processing and when the reader runs into data that does not fit into any of the existing anticipated schema (novel or unexpected information) the reader’s attention is drawn. Schematic updates throughout the hierarchy triggered by the upward propagation of information also trigger top-down processes that generate predictions and interpretations and attempt to resolve ambiguities.  Interestingly, as extensive as these processes are, they alone are not sufficient for the reader to build a comprehensive mental model of the text information (Adams & Collins, 1977).


As noted earlier, current definitions of reading comprehension often point out the strong relationship between the text itself and the reader’s prior knowledge. These current definitions and the newer models are built upon the early schema theoretic model of reading. Now we understand that meaning is constructed by the reader through the concepts, past interrelationships, and potential interrelationships of the words contained in the text based on interpretations using the reader’s pre-existing knowledge (Adams & Collins, 1977).


Current Models of Reading Comprehension

More recently two cognitive models have lead the conversation in discourse research.  The CAPS/READER model, developed in 1992 by Just & Carpenter, is essentially a rehashing of the schema theoretic model of reading using updated terminology.  The CAPS/READER model describes a system for creating, updating, and removing “nodes” in the working and long term memory systems. These nodes and their connections are essentially schemas and the relationship between schemas. The model uses conditional statements to describe the relationships between “nodes”, or schemas, similar to that found in computer programming and neuroscience. These terms and perspectives would have been less prevalent and less developed in the 1970’s when the schema theory of reading was first developed.


The second model, the construction-integration model, was developed in 1988 by Walter Kintsch. Like the CAPS/READER model, the construction-integration model seems to build upon the schematic theory with updated terminology (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). What sets the construction-integration model apart is the formalization of mental representations constructed by the reader(McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996).  Kintsch makes the distinction between several levels of mental representation of the text constructed by the reader during processing (McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996). Most often utilized by discourse psychologists are the surface code, the textbase, and the situation model. Processing at the surface code examines the graphic representation of the text consisting of the exact wording and syntax (Graesser, Millis & Zwaan, 1997; Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). The construction of the surface code utilizes predominantly a bottom-up processing strategy starting with the individual components of the text and building towards the a more complex text-base representation that utilizes both bottom-up and top-down processing to infer meaning and build towards comprehension.


At the text-base level the reader constructs the meaning of, and relationships between, various aspects of sentences and across sentences of the text (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). Processing at this level deals with information explicitly in the text and is organized within the representation exactly as the author organized it (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998; McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996). The types of processing typically involved in the construction of a comprehensive textbase include activities such as paraphrasing, constructing cross-sentence connections, self-monitoring for comprehension, and actively resolving issues with comprehension when possible. All of these activities start with a simple bottom-up processing of the text and utilize different top-down processes to help achieve an understanding of the text. This level of processing relies very minimally on the reader’s prior knowledge and typically leads to the construction of a representation that allows reader’s to answer questions about the text, summarize the text, and verify statements about the contents of the text (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). For more complex texts, such as college level textbooks or scientific articles, simply reciting the text from memory or summarizing specific concepts from the text is often insufficient to demonstrate comprehension and deeper understanding (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). This level of mental representation alone is insufficient to support the deeper and more meaningful learning learning  (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998) that is experienced at the level of the situation model.


The situation model level of representation utilizes both bottom-up information from the text as well as the reader’s prior knowledge to integrate through, top-down processes, the information and concepts contained in the text with the reader’s mental representation of the domain as a whole. Connecting the information contained in the text with prior knowledge requires active inferencing on the part of the reader. The reader must draw on many types of knowledge when constructing his or her situation model for a text. Topic relevant prior knowledge, general knowledge of the world, as well as knowledge about the text, including structure and the identified explicit meanings and relationships in the text, are all aspects of the reader’s experience and knowledge that come together in the formation of the situation model (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). The construction of this level of mental representation is indicative of a deeper understanding of the text. At this level the information in the mental representation becomes linked to the readers prior knowledge and will be available for use in novel environments, problem-solving tasks (McNamara, Kintsch, Songer & Kintsch, 1996), and in the construction of future situation models for new texts. This deeper understanding paired with the storage of this understanding in long term memory represents one of the deepest levels of comprehension and is often considered the goal of reading for learning.


Two other levels of representation that are sometimes utilized by psychologists are the communication level (Graesser, Millis & Zwaan, 1997)and the text genre level (Graesser, Millis & Zwaan, 1997; Ozuru, Dempsey & McNamara, 2009). The communication level of a text is simply the way that the author decides to present to the reader, for example the use of a narrator to tell a story, this will often be influenced by the text genre. For example, it would be unusual to have a narrator in an expository text. Beyond narrative and expository genres discussed earlier other common text types include descriptive and persuasive texts (Graesser, Millis & Zwaan, 1997; Biber, 1988). Each genre consists of its own structures, rules, and features (Graesser, Millis & Zwaan, 1997) that a reader can exploit, through top-down processing, to aid in the construction of their mental representation.  The way a reader will organize their mental representation of the information gleamed from a text will be heavily influenced by the text genre and their mental representation of that genre.


Interestingly, while many researchers believe that the different levels of representation are distinct enough to be isolated for research, the early 1990’s brought about a time of dissent specifically regarding the distinctiveness of the textbase and the situation model (Gernsbacher 1990, Givon 1992, Perfetti & Britt 1995). While it is apparent that each level of mental representation has complex interactions with other levels of representation, we do not yet fully understand the extent of these interactions and relationships. A big challenge going forward will be to continue creating experimental tasks that help elucidate the contribution of these levels of representation as well as their interactions (Graesser, Millis & Zwaan, 1997).


Reader Strategies for Improving Comprehension

One of the most prominent strategies taught to students to improve reading comprehension is the SQ3R method, as well as its more recent variations. This reading strategy was developed in the 1940’s by Francis Robinson (Shefield, R.M., Montgomery, R.J., & Moody, P.G., 2005).  The SQ3R is a method of self-regulated reading that is intended to help students increase their reading proficiency.  The goal is to increase the ability of individual students to be self-directed learners so that they may continue to acquire expertise in their professional fields (Artis, 2008). Proficient readers typically share 4 things in common. First, a proficient ready often understands why they are reading a particular text and thus is informed on how best to approach the text.  Second, a proficient reader is often aware of their own reading process as they progress through a text.  Third, proficient readers tend to track their comprehension as they go.  Lastly, the more proficient the reader the larger the array of reading methods and strategies that are employed by the reader (Artis, 2008). Because these four traits reflect top-down processes they are can be reflected in specific behaviors a reader can actively engage in. The SQ3R reading method was developed with these four things in mind.

SQ3R stands for survey, question, read, recite, and review (Feldt & More, 1999). Step one, “Survey”, consists of the reader skimming through the book or chapter and identifying the overall text structure and content matter. This step is going to contribute to the reader constructing an accurate and meaningful representation of the text-base when they later read through the material.  Once the text has been surveyed and the reader has developed a reasonable understanding of the material they can proceed to step 2.

“Question”, where the reader uses the knowledge of the text gained during their survey to develop questions that are intended to be answered through the reading. The question phase of this strategy will help the reader to engage their prior knowledge and prime existing knowledge structures for use and restructuring. The questions a reader develops at this point can help alleviate the need for some of the speculation and prediction carried out during normal text processing. This frees up greater attention for drawing meaningful inferences between prior knowledge and the new information in the text.


“Reading”, during the reading portion of SQ3R the reader should progress through the text section by section only moving on once a reasonable level of understanding has been achieved and any relevant questions from step 2 are answered. Further, the reader should begin to understand at this point the purpose of the reading in regards to their goals. It is recommended that the reader keep notes in the book margins or in a separate notebook as this will help the reader to better understand the ideas and concepts contained in the text. While the physical act of reading is largely a bottom-up process, a reader should be utilizing top-down strategies to drive their attention towards monitoring their own comprehension and addressing the questions devised earlier. Once the reader has completed the chapter/section they should explore how much of the text they understood/comprehended and begin step 4.


“Recite”, during which the reader will recite the answers to the questions generated during the reading task. It is recommended that students record the answers to these questions in their notes.  Taking thorough notes will make it much easier for the reader to continue from where they left off in the future and facilitates the 5th and final step of the method, “Review”, where students can look back over everything they have just read as well as the questions and answers they generated and try to determine how much they understood and how much of the reading is being retained. Throughout the reading, recitation, and review steps of the SQ3R method the reader will be gradually be constructing a situation model of the text and will begin integrating this model into their long-term memory. During the final review step, students should reorganize the new information in a way that makes the most sense to them (Artis, 2008).


While the SQ3R method of reading has remained extremely popular it has been adapted into a number of newer strategies over the years. Some of these revisions include, PQ4R (preview, question, read, reflect, recite, and review), FAIRER (facts, ask questions, identify major and minor details, read, evaluate your comprehension, review), SQ10R (survey, question, read, reflect, review, repeat, rethink, reintegrate, rehash, rewrite, rehearse, and reread), and SQ6R (survey, question, read, reflect, review, rehash, rethink, and reevaluate) (Artis, 2008).


Reading Strategies Not Incorporated Within Variations on SQ3R

Beyond the specific reading strategies described above, readers can be taught to utilize the following techniques to help improve their comprehension and overcome hurdles when stuck.

  • Think aloud protocols

  • Generating your own examples

  • Making analogies

  • Exploiting knowledge of text structure

  • The use of outlines

  • The use of concept mapping

  • Directing extra focus to new materials and information

(O’Donnel, Webber & McLaughlin, 2003; Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010)  

Think aloud strategies can be effective, however they often ignore students natural tendency for very local and piecemeal processing of a text.  The Cote et al (1998) study found that students who were asked to confirm their comprehension of a text often focused on demonstrating understanding of specific single words or single sentences. When the researchers looked at backtracking/rereading they found that student reading behavior was indicative of strong focus on local coherence and little focus on backtracking to specific sentences that would be expected if the student was exploring a more global theme for the text. The Cote et al (1998) study replicated findings from earlier research by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1984). These two bodies of research support the notion that students sometimes forget to see the forest for the trees, or, in more formal terms, that their focus on local coherence diminishes the global coherence of their final text representation (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998).  This research indicates a need to foster cross-text integration: the connecting the relevant information necessary for the construction of a more global coherence of the text across its divided placement in the text (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). This global text coherence is necessary for the development of a complete and accurate global representation of the target text (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). It is not uncommon for a reader to find themselves lacking some degree of topic relevant background knowledge for a specific text.  In fact, it is quite typical for an independent learner to find themselves somewhat lacking in regards to the topic relevant prior knowledge necessary for learning the texts they are attempting to comprehend (Cote, Goldman & Saul, 1998). As mentioned earlier, one potential strategy in this instance is for readers to exploit their knowledge of text structure which can include graphics, paragraph formatting, and other rhetorical signs (Goldman & Murray, 1992; Goldman, Saul, & Cote, 1995; Hiebert et al., 1983; Lorch, 1989; Lorch & Lorch, 1996; Millis, Graesser, & Haberlandt, 1993) Students often fail to identify important information in the text such as structural Cote et al (1998). Teaching students to identify these cues and to draw on their past experiences and general knowledge to exploit text structure could be an effective strategy for readers diving into new content areas where their topic relevant background knowledge is likely lacking.


The last two reader strategies listed above, outlining and concept mapping, focus on improving the encoding process. Research conducted by White (2004) as well as Glynn and Divesta (1977) found significant positive correlations between outlining or concept mapping and reading comprehension. This research begins to explain the relationship between what a reader learns from a text and the new knowledge identified in the a text, the organization and structure of this knowledge and the way new information is processed in relation to existing knowledge structures. Outlines can be useful for presenting a reader with a visual organization of the knowledge contained in the text and helps to point out the relevant and important new information that should be focused on during reading.  The identification of important information and major topics prior to the reading task helps the reader form more meaningful storage of the material in long-term memory. Other research by Ormrod (2008) indicates that the use of outlines helps with information retrieval by helping to provide additional cues during the learning experience that the reader may exploit during information retrieval. Because of these benefits instructors are often advised to provide chapter outlines to their students.  These chapter outlines should consist of the main and subheadings of the target material and should leave room for students to be assigned the task of completing the outline with notes and information to connect the outline and the important information in the text. (Glynn & DiVesta, 1977).   


Concept mapping takes advantage of schematic relationships by building a graphic representation of a main concept and as many of the direct and indirect relationships as the reader can produce for that main concept. As in schema theory, described earlier, concept mapping is hierarchical in nature (Hill, 2005; Ormrod, 2008).  With each concept linked to the main concept in turn becoming its own main concept upon which the map is expanded. Like schemas the top level concept will be more general and inclusive with each subsequent move down and away from the main concept becoming increasingly specific and specialized (Chiou, 2008).  Different graphic representations of the connections between concepts are used to denote the importance of various relationships (Chiou, 2008).  This strategy has been found to positively impact a readers encoding of new information to long-term memory. New information is effectively integrated into existing knowledge structures (Hill, 2005). Hill (2005) found that concept mapping is most effective for readers who have a larger base of prior knowledge going into a reading task, this is consistent with “Cognitive Learning Theory” in that the most effective learning is when the reader relates new knowledge to prior knowledge (7).


Instructor Strategies for Improving Comprehension

While self-directed and independent learning is an important way individuals learn from text readers often have access to other resources, specifically in the case of the student across all levels of education. Fortunately, the literature supports a number of strategies that instructors can employ if they hope to help increase the reading comprehension of their students. These strategies include:

  • The discussion of key words

  • The use of lectures

  • Classroom discussions

  • Instructional videos or computer programs

  • The use of cooperative learning techniques

  • Peer-assisted instruction

  • Study guides and review questions

  • Handouts and learning packets

  • Summary statements for important information

  • Self-quizzes

  • Homework and classwork

  • Suggested supplementary readings

(O’Donnel, Webber & McLaughlin, 2003; Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010)

These instructor strategies are generally different ways of influencing and improving a reader’s prior knowledge before a reading task. One of the older and more prominent strategies teachers use to facilitate learning in their students is the lecture.  Parker (1993) makes the case that a good lecture can have a positive impact on comprehension.  Parker goes on to argue that a firm understanding of the information-processing model is vital for the construction and delivery of a successful lecture. Using their knowledge of the information-processing model, specifically regarding how learners process and store information, instructors and provide an effective overview of the important information students should focus on and take from the text (7). An effective supplement to classroom lectures is class discussions.  A properly moderated class discussion provides students with opportunities to contribute thoughts and ideas and to use the thoughts and ideas of others to build a more solid foundation as well as further develop prior knowledge in a way that can facilitate comprehension during associated reading tasks (Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010). Building on the collaborative nature of classroom discussions, peer teaching and peer-assisted instruction are other effective strategies that instructors can employ to help facilitate comprehension in their students. Peer-assisted instruction consists of pairing two students together based on achievement level with higher achieving students being paired with lower achieving students (Ezell et al, 1997). This approach tends to provide students with greater opportunity to both ask and answer questions and then pose unanswered questions to the class as a group rather than as an individual (Ezell et al, 1997). The greater opportunity for asking questions and procuring answers to those questions as well as the exchange of information between students should contribute to a greater foundation of prior knowledge for both students going into a reading assignment.


Peer teaching, as the name implies, is when students take the place of the instructor for a short time and teach their peers their assigned information. For this exercise students are placed into small groups where each person takes a turn in the roll of teacher. Once the members of the group have independently read a section of the assigned text the leader, or peer teacher, will begin to ask questions they think the primary instructor would ask about the text that was just read. The group works together to answer the questions and discuss the material. This process continues until the entire assigned text has been read and discussed (Gourgey, 1998). At the start the primary instructor of the course will help facilitate the group discussions and will gradually pull back as the groups become increasingly capable of navigating the entire text on their own. This strategy can help improve a student’s understanding of their assigned reading (Ormrod, 2008).

The use of technology is another strategy that instructors can utilize to help facilitate learning and comprehension in their students. There are a number of technologies that instructors can use to help increase comprehension in their students.  Instructional media, most specifically video instruction can be more interesting than standard text-based instruction alone. Choi and Johnson (2005) found that video instruction is a stimulating and memorable strategy for conveying information to students. This type of presentation is able to break down information and concepts in a way that students find easier to comprehend (Choi and Johnson, 2005). Videos are able to describe information and concepts more easily than text alone (Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010). This advantage is partly because of the ability to hold the attention of and use both visual and auditory systems (Choi and Johnson, 2005).


The use of computer programs for learning and facilitating comprehension is one of the least explored instructional strategies (Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010). Kim et al. (2006) notes that instructors can use computer programs to enhance classroom learning. This is done by providing students with more individualized and dynamic instruction in which students can progress at their own pace, and chose their own learning paths to some degree. Further, features such as reading level, the specific reading passages, and the practice exercises can be adjusted in real time based on current and past performance of the individual (Kim et al., 2006). Kim et al. (2006) discovered that students express positive perception of their reading skills and comprehension when assisted with computer programs. More importantly, an examination of performance does indeed identify a significant improvement in comprehension by students utilizing computer assisted comprehension programs (Kim et al., 2006) Kim et al. (2006) suggests that this type of computer assisted comprehension program can be affective at improving comprehension even in college level courses. Unfortunately the use of computer programs is one of the least explored types of strategies for improving comprehension through improving background knowledge (Lei, Rhinehart, Howard & Cho, 2010)

Where do we go from here?

While current models of reading comprehension accept that both top down and bottom up processes are occurring simultaneously as a reader processes text it can be useful to look at the distinction between the two and exploit this to further identify avenues for intervention and research. The strategies and methods of improving reading comprehension reviewed here circle around different degrees of modifying the text (bottom-up strategies) to facilitate comprehension and different methods that can be employed by readers or instructors (top-down strategies) to help increase comprehension.  These methods can often be further broken down into either strategies for improving the quality of the mental representation of the text or increasing the prior knowledge of the reader to help them more effectively integrate their text-base representation into their long-term memory. Given the described importance and contribution of prior knowledge to a reader’s comprehension the apparent lack of research regarding strategies and methods for providing reader’s prior knowledge during or immediately prior to a reading task is surprising.

Future research should be conducted to elucidate the impact of the inclusion of a primer of some kind on prior knowledge and comprehension. A resource breaking down and laying out much of the assumed prior knowledge for a text should be useful both high and low knowledge individuals, specifically in regards to their top-down processing of a target text.  Low-knowledge individuals would gain some familiarity with important unfamiliar terms and concepts prior to the task and would possess a reference to consult at the onset of any knowledge based reading difficulties.  High-knowledge individuals that consult a primer type resource should benefit from a priming effect helping to make more readily available the topic-relevant prior knowledge they already possess as well as help to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. 

Acknowledgements
I would like to take a minute to thank Dr. Jeffery Levy of Seton Hall University for his mentorship, guidance, and friendship throughout my time at Seton Hall as well as throughout the writing process for this literature review.  Your unwavering support and belief in me is a very large factor in my success and I truly appreciate all you have done for me. 

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