Unlocking the Levels of Comprehension

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Reading is an active process. In order to become proficient readers, students need to be able to not only decode the words they are reading, but also deeply understand what they are reading.

When upper elementary teachers share concerns about their most struggling readers with me, nine times out of ten, they're concerned with comprehension. Comprehension is such a HUGE umbrella! Used broadly, it's extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly where a student's comprehension breaks down, or to implement an effective intervention for them.

In an effort to break it down into more manageable chunks, think of comprehension in three levels: literal, inferential, and critical.

Literal Comprehension

Literal comprehension is understanding information that is directly stated in the text. Literal comprehension involves recalling information, sequencing events, summarizing, identifying the main idea and details, and categorizing.

Sample literal questions:
  • What are the key details from the story?
  • Who are the characters in the story?
  • What is the problem/solution?
  • What is the main idea of this section?

Inferential Comprehension

Inferential comprehension is understanding something that is not directly stated in the text. Students use evidence from the text along with their background knowledge to make inferences - reading between the lines. Inferential comprehension involves making predictions and connections, understanding figurative language, drawing conclusions, and synthesizing.

Sample inferential questions:
  • Based on what you know, what might happen next?
  • What is the message or lesson in this story?
  • What kind of person is the character? How did the author show what the character is like?
  • How did the character change from the beginning to the end of the book?

Critical Comprehension

Critical (evaluative) comprehension requires the reader to respond to the text based on their prior knowledge and their opinions. This is a high level of comprehension because the reader is evaluating the writing. Because opinions vary and everyone has their own background knowledge, answers to critical comprehension questions will vary. Critical comprehension involves analyzing, evaluating, and making judgments.

Sample critical questions:
  • What did the author do to make the book surprising?
  • Do you agree with the character's actions? Explain.
  • Is _____ (title) a good title for this book? Explain. 
  • How could the character have reacted differently to the problem?

Being able to determine where a student struggles within these three tiers can help teachers to focus their instruction and create a more effective intervention.

Last year, I began compiling all of the comprehension questions I would ask students before, during, and after reading. I categorized the questions into grade levels using the CCSS and broke them into the three tiers of comprehension. I use these question lists while working with each of my intervention groups.

Interested in using these comprehension questions? The sets can be used one-on-one, in small groups, or as a whole class. Use them to set reading goals, track student progress, and to help students dig deeper and propel them toward more difficult texts.

They are available for grades K-8. Each grade level set is $4 in my TpT store.

Happy Teaching!


  1. Loved this post! As an upper elementary teacher this is what we often times struggle with! Thanks for the amazing resource!

  2. Loved this post! As an upper elementary teacher this is what we often times struggle with! Thanks for the amazing resource!

    1. Thank you, Michelle! I hope the questions are helpful to you in your classroom!

  3. This info is excellent!!! Thank you. Pinning NOW.

    Sharp in Second


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