Monday, October 30, 2023

This blog post is the first post in our Research Article of the Month series. For this month, we highlight “Reading Comprehension: Core Components and Processes,” a scientific review that was initially published in the journal Policy Insights From the Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2016. Important words related to research are bolded, and definitions of these terms are included at the end of the article in the “Terms to Know” section.

Why Did We Pick This Paper?

We picked this article because it offers deep insight into the core components and processes of reading comprehension. It provides an overview of the current knowledge on reading comprehension by emphasizing the importance of inferential processes and a reader’s prior knowledge in facilitating comprehension. It is worth noting that the article presents valuable insights into research-based instructional techniques and assessments tailored for reading comprehension. Such information can be beneficial for educators who are seeking effective interventions and methods to track students’ progress in reading comprehension.

What Are the Research Questions or Purpose?

This article reviews theoretical and empirical literature on inferential processes and prior knowledge and how these components contribute to reading comprehension, with the aim of guiding research, practice, and policy regarding comprehension instruction and assessment.

What Methodology Do the Authors Employ?

This article is a scientific review of previously published research; instead of presenting new findings, it synthesizes existing knowledge on the core components and processes of reading comprehension.

What Are the Key Findings?

Implications of Inference Interventions and Assessment

First, the authors identify interventions for inference-making that are supported by research. These interventions include:

  • pre-teaching activities that activate background knowledge and direct students’ attention to important parts of a text,
  • systematic questioning about specific parts of a text followed by immediate feedback,
  • teaching specific strategies (e.g., thinking aloud),
  • self-questioning, and
  • using graphic organizers to fill in gaps in the text.

The authors note current gaps in research and highlight future directions researchers could explore. Further research could focus on instruction of inference making as a general language skill in young children to prevent later reading comprehension difficulties. There is also a need for more studies that demonstrate effects on more generalized, standardized measures of reading ability. Additionally, it is worth examining whether the effects of successful inference making interventions maintain over time.

Federal agencies like the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) fund testing and development of comprehension-based instructional approaches. For example, one approach, called “In-the-Text Connections” has students answer causal questions that require them to connect related events in the text and provides scaffolded feedback to direct students to use information from the text in their response.

Next, the authors summarize the assessments that are currently available to assess inference-making abilities. These assessments include:

  • Comprehension Efficiency (COMPreading by FastBridge) assesses inference making by having students respond to a series of true/false questions during passage reading.
  • The Reading Strategies Assessment (RSAT) uses general and specific open-ended questions to track students’ inferential processes.
  • The Multiple-Choice, Open-Ended, Cloze, Comprehension Assessment (MOCCA) targets inferential processes. Students read short passages in which the second to last sentence is deleted, and they select one of four sentences to complete the deleted line.
  • The Bridging Inferences Test (Bridge-IT) requires students to read a set of sentences and judge whether a continuing sentence is consistent or inconsistent with the preceding sentences.

These formative assessments are designed to target the inference making that is part of the reading process so that teachers can understand their students’ needs and adjust future instruction.

Federal agencies like IES fund research and development of assessment tools. For example, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funds efforts to scale up FastBridge assessments. IES also funds the Race to the Top Assessment (RTTTA), which focuses on summative assessment. More funding is needed for formative assessment, especially assessments that target reading processes at the root of comprehension failures, like problems with inference making.

Implications of Prior Knowledge Interventions and Assessment

The authors shift their focus to the role of prior knowledge in constructing meaning during reading. They identify interventions for building knowledge that are supported by research. For example, interventions designed to teach students to recognize different text structures (e.g., cause-effect, problem-solution, compare-contrast... etc.) have shown some promise. They highlight some specific interventions that have yielded positive results:

  • Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) was designed to improve content knowledge in social studies, and it also improved reading comprehension.
  • The Content Area Literacy Intervention (CALI) was designed to improve science literacy, and it also improved students’ science knowledge.

Initiatives like the CCSS Initiative attempt to systematically integrate various knowledge sources into reading instruction and assessment. The authors highlight the need to expose students to various text genres and structures, and they propose that using technology and multimedia elements may be particularly helpful.

The authors emphasize that there is a continued need for federal agencies to fund projects that develop instructional interventions that build domain knowledge, or the ability to use processes and knowledge specific to a content area (e.g., science, history, social studies) to construct meaning from texts.

The authors stress that assessment needs to be able to determine whether low performance is due to lack of knowledge, lack of knowledge accessibility, or lack of knowledge integration (i.e., making inferences). Often, reading assessments control for prior knowledge by using topics and content that would likely be unique or unfamiliar to readers. However, the authors contend that there is value in explicitly designing tests that include content that relates to students’ prior knowledge because integrating prior knowledge in reading assessment is consistent with the current definition of reading comprehension. For example, the Reading for Understanding IES initiative funds the development of the Global, Integrated Scenario-Based Assessment (GISA), which measures reading literacy ability. GISA takes prior knowledge into account by testing Tier-3 vocabulary words that have close ties to specific content knowledge.

What Are the Limitations of This Paper?

Considering the article was published in 2016, some of the new interventions, curricula, and assessments that are available now were not reviewed or included in the paper. The authors of the study pointed out that “Instructional programs designed specifically to facilitate knowledge building are far less common; instead, knowledge building is often a subcomponent of reading comprehension instruction”(p. 66). Currently, there are several curricula focused on knowledge building.


Another potential area of limitation is the scope of exploration concerning effective interventions for reading comprehension. The study primarily confined itself to describing possible interventions aimed at improving inference making and knowledge building. However, it stopped short of conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of those strategies. This raises questions about their applicability and implementation in real-world classroom settings.  Moreover, there are other contributing factors that might lead to substantial improvements in reading comprehension. It is essential for future research to delve deeper into these interventions, evaluate their efficacy, and possibly consider a wider array of approaches, strategies, and underlying determinants that can enhance reading comprehension of students.

Terms to Know

The following terms are critical for understanding the research article highlighted in this post:

  • Inferential processes: When readers make inferences, they make connections between their prior knowledge and knowledge gained from reading to fill in gaps in the text.
  • Prior knowledge: Prior knowledge refers to everything that a reader knows about a topic. Prior knowledge facilitates reading comprehension.
  • Theoretical research: Rather than using observation or experimentation, theoretical research uses existing knowledge to develop a theory about how something works. Often, the aim of theoretical research is to produce hypotheses that can be tested through empirical research.
  • Empirical research: Empirical research uses observation or experience and experimentation to answer questions.
  • Scientific review: A scientific review synthesizes existing research on a topic. By summarizing previous research on a topic, a review can identify gaps in existing studies and identify potential research areas to explore next. Additionally, by providing an overview of the current knowledge on a topic, a review can derive implications for policy and practice.
  • Control: When researchers control for a factor, they hold it constant to limit its influence on the effect they are measuring. For example, consider the task of measuring a reader's comprehension of a passage. It would be difficult to determine whether the knowledge demonstrated by the reader was gained through reading alone or whether it was based on their prior knowledge about the topic. In this case, the researchers could control for prior knowledge by making sure that the reader did not have prior knowledge about the topic in the passage.


Kendeou, P., McMaster, K. L., & Christ, T. J. (2016). Reading comprehension: Core components and processes. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 62-69.