Keys to Comprehension

Sounding out or "word calling" is part of the reading puzzle but falls short of real reading.  If children don't understand what they read, they're not really reading.  If they don't unlock meaning as they read, the words are a boring babble and will never really enjoy reading.  Research has shown that good readers use 7 key strategies when reading. 

The 7 keys to unlock meaning are:

1.  Create mental images:  Good readers create a wide range of visual, auditory and other sensory images as they read, and they become emotionally involved with what they read.

  • Creating images or a "motion picture" in your mind helps one develop a better appreciation and understanding of what they have read.
  • As you create the pictures in your mind it makes the pictures three-dimensional.  This will help you to connect the images with your life experiences.
  • The images in your mind help you to personalize characters, scenes, plot lines, facts, etc.
  • When you are no longer forming pictures in your mind as you listen to or read a story, it is a good clue that you are no longer paying attention to the story and there is a breakdown in comprehension.
  • Watching the story unwind as a movie in your mind will help you to continue reading the story.  You will want to "see" what will happen next in the story.
  • The concrete representations in your mind will help you move from a literal (basic facts) interpretation of the story to inferential thinking (predicting, inferring, etc.)  Inferential thinking is a higher level thinking skill than basic recall of facts.  It shows a truer understanding of the information that is read.  

2.  Use background knowledge:  Good readers use their relevant prior knowledge before, during and after reading to enhance their understanding of what they've read.

  •  If you bring your background knowledge to everything you read, it will have a critical impact on how well you understand and respond to your reading.
  • Applying background knowledge will help you go beyond the words on the page as you recall past experiences.  This will help you better understand and enjoy what you are reading.
  • If you do not have the background knowledge to understand what you are reading, ask a parent, friend, teacher, expert, dictionary, encyclopedia, etc. to help you learn more about the topic.
  • Background knowledge is the basis of thinking skills.  When you know how to activate pertinent background knowledge, you will have more detailed mental images and have a better understanding of what you've read.


3.  Ask questions:  Good readers generate questions before, during and after reading to clarify meaning, make predictions and focus their attention on what's important.

Why, what, where, who and how?  Do you remember when your child was young and those were questions you heard all day?  Well, those same questions are important in understanding what is read and heard.  Questioning during reading will allow students to better understand the material.

  • Your questions will help you to figure out what you want to learn from a text, discover what you care about when reading, and help you understand what the author is saying.  Questions can help you make sense of what you are reading.
  • Questions will help you keep your mind alert as you read and enrich your reading experience by deepening your understanding. 
  • Questions don't always have easy answers.  You may want to discuss your thoughts with another person or look to another source to find the answers.
  • Questions keep you turning the pages of the book as you search for the answer(s) to your question(s).
  • Questions lead you to new ideas, perspectives and other questions. 


4.  Make inferences:  Good readers use their prior knowledge and information from what they read to make predictions, seek answers to questions, draw conclusions and create interpretations that deepen their understanding of the text.

  • An inference adds to what you have read as you draw conclusions that go beyond the words you have read on the page.
  • You can create an inference by connecting your background knowledge with the clues from the texts or pictures.  You can use this information to form an opinion about information that is not clearly stated in the story.
  • Inferring makes you think ahead to determine what could happen next.  You will make prediction and then confirm or reject them.
  • When you infer, you make an educated guess about what's going on in your reading.
  • You can infer the meaning of unknown words by using the context of the sentence and the clues in the pictures to figure out what would make the most sense in the sentence.
  • Authors don't include all information in their stories.  They want you to discover some information through inference.
  • When you have sympathy or understanding toward a character, laugh at a joke, get a sense about the setting in a story or solve a mystery as you read, you are using inferential thinking.

5.  Determine the most important ideas or themes:  Good readers identify key ideas or themes as they read, and they can distinguish between important and unimportant information.

Knowing the purpose for reading will help you to determine what is important.  Are you reading for pleasure, to learn specific fact, to finish a homework assignment or for research on a presentation?   What and why you are reading will help determine what information you glean from the material.  We do not read a book for the pleasure in the same way that we read a text book.  

  • Once you know why you're reading, you can make decisions about what information or ideas are the most critical to understanding the overall meaning of the text.
  • Knowing the purpose for reading will help determine what's important when you read.  It affects how carefully you read and will help to determine what you feel is important as your read.
  • In nonfiction texts, often information will be boxed or boldfaced.  This will help you to know the information is important.  The labeling under pictures is often important, too.

6.  Synthesize information:  Good readers track their thinking as it evolves during reading, to get the overall meaning.



7.  Use fix-up strategies:  Good readers are aware of when they understand and when they don't.  If they have trouble understanding specific words, phrases or longer passages, they use a wide range of problem-solving strategies including skipping ahead, rereading, asking questions, using a dictionary and reading the passage aloud.  It is the reader's job to determine when the text does not make sense.  Good readers will stop reading when they don't understand what they've read and figure out how to fix the problem.  Some fix-up options are:

  • reread
  • read ahead
  • ask new questions
  • draw inferences
  • make predictions
  • figure out unknown words
  • seek help from someone or an outside source such as a dictionary, encyclopedia, etc.
  • stop to think
  • connect what you are reading to your background knowledge
  • try to form a mental picture of what you are reading
  • look at pictures to see if they help with the meaning
  • define the purpose for why you are reading

Excerpted from 7 Keys to Comprehension:  How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!
by:  Susan Zimmerman and Chryse Hutchins


  • You may often read during research to find the answer to a question. 
  • Authors do leave clues as to what they think is important.  They may use phrases like "as a result" or "in summary" to let you know information is important.
  • It is good to summarize the important information that you have read.  This will help you to better understand what you are learning and to remember the facts!

Taken from Mrs. Stoebner's Website