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HomeScience of ReadingThe Three Elements of Reading Comprehension

The Three Elements of Reading Comprehension

Gene Kerns reimagines an approach to literacy education that extends well beyond third grade

We’ve all heard that when students can read on grade level by the end of grade three, their academic path forward is greatly facilitated. As a result, many states have enacted policies and testing requirements to support just that: reading on grade level by the end of third grade. We even refer to our youngest students as “pre-readers” and talk about students transitioning to being “independent readers” in elementary school. Does that mean we stop there? Have we fully supported students in becoming lifelong readers when they are performing well in grade three? Certainly not.

The ability to read is a lifelong skill, a foundation from which students can accelerate their learning, develop new capabilities, and successfully navigate life no matter which path they choose. But supporting true reading comprehension means re-envisioning literacy education as a multiyear journey that begins in the early years but continues indefinitely.

Re-envisioning Literacy Education
Helping students navigate this journey requires that educators deeply understand the elements of reading comprehension. Rather than being a single skill, comprehension is dependent on a variety of skills that can be summarized as a trifecta of decoding, vocabulary, and knowledge. Each area must be cultivated, supported, and nurtured as students move from first recognizing the sounds and shapes of letters to becoming truly literate.

It begins with decoding and the ability to sound out words. But, if a student sounds out a word they’ve never heard, they haven’t achieved comprehension. This is where vocabulary comes in. Likewise, having heard a vast number of words won’t help a student if they don’t know how to associate the sounds with letters. Then, beyond both of these, comprehension also often requires background knowledge. The ability to decode the words Berlin Wall does not mean that the student understands the historical reference to that structure. For true comprehension, they need all three.

The literacy journey should be well supported across all grade levels, but the practices with older students and the role of other content-area teachers are not clearly articulated. Far less training or support for literacy is found in the later grades. This imbalance partially stems from a lack of investment. In the early 2000s, for example, grants from Reading First pumped billions of dollars into kindergarten through third grade. However, there was no parallel grant program of any scale for literacy in fourth grade and above, contributing to the polarity we see today.

This is not to say that investments in early grades are wasted. Literacy cannot be built on shaky foundations.

Students must learn to decode and pronounce words. But stopping there hinders students’ ability to reach higher levels of literacy. In addition to a sturdy foundation, students must also have ample opportunities to build their vocabulary and add to their general knowledge. When a young person is equipped with decoding abilities, a robust vocabulary, and broad contextual knowledge, they’ll be highly literate.

We must continually acknowledge both the elements and the length of the journey to literacy. A pragmatic approach could be to envision literacy acquisition as having two phases: what educators should do for students before they have learned the mechanics of reading, and what educators should do for students after. Both areas offer opportunities for improvement.

Phonics Vs. MSV: A History of Miseducation of Young Readers
Let’s first focus on the before. In our very first lessons with students, we must focus on phonemic awareness. Why? Because young children often don’t hear the individual sounds within words. It can be hard for adults to remember this because, for most of us, it has become second nature. Grasping the phonemes is the beginning.

Teachers initially introduce sounds so students can start to hear their individual characteristics. Only after that can a student move on to learning letters and associating sounds with letters. For optimal growth, the focus here must be on the letters, but some widely accepted teaching practices send students off track.

Many teachers have been taught to follow the acronym MSV, also known as the three-cueing system. This instructional practice teaches students to read through using meaning to figure out what a word is, then looking at sentence structure and visuals (pictures on the page). In lessons, this can show up as students looking at pictures to guess a word, skipping over unfamiliar words, or memorizing the shape of a word.

Many teachers follow this method because they have been told it works. Trainers, teacher educators, district leaders, and even well-respected researchers have time and again held up MSV as best practice. The approach seems reasonable and no other alternatives are presented, so they continue to push forward.

Harmful Effects of MSV
The problem is that the practice distracts students from where they should be focused—on the words—by emphasizing other elements on the page.1 Learning to decode words establishes the foundation. Once students learn to decode words, they can build the ability to recognize more and more of them by sight and instantly associate them with sound and meaning. It’s a skill, called orthographic mapping, that strong readers and high-performing students develop. Understanding the connection between seeing a word and its details, its sequence of letters, and its pronunciation is part of learning comprehension, growth, and mastery. But when students are shifting their focus to other elements on the page or even suggesting words and meanings that make sense but aren’t actually on the page, they are encoding poor reading habits and slowing their development of essential orthographic mapping. Reliance on MSV and cueing is likely contributing to low proficiency rates in reading. According to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 37% of high school seniors were proficient or advanced in reading.2 Measures for fourth graders are similar. About one-third (35%) of students in fourth grade were below the basic reading level.

Updating Classroom Practices
Helping teachers access, understand, and put into practice the science of reading is essential to improving reading rates.3 Access starts with teachers’ colleges and districts updating the research on which they rely. Some teachers are continuing outdated practices because they are the only solutions presented for teaching students to read. Teacher educators, administrators, and classroom teachers themselves must commit to only using research-proven ideas about how to teach reading—and then hold each other accountable.

The importance of explicit and systematic phonics instruction has been validated by an extensive research base and is the key to the first leg of the journey to literacy, supporting students before they have learned the mechanics of reading.

Accelerating Vocabulary Acquisition
We can now transition to the second phase of the journey: what students need after they’ve learned the mechanics of reading. Once the foundational skills of reading (such as phonics and decoding) are in place, there is tremendous value in time spent on vocabulary and knowledge expansion. Let’s first explore vocabulary.

Fluency in reading is supported by exposure to as many words as possible, as frequently as possible. The introduction of different vocabulary words, even before students are taught to read them, can be an effective step. Hearing a variety of words and the sounds that comprise them through conversations and being read to gives students the chance to recognize the sounds and patterns.

Then, once students are capable of independent reading, they can acquire vocabulary more efficiently through wide reading than through any direct instruction on vocabulary. This is not to say we should not directly teach vocabulary. We should, and there are ways to make that process as efficient and effective as possible. But researchers estimate that we can only directly teach students about 400 words per year,4 and to be college and career ready, students need to add a minimum of 1,500 words to their vocabulary annually.

Achievement Gap Vs. Knowledge Gap
This brings us to the final element of the comprehension trifecta: knowledge. Most educators are aware of the tight correlation between reading ability and socioeconomic status. But why do more affluent students typically read better? Is it because they truly have better skills in reading? Or is it some other advantage?

An extensive body of research has validated that the more general knowledge a student has, the better they do on reading tests. This often leads to higher high school graduation rates, college completion, and earning potential. We tend to reference “achievement gaps.” But what if it’s not an achievement gap but a knowledge gap?

Reframing the gap exposes the biases built into it and its true nature. We can see that students who have opportunities to acquire more knowledge about the world— whether that be broader access to subjects at school or, more importantly, opportunities outside of the classroom like wider travel and more varied experiences—gain an advantage on tests because of the knowledge they acquire. And who are the children with more of these opportunities? Those from higher-income families.

So the question for educators then becomes how to introduce students to broad content from an early age—in a sense, how to embrace the idea that knowledge and literacy are the same.5

Doing so will require breaking the assumption that more time on English language arts improves literacy scores. In fact, one recent study showed that students made greater gains when they had more time with social studies topics than when they were given more instruction on reading strategies.6 Yet, in response to No Child Left Behind and in an effort to raise literacy rates, many schools cut the time students spend in the arts and other subjects to increase time in ELA.

To achieve higher rates of literacy and set students up for a lifetime of success, educators must embrace the three factors of comprehension and engage with their interconnections.


Dr. Gene Kerns (@GeneKerns) is the chief academic officer at Renaissance. He is a third-generation educator and has served as a public school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. He has trained and consulted internationally and is the co-author of three books. He can be reached at

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