Reading comprehension is a fundamental cognitive skill. It allows us to extract meaning and understanding from written language. As we read, our brains engage in a complex process. Words, sentences, and paragraphs connect. They form a coherent, meaningful narrative. Have you ever wondered what goes on in our minds as we read? Let’s explore the fascinating science behind reading comprehension. We'll delve into its mechanisms and the role of readability.

How does comprehension work?

1 | The building blocks of reading comprehension

Comprehension is the building blocks of language processing. These are: phonetics, phonology, syntax, and semantics. Phonetics and phonology involve recognising and processing sound combinations. Syntax deals with the rules governing sentence structure. Semantics focuses on the insight of word meanings and their relationships. 

2 | The role of working memory

Working memory briefly stores and manipulates information. This plays a crucial role. We need to hold and integrate data in our short-term memory. This creates a coherent mental likeness of the text. Our capacity can influence how much information we can process. It also influences how well we can connect new information with our existing knowledge.

3 | Making connections with prior knowledge

This connection is another crucial factor. Our brains actively search for relevant information in our long-term memory. This makes sense of what we're reading. This lets us relate new ideas to our prior experiences. In turn, the information is more memorable and meaningful.

Strategies for enhancement

Several strategies can enhance reading comprehension:

  1. Active reading. Engaging with the text by asking questions. Making predictions and summarising as we read.
  2. Visualising. Creating mental images of the content to enhance memory.
  3. Monitoring understanding. Being aware of when comprehension breaks down. Taking steps to clarify any confusion.
  4. Context clues. Using surrounding text to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words or concepts.
  5. Metacognition. Reflecting on our own thought processes while reading.

Individual differences

Reading comprehension abilities can vary among people. Language proficiency, vocabulary, working memory capacity, and attention all play a role. Some learners may struggle with specific aspects. Others excel in particular areas. Recognising these personal differences is important.

Reading comprehension is a sophisticated cognitive process. Understanding it can not only help us become better readers. It can also inform writing practices. 

How does improved readability affect comprehension?

The more readable a text is, the easier it can not only be read, but well understood and retained. Several studies reinforce this.

  • “The Impact of Text Readability on Reading Comprehension in Primary School Students"
    (Source: Journal of Educational Psychology)
    Researchers presented texts at varying readability levels to a group of students. They assessed their comprehension using standardised reading tests. The results showed a link. Texts with better readability levels enhanced students' understanding.
  • "Readability and Comprehension: A Study of College-level Texts"
    (Source: Reading Research Quarterly)
    College-level texts from various disciplines were analysed. College students were asked to read the texts and complete comprehension assessments. Texts with higher readability scores improved comprehension".
  • A Longitudinal Investigation of Readability and Comprehension Development in Elementary School Students"
    (Source: Journal of Literacy Research)
    This followed a group of elementary school students over several years. It assessed their reading comprehension abilities at different grade levels. They improved significantly as they were exposed to more readable texts.
  • "Effects of Readability on Online Reading Comprehension"
    (Source: Computers & Education)
    Participants were asked to read online articles with varying readability levels. Their eye movements and comprehension were tracked. Better readability led to increased reading speed and improved comprehension.
  • "The Impact of Readability on E-learning Comprehension and Performance"
    (Source: International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction)
    This study investigated e-learning materials. Participants engaged with e-learning modules with different readability levels. Their comprehension and knowledge retention were assessed. Better readability contributed to better performance on knowledge-based tasks.

It's clear that texts with improved readability levels positively influence reading comprehension. And not just at elementary level. They underscore the importance of creating content tailored to reader needs.


Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable and has been building websites since the early 90s. He’s one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.