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You are here: Home / Academics / School of Education and Counseling Psychology / About the School / Madalienne Peters, Ed.D. / Comprehension: Theories and Strategies

Comprehension: Theories and Strategies

Mike Casper

Julie Catton

Sally Westfall

Dominican College

School of Education

October 2, 1998


The main purpose for reading is to comprehend the ideas in the material. Without comprehension, reading would be empty and meaningless. In our practicum, we have all witnessed cases where students are capable of reading the words, but face much difficulty in expressing their comprehension of the main ideas. An example of this occurrence was a second grade boy named Reggie who loved to read but had difficulty in comprehending what he read. Reggie would eagerly read to an audience since he had a solid grasp of phonemic awareness (sounding out words) and social discourse (reading with expression). When tested by the Reading Specialist, Reggie was placed in a relatively low level reading group. This was due to his inability to demonstrate comprehension of the reading material. This was shocking to the teacher, as he appeared to be a strong reader.

As educators, we need to have an understanding of the theories behind reading comprehension, as well as a working knowledge of some important strategies that can be used in the classroom to increase reading comprehension. In this paper, we are going to focus on three important theories on reading comprehension: the Schema Theory; Mental Models, and the Propositional Theory, and four categories of strategies to improve reading comprehension based on these theories: Preparational, Organizational, Elaboration, and Monitoring.



Gunning (1996) identifies three main theories of reading comprehension. These theories are Schema Theory, Mental Models, and Proposition Theory.

Schema Theory

Gunning (1996) defines a schema as the organized knowledge that one already has about people, places, things, and events. Kitao (1990) says the schema theory involves an interaction between the reader’s own knowledge and the text, which results in comprehension. This schema, as Gunning defined, can be very broad, such a schema for natural disasters, or more narrow, such as a schema for a hurricane. Each schema is "filed" in an individual compartment and stored there. In attempting to comprehend reading materials, students can relate this new information to the existing information they have compartmentalized in their minds, adding it to these "files" for future use. Based on the Schema Theory, depending on how extensive their "files" become, their degree of reading comprehension may vary.

Mental Model Theory

Another major theory we would like to discuss is the Mental Model. This model can be thought of as a mind movie created in one's head, based on the reading content. Gunning gives a detailed description of this process, stating that a mental model is constructed most often when a student is reading fiction. The reader focuses in on the main character and creates a mental model of the circumstances in which the character finds him or herself. The mental model is re-constructed or updated to reflect the new circumstances as the situation changes, but the items important to the main character are kept in the foreground according to Gunning, (1996).

Perkins (1991) identifies that sometimes misconceptions about important concepts reflect misleading mental models of the topic itself or the subject matter within which it sits. There are, however, interventions the teacher can do to help the reader to stay on track and create a more accurate picture. One suggestion is for the teachers to ask the students to disclose their mental models of the topics in question, through analogy, discussion, picturing, and other ways. This information gives the teacher insight on the student's knowledge gaps and misconceptions, therefore allowing them to help students reconstruct a more accurate picture.

Proposition Theory

The final explanation of comprehension we would like to discuss is the Propositional Theory. This involves the reader constructing a main idea or macrostructure as they process the text. These main ideas are organized in a hierarchical fashion with the most important things given the highest priority to be memorized (Gunning, 1996).


Katims (1997) stated that learning strategies are techniques, or routines that enable students to learn to solve problems and complete tasks independently. A strategy is an individual’s approach to a task. Gunning (1996) identifies four main types of comprehension strategies, which include Preparational, Organizational, Elaboration and Monitoring.


Gunning (1996) describes Preparational strategies as those that activate prior knowledge about a particular topic. This method is used to get students thinking about the topic they are about to work on. It is much easier to retain knowledge about a subject when the student is familiar with the subject area.

Gunning (1996) identifies predicting as a type of Preparational strategy which involves previewing parts of the text to be read. The portions of text, which are helpful in previewing, can be pictures, titles, or the cover of the book. As the students are thinking about what will happen based on their knowledge of the subject and the book, they focus their thoughts on the assignment to come, which leads to better comprehension.


Gunning (1996) describes Organizational strategies as the process of selecting important details and building relationships from them. These strategies include: identifying the main idea and topic sentences, classifying information, deciding which information is relevant, sequencing and summarizing. Each of these strategies is complex and methods for improving them need to be taught starting from basic ideas and gradually getting more difficult. Summarizing, in particular, has been identified as a difficult skill to develop.


Gunning (1996) refers to elaboration as an additional processing of the text, by the reader, which may increase comprehension. It involves forming connections between the text and the reader’s background knowledge of the subject. Making inferences, picturing images and asking questions are all types of elaboration strategies.

Huffman (1998) identifies K-W-L as an elaboration strategy, which connects background knowledge to the topic to be addressed. K-W-L is an acronym for the three steps of the procedure: describing what we Know, what we Want to know, and what we Learned. The first two steps are completed before the project has begun, to assess background information, and the third step is completed afterward to make the connections.


Gunning (1996) defines monitoring as being aware of one’s own mental process when reading. Monitoring is an advanced technique that involves a great deal of independent thinking. Monitoring occurs when a reader is aware that they do not understand what was just read. The act of monitoring is knowing how to go back and find a way to gain understanding of the topic. Monitoring is knowing when to use the three other types of reading comprehension strategies.


It is interesting to note how intertwined the three theories are. Each one supports the other. In order to form a mental model in one’s head; one must have a schema of that topic already stored. According to the Proposition theory, the student is forming a mental model in their mind as they are forming the macrostructure.

Forming a schema is the most basic comprehension tool used by students. As they become more advanced, they can build on their base of schemas and create mental models throughout the reading. The most complex comprehension tool is forming a series of propositions, which are constantly updated throughout the text.

The four types of strategies previously discussed can be seen as more independent of each other than the theories, although a student is not able to apply the most complex strategy until they have a base of the more simplistic strategies. Preparational strategies happen before the actual reading takes place, and are incorporated in the Schema theory. Organizational strategies take place during and after the text is read. These strategies are based on both the Mental Model theory and the Proposition Theory. Elaboration strategies can take place before, during and after reading, and therefore, are dependent on all three major comprehension theories. Monitoring strategies are the most complex and involve mostly the Propositional theory. These strategies should take place primarily as the reading is taking place.


We believe that a child will make use of all three major theories as a means of reading comprehension, through the strategies, which are the responsibility of the educator to teach. The four main types of strategies can be extremely useful, and should be taught from the beginning of a student’s school career. Teaching of the strategies should start out at a simple level and increase in difficulty as the student masters it.

In order for the Schema theory to be effective, the student must have knowledge of the subject they are to discuss. We may assume that if a child has little background knowledge on a subject, they will have difficulty in comprehending readings regarding that subject. Students sharing with the class their own schemas could alleviate this. If a student had no prior knowledge of a subject, they could begin to build their schema based on their classmate’s experiences.

The Mental Model theory seemingly relies the heaviest on the Spatial Intelligence area in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory (Armstrong 1994). Therefore, this model may not be as affective for non-spatial learners. Teaching the process of how a mental picture is formed could develop this skill. Taking information about the main character as it comes through the readings and writing descriptive pieces on that character would be a way to improve this skill and work towards increasing comprehension.

The Proposition theory works hand in hand with Organizational strategies such as remembering only the relevant information, or identifying the main idea. These are skills widely taught throughout schools as well as seen on standardized tests.

We have all seen evidence of Preparational strategies being used throughout all elementary grades. Pre-readers can comprehend a story by looking at the pictures. A teacher might show a book to beginning readers before the actual reading begins to give them a focus for their reading. In the fifth grade, students are asked to record their predictions about what will happen in the next chapter of the novel that they are reading. After they have read the chapter, they can revisit their predictions to see how accurate they were.

Students cannot help making use of Elaboration strategies when they are reading a piece about family. They naturally tend to relate what they are reading to their own family experience, comparing and contrasting aspects from the story to their own lives. Being able to do this increases one’s comprehension, because the reading material becomes relevant and meaningful. Take for example, a child who has to read a piece on making cornbread but they had never tasted or seen cornbread before. The reading would not have as much relevance to them. Being able to form a picture in one’s head of the setting or situation would also make the reading more interesting to a student, therefore increasing comprehension. For example, if a student had no concept of what it would look like to fight a battle, they would have a harder time keeping their interest level up when reading about an important historical battle scene.

Monitoring strategies involve awareness that the purpose of reading is to derive meaning. If someone is just reading to get the words right, comprehension will be very limited. When students are able to monitor themselves and check their own understanding of the text, comprehension will increase. Teachers promote monitoring strategies with the use of worksheets that students fill in as they read a piece. When the question asks the student to provide examples of a section of the story, which has a conflict, they have to think back to see if they understood a conflict was going on. If they don’t remember, they will go back and find that spot. Eventually, this skill should become second nature to a reader. When they come to the resolution in a story, but the reader wasn’t clear on the conflict, they should go back on their own to clarify what is being resolved.

It would be beneficial to do further research on what type of strategy work most effectively at each grade level. In addition, we are interested in examining which theories and strategies apply most accurately to each content area.


Gunning, Thomas G. (1996). Creating Reading Instruction for All Children. Chapter 6, 192-236.

Huffman, Lois E. (1998). Spotlighting Specifics by Combining Focus Questions With K-W-L. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Issue 6, 470-471.

Katims, David S. (1997). Improving the Reading Comprehension of Middle School Students in Inclusive Classrooms. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Issue 2, 116-124.

Kitao, Kathleen S. (1990). Textual Schemata and English Language Learning. Cross Currents, Issue 3, 147-155.

Perkins, D.N. (1991). Educating for Insight. Educational Leadership. Issue 2, 4-9.

Armstrong, Thomas. (1994). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom. Chapter 6, 72.

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