Reading Teacher

Spring into Reading: The 3 Key Elements of Reading Comprehension

As schools across the U.S. transition into spring break, it’s a reflective time for both teachers and parents of early readers. From New Hampshire to North Carolina, several states are proposing curriculum changes and teacher training to support the youngest generation of readers. While school districts continue to invest in gradual - but necessary - systemic change, we’re taking time to reflect on the three fundamentals of reading comprehension, outlined by academic officer Dr. Gene Kerns.

elements of reading comprehension
  1. Decoding

If you’re an elementary teacher, it’s highly likely that you’ve encountered - and even used - the Meaning, Structure, Visual (MSV) approach, also known as the three-cueing system. MSV encourages students to draw meaning from context or pictures, syntax, and visual information, such as images on the page or parts of words. While many teacher training programs champion the effectiveness of MSV, the practice distracts students from actually decoding the words in front of them. After a student has learned to decode, they’ll be able to recognize more words by sight and associate them with sound and meaning: a phenomenon known as orthographic mapping. To improve students’ decoding abilities, it is essential for states to invest in teacher education that emphasizes the importance of explicit and systematic phonics instruction. Recent pushes in Oregon, North Carolina, and New Hampshire reflect a growing awareness of the need for upfront investment in teacher training to support the essential skill of decoding.

skill of decoding
  1. Vocabulary:

Vocabulary is a key marker of reading fluency, which is supported by exposure to as many words as frequently as possible. Using and hearing these words in conversation helps students build their orthographic maps and recognize the sounds of certain words - sometimes even before they’re taught how to read them. In addition to engaging in wide-ranging conversations, students can enhance their vocabulary through wide and varied reading. Keep in mind: teachers can only directly teach students an estimated 400 words per year, so it’s crucial for students to acquire the decoding skills that will empower them to read for pleasure - and, in turn, develop vibrant vocabularies.


  1. Knowledge:

Instead of an “achievement gap,” Kerns encourages us to reframe this common term as a knowledge gap. Educators and researchers recognize the correlation between reading ability and socioeconomic status: affluent students often have more opportunities to travel and/or access to a wider range of subjects and vocabulary. With this understanding, educators can honor the relationship between knowledge and literacy by introducing students to a broad range of content from an early age. By encouraging students to read and think about an array of complex social issues, high-quality Social Studies instruction is just as - or perhaps even more important - than English Language Arts.


The quest for knowledge continues long after 3rd grade: a make-or-break year when students are declared at, above, or below grade level reading benchmarks. Data suggest that less time is invested in reading proficiency in older grades: in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report, only 37% of high school seniors were proficient or advanced in reading. Measures for fourth graders were similar, with 35% of students performing below the basic reading level. While this report only provides a snapshot of a national reading problem, it suggests that students make minimal reading progress after the third grade. To combat this trend, middle, and high school teachers can promote class conversations and assign readings that continually sharpen older students’ decoding skills and expand both their vocabulary and knowledge.

gaining knowledge


  • Reading comprehension can be broken down into three key elements: decoding, vocabulary, and knowledge.
  • Teachers can improve students’ reading comprehension by emphasizing decoding over MSV, exposing students to a broad range of literature and subjects, and prioritizing reading skills even after the foundational K-3 years.
  • As schools make more gradual changes to teacher training and curricula grounded in the science of reading, teachers can take action now by focusing on these three dimensions of reading comprehension.

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