Chapter 5 of The Reading Mind, “Reading Comprehension”: Summary, Implications, and Discussion Questions

Chapter 5: “Reading Comprehension” Summary, Implications and Discussion Questions


  • There are three levels of meaning representation: we extract ideas from sentences, we connect the ideas across sentences, and we build a general of what a text is about.
  • At each level, there are rules about how meaning is made—rules that can be expressed independent of the content of ideas. But it’s also true that meaning influences how we comprehend text at each of the three levels.
  • Many readers set a low criterion when assessing whether they understand a text. They do not coordinate meaning across sentences, and thus fail to notice texts that contain contradictions.
  • Teaching reading comprehension strategies that require the coordination of meaning across sentences does improve comprehension, but it seems to be a one-time improvement rather than a technique that can be practiced to continually improve reading comprehension.


  • The prominent role that background knowledge plays in reading comprehension ought to make us think differently about reading tests. We might think that reading tests provide an all-purpose measure of reading ability. But we’ve seen that reading comprehension depends heavily on how much the reader happens to know about the topic of the text. Perhaps then, reading comprehension tests are really knowledge tests in disguise. The Cunningham and Stanovich experiments discussed in the text supports that idea.
  • Teaching reading is not just a matter of teaching reading. The whole curriculum matters, because good readers have broad knowledge in civics drama, history, geography, science, the visual arts, and so on. But the conclusion is not just “the curriculum has a lot of stuff in it.” Sequence matters too, because students can only encounter so much new content at one time. They need to know most of (but not everything) the writer assumes the reader knows. Such precision in what students should know before they tackle a text calls for careful planning.
  • Telling students to make inferences or teaching them reading comprehension strategies provides a one-time boost to comprehension. That implies that, when they are taught, they have no impact on some students. Students who still struggle with fluency are not able to use these strategies may be larger than is commonly appreciated, but applies to only a subset of students.
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds show a characteristic pattern of reading achievement in school: they make good progress until around fourth grade, and then suddenly fall behind. The importance of background knowledge to comprehension gives us insight into this phenomenon. Reading instruction in the early grades concerns decoding, and so reading tests are basically tests of decoding ability. Kids from wealthier homes in fact do a bit better on these tests, but poorer children are still doing okay. But around fourth grade most children can decode fairly well, and so reading tests place greater weight on comprehension. The disadvantaged kids have not had the same opportunities to acquire the vocabulary and background knowledge needed to succeed on these tests and so their performance drops significantly.

 Discussion Questions

  • Readers usually forget the particular phrasing of what they read quite soon after reading it. Does that mean it doesn’t matter much.
  • Even struggling readers seem to do a good job of coordinating meaning when they are watching a movie; they follow the plot and put together an effective situation model. Why are movies different than texts? Is there anything to be learned from movies that might help a student’s reading comprehension?
  • When we learn that comprehension depends heavily on background knowledge, that naturally invites the question: “Which knowledge should children learn?” (Note that in the experiment on the relationship of background knowledge and reading, the researchers referred to knowledge as “cultural literacy.” Whose culture does that literacy refer to?) Before addressing that question, I invite you to consider the factors that ought to contribute to your answer.
  • I noted that making inferences is sometimes possible when you lack background knowledge and vocabulary the writer assumed you have, but that doing so is mentally taxing. Much of the reading expected of students (especially in the later elementary grades and beyond) is difficult. Its’s not only difficult in terms of vocabulary and knowledge; they read texts with more complex structures, texts that convey abstract and subtle ideas, and they are asked to put these texts to new purposes, like understanding the author’s technique. In short, students don’t do the type of reading where comprehension is smooth and there’s an opportunity to get lost in the story. They mostly read in situations where reading feels like work. What impact do you think that has on students’ attitude toward reading? Do they confuse leisure reading with the reading they do for school? If so, what might be done to disabuse them of that notion?
  • The account of the fourth-grade slump offered above suggests that disadvantaged children perform poorly on reading tests because they lack the background knowledge that their wealthier peers have—knowledge that is required to comprehend the texts appearing on reading tests. What texts would these children read well, likely better that middle-class children? Should such texts appear on reading tests?

 Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

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