Comprehension Assessments

posted in: Reading | 0

Reading comprehension is assessed in different ways. It can be tested individually (as is often the case for diagnostic purposes) or in groups (such as in state or country mandatory testing). Students may be expected to read narrative, informational or informative texts. There may or may not be time constraints or time pressures. In some assessments students are allowed to refer back to the text and in other assessments this is not permitted. The comprehension test items may be presented in a cloze format (in which missing words have to be provided), as questions (either multiple choice or open-ended answers presented orally or in writing and requiring literal or inferential understanding) or the student may be required to retell the main points. In addition, the text may be required to be read orally or silently. Each of these factors are arguably measuring different components of comprehension and potentially impact on the student’s comprehension score. This score is further confounded by the student’s background knowledge of the text subject. Consequently, the correlation among various types of reading comprehension assessments is quite modest.

For example, in Dickens and Meisinger’s (2016) study, they found that typically developing and at-risk Year 6 students demonstrated better text comprehension when they read orally compared to reading silently. Schimmel and Ness (2017) found that fourth graders were better at comprehending narrative text than expository text.

Hempenstall and Buckingham (2016) noted that student variation in comprehension assessment results may also be due to students’ decoding fluency, morphological knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, working memory (the capacity to hold previous information while integrating subsequent ideas) as well as employing inferential skills and making connections to background knowledge.

Therefore, the interpretation of comprehension assessment results need to be accompanied by the question, “What exactly is being measured by this assessment?”  If a student is not permitted to reread the text are we testing comprehension or working memory? If the student is reading the text silently or if when reading orally errors are not corrected, are we testing comprehension or decoding skills? If there are time constraints or the student knows their reading rate is being measured, how do we measure the impact of the potential accompanying anxiety or the competing objectives of reading rapidly versus accurately? If the answer to the question cannot be ascertained from the text, are we testing comprehension or background knowledge?

Clearly all these factors have important implications for researchers, educators and psychologists who are interested in assessing students’ skills in reading comprehension as well as how this knowledge is used by teachers and parents in providing intervention for students who have been ‘assessed’ as having comprehension difficulties.

For more information on comprehension interventions.


Dickens, R.H., & Meisinger, E.B. (2016). Examining the effects of skill level and reading modality on reading comprehension. Reading Psychology, 37, 318–337.

Hempenstall, K., & Buckingham, J. (2016). Read about it: Scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading. CIS Research Report 11. Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved from

Schimmel, N., & Ness, M. (2017). The effects of oral and silent reading on reading comprehension, Reading Psychology, 38(4), 390-416.