Putting It All Together: Building Reading Comprehension

Reading text independently and understanding the text is a complex process. Anna needed to

  • track through each sentence from left to right
  • decode or recognize by sight each word in sequence
  • access the meaning of the words
  • process all the words in sequence to derive the meaning of the sentence (and larger text)
  • relate the meaning to prior knowledge to comprehend the text.

We started to build Anna’s reading comprehension skills by focusing on very simple texts (e.g., simple 2-3 word sentences). As she developed competence, we gradually increased the length and complexity of the written texts.

We started by working on simple factual understanding of the text. Later we introduced more complex inferences.

From prior instruction, we knew that Anna could read each word in a simple sentence and derive its meaning. However, we wanted to make sure that she was combining the words in each sentence as she read to derive the meaning of the full sentence.

Goal for Basic Factual Reading Comprehension

Initially we worked with Anna to build her basic factual understanding of simple texts that she read. Her goal was:

Anna will decode or recognize by sight each written word in a sentence in sequence, access the meanings of the words, process them together to derive the meaning of the sentence, and then select a picture that represents the target sentence from a field of 4 options with at least 80% accuracy over at least 2 consecutive sessions.    

Teaching Basic Comprehension Skills

In this task, the instructor first presented Anna with 4 pictures as possible response options. She then presented a short written sentence to Anna. Anna had to decode or recognize by sight each of the words in sequence and then combine the words to determine the meaning of the entire sentence. Anna then responded by selecting the picture that represented the meaning of the written sentence from the array of pictures.

Since Anna was still developing language skills related to syntax or sentence structure, we started with short simple sentences (e.g., mom naps; dad runs). We only included words that Anna was able to recognize by sight or decode.

Probing reading comprehensionWe wanted to make sure that Anna was reading each of the words, retrieving their meanings, and then combining the words according to the sentence structure to understand the meaning of the sentence. So we carefully selected the pictures that we provided as response options for each target sentence. For example, if the target sentence was “Max naps”, we included one picture of her friend Max napping (the correct response since it represented the meaning of the target sentence). We also provided response options that changed only one part of the sentence: For example, we included a picture of “Mom naps” which just changed the person in the sentence and we included a picture of “Max hops” which just changed the verb in the sentence. In order to respond correctly, Anna had to read both words in the sentence and combine them to derive the correct meaning.

As with all of the other instructional activities, we always varied the location of the correct response in the array of choices. After each instructional session, we conducted an error analysis to determine areas of difficulty for Anna. We looked for patterns in the data. Was she guessing based on the first word in the sentence? Or was she relying on the last word in the sentence suggesting she might be having difficulty holding all the words in her working memory? Or was she always selecting the picture in the same location suggesting that she did not understand the task?

In this video, you will see Anna during instruction in basic factual comprehension. She has a book with 10 sentences and photos about her family and friends; there is a new sentence and photo on each page. Each of the photos is initially covered with a post-it note. First the instructor reviews the photos that are possible response options for Anna (i.e., photos of “Max naps”, “Max hops”, and “Mom naps”). The instructor then shows Anna the written sentence and helps her point to each of the words in sequence; Anna says each word as she points to it. Then she has to retrieve the meaning of each word and combine them to derive the meaning of the sentence. Once she knows the meaning of the sentence, she points to the photo that represents the sentence. Then she uncovers the photo in the book and checks to see if she is correct.

As soon as Anna demonstrated competence reading a simple sentence and matching it to a photo representing the sentence, we then introduced her to simple reading comprehension questions. Initially, we focused on answering simple factual questions (e.g., Who is running?, What is Mickey doing?, What did Mickey give Minnie?).

In this video, you will see Anna reading a simple story about Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and answering simple factual questions about the story. First she reads the page in the book out loud (“Mickey gives Minnie a kiss”) and then she responds to the question, “What did Mickey give Minnie?” She says the answer out loud and also uses letter cards to write it out (i.e., “kiss”).


As you saw in this video, initially we asked a question at the end of every page to minimize the working memory demands on Anna. Later, we encouraged Anna to read several pages, recall the content, and then answer simple factual comprehension questions.

We taught her to use a simple summarization strategy to support her reading comprehension. After she read each paragraph, she answered the questions: Who is it about? What happened?

Once Anna demonstrated competence with factual questions about the story, we introduced questions that required her to make inferences from the text: What will happen next? How does Mickey feel? Why is Mickey happy? Remember that we regularly worked on these types of questions with Anna when we read books to her and talked about the books. At this point, she was learning to transfer her comprehension skills to reading comprehension.

For more information on teaching reading comprehension skills to children with complex communication needs like Anna, visit our website on Literacy Instruction.

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