The University of Iowa

Comprehension Skills Are Important for Readers of All Ages

stone and brick foundation

For students in early grades, instruction of reading comprehension skills can and should occur on top of instruction in foundational reading skills such as phonics.


Posted on: November 29, 2016

Too frequently reading instruction in the early grades is presented as an either-or option: Either teach comprehension skills or teach phonics skills. The truth is both are important, so teaching one component of reading should not preclude teaching another. After the release of the National Reading Panel report (NRP & NICHD, 2000), it became common for educators to refer to “the big five” components of reading:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

All are important to developing skilled reading ability and should be included in the daily instruction provided to beginning readers. Some of the components, referred to as foundational reading skills, gradually fade from the core reading block that is delivered to all students every day because they are considered the foundation or building blocks of being able to manage connected text:

  • Most students will have mastered phonological awareness skills by the end of first grade and no longer require explicit instruction to recognize the individual sounds in words.
  • Recent brain imaging studies suggest we continue to refine our phonics skills into adolescence (see review by Froyen et al., 2008), but direct instruction in phonics above Grade 3 often is limited only to those students who exhibit reading difficulties.
  • Reading rate and accuracy tend to stabilize around Grade 5, but students with extremely low and laborious reading will still require this type of fluency instruction. All students will continue to benefit from other aspects of fluency instruction (e.g., phrasing, intonation, and expression) when reading different genres.

The other components of reading, vocabulary and comprehension, continue to develop across our lifetimes. For students in the very early stages of learning to read, oral language experiences and exposure to books are the keys to growing knowledge of words and the meaning-making process of reading.

One of the reasons behind the misconception that working on phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency means students should not be taught comprehension skills is that reading tests administered in the early grades tend to target knowledge of foundational skills. Silent reading comprehension cannot be assessed reliably until about third grade because students are still building their abilities to integrate “the big five” components in order to read and respond to connected text independently. However, there is a lot of instruction on vocabulary and comprehension that needs to happen in order to help students be successful with the ways we measure their reading abilities in Grade 3 and beyond. For example, students need practice making predictions or answering questions about books they are listening to a teacher read or are reading with a teacher’s support. Development of those early comprehension skills should be monitored to ensure all students are on track to be successful readers.

Teaching comprehension while students are still mastering foundational reading skills will not only allow for students to demonstrate age-appropriate skills, but it also will help reinforce the reasons we read in the first place: to derive meaning, understanding, and enjoyment from a book or other text.  


Froyen, D. J. W., Bonte, M. L., von Atteveldt, N., & Blomert, L. (2009). The long road to automation: Neurocognitive development of letter-speech sound processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21, 567-580. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21061

National Reading Panel (U.S.), & National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.