What We Know About Literal and Inferential Comprehension in Reading
In 2000, the National Reading Panel identified five practice elements with a sufficient evidence base to be deemed essential for mastery of reading (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). These elements consist of systematic teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics instruction, vocabulary, fluency, and exposure to reading comprehension strategies. Of these skill sets, reading comprehension has received far less attention in the literature, but is indispensable for success as student’s progress through the grades and use reading in almost every course. Being able to make effective inferences from materials that a student read is considered central to effective reading comprehension. This meta-analysis of 25 studies evaluates the impact of inference instruction in grades K-12. The study reported that inference instruction had an effect size d=0.58 on general comprehension and d= 0.68 on literal comprehension. These are “moderate to large” effects of instruction on general comprehension and to making inferences for both skilled and less skilled readers. The pattern differed for the literal measure, however, with skilled readers showing almost no gain but unskilled readers showing sizable gains. These findings support work by Daniel Willingham and Gail Lovette titled, “Can Reading Comprehension be Taught”? Their interpretation of the effect of comprehension instruction is that it signals to students the significance of inferential thinking. Willingham and Lovette conclude that practicing inferences does not lead to increases in general inferencing for the following reasons; inferencing depends on the particular text, and whatever cognitive processes contribute to inferencing are already well practiced in oral language as we are constantly drawing inferences in daily conversation.
Citation: Elleman, A. M. (2017). Examining the impact of inference instruction on the literal and inferential comprehension of skilled and less skilled readers: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 761-781.
Willingham, D. T., & Lovette, G. (2014). Can reading comprehension be taught. Teachers College Record, 116, 1-3