Four Levels of Reading Comprehension, with Examples

Reading is not like walking — it’s not an immediate, natural thing that most children just do. And once you walk, you continue walking (for the most part), whereas there are four distinct levels of reading comprehension to learn before a child is considered an expert reader.

These are:

  • the definition of reading comprehension
  • the four levels of reading comprehension
  • types of questions students can answer at each level
  • example texts and questions to demonstrate how to introduce each level
  • resources to help students and parents get started

Moving up to the next comprehension level can be difficult. It requires a lot of effort and consistent practice — parents might not remember just how much effort, so patience is key.

Reading Comprehension: Definition

Reading comprehension is, at the most basic level, the ability to process information we have read and understand its meaning. It differs from reading for fluency, speed, or sight word recognition. It’s not about the reading itself, but rather understanding what information the sequence of words imparts.

At its highest level, reading comprehension allows students to form opinions and arguments based on what they read. They also take meaning derived from a text and add it to their integrated knowledge.

Building reading comprehension is a complex task, one where skills are built one on top of the other. 

Often, students master one of the skills or levels of reading comprehension, they are immediately met with another challenge. This is because the kind of texts students read becomes increasingly difficult to read and understand.

Level One: Looking for Literal Meaning

Literal comprehension is exactly what the text says. It is the exact events of the story, explicit facts stated in an informational text, characters in a story, and any other information that is “right there on the page.”

This is the simplest form of comprehension and without it, students will never be able to advance to any other form of understanding a text.

Example questions for this level of reading comprehension:

Two Very Different Sisters is a short reading passage about twins who have different interests but must compromise on what to do with their morning.

  • What are the names of the two sisters? (Ella and Madison)
  • When does the story take place? (Saturday)
  • What does Madison want to do? (She wants to go outside and spend time with her horse.)

Readers do not need any context clues or close reading skills to answer these questions, because the answers are all explicitly stated in the story,

Related: What is close reading and how do you teach it?

Level Two: Determining Inferential Meaning

Inferential comprehension refers to what the stated text actually means. The type of information students get at this level is “right in front of them, but they have to look for it.” 

You start with the stated facts of the text (literal comprehension) and use them to draw a conclusion or find a deeper meaning that is not explicitly stated.

Types of information that students can find at the inferential level of reading comprehension include:

  • generalizations 
  • future predictions
  • cause and effect relationships
  • unstated main ideas/information

Example questions for this level of reading comprehension:

The Video Game Controller is a story about a boy, Brian, who learns the effects of playing video games for too long.

  • What makes Bryan nervous while he plays video games?
  • What do you think Mom meant when she talked about Bryan’s imagination?

Students can find the answers to these questions relatively easily, but it will take a bit of sleuthing to draw conclusions and arrive at an answer.

Level Three: Moving to Evaluative Meaning

Evaluative comprehension requires readers to use the inferred meaning of texts and form their own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions in relation to the text.

 At this level of reading comprehension, students can:

  • justify an opinion about the text
  • argue for a certain viewpoint using information from the text
  • critically analyze content
  • determine the position of the author
  • develop compare/contrast relationships between concepts within one or multiple texts
  • find theme, symbolism, and/or motifs based on the text

Example questions for this level of reading comprehension:

The Olympics is a passage about the history of the Olympics.

  • According to the author, what are two of the main purposes of the Olympics?
  • Based on the passage, do you think the author has a favorable or unfavorable view of the Olympics? Cite evidence from the text to support your opinion.

Level Four: Applying Texts to the Larger Realm of Information

Applied reading comprehension is the highest level of reading comprehension. It involves each prior type of understanding, as well as the student’s personal experiences, opinions, etc. Applied comprehension is “not in the text, but in your head.”

Since students will intellectually and emotionally respond to a text in different ways, there is no one right or wrong answer to questions at this level of comprehension.

Types of questions students can answer at this level:

  • Is this argument logical?
  • What other possible alternatives are there?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the author?
  • What would you do in this situation?

Example questions for this level of reading comprehension:

Why the Moon? is a passage from John F. Kennedy’s speech declaring that the U.S. shall be the first in the exploration of space. 

  • How effective do you think the speaker’s language was in terms of moving his audience on an emotional level?
  • What environmental and circumstantial factors do you think motivated the “race to the moon?”
  • The U.S., in heading up the quest for space exploration, vows to make space a place of peace and learning, rather than destruction. Do you believe that, as Kennedy says, the U.S. must be the first to reach the moon in order for space to remain peaceful? Why or why not?

These questions require some background knowledge on the state of the world during this era. Students can acquire this background knowledge through: 

  • literal comprehension texts: texts containing dates and events
  • inferential comprehension texts: texts that talk about the Space Race and allow students to infer meaning “between the lines”
  • evaluative comprehension texts: texts that argue for a certain viewpoint or present themes that could support the student’s own argument

This demonstrates the fact that students use all four levels of reading comprehension to prepare their own arguments, make their own meanings, and integrate new higher-level knowledge into their own world.