Literature reading and comprehension skills are learned throughout elementary and secondary education. Because reading comprehension questions are common on standardized exams, the ability to both read and understand literature is important to success on exams. Knowledge of literary devices, individual reading strategies and use of skills modeled in teaching techniques can support learning and development of comprehension skills.
Knowledge of Literary Devices
Understanding the elements of fiction and the authorial use of standard literary techniques, also called literary devices, increases overall understanding of literature. Basic elements of fiction include setting, plot, characters, theme, point of view and conflict. Plot components--including dialogue, flashback, foreshadowing and irony--as well as the author's tone and style contribute to interpretations of the literary work. Writers may also use such storytelling techniques as hyperbole, allusion, symbolism and imagery. Comprehension relies on the understanding of figurative language, including similes and metaphors, which create a comparison between two subjects.
Individual Reading Strategies
Dr. David Moore, a member of the 2000 International Reading Association's Commission on Adolescent Literacy, defined seven key strategies to reading and comprehending. The initial strategy is to plan and monitor your own reading. This includes previewing texts and skimming or scanning to find key terms and concepts prior to reading. Determining the significance of ideas, or focusing on the key concepts, in a story is the next step. Asking questions about character actions or developing connections with textual information builds engagement with the text, while making inferences about the author's intended purpose may also create relationships between elements of a story. These connections can be used to synthesize ideas, generate conclusions, create generalizations or draw comparisons across texts. Finally, visualizing the story creates sensory and emotional ties to an author's ideas.
Teaching techniques that scaffold reading skills can help learners develop skills for comprehending literature. One strategy is comprehension monitoring, which models mental self-monitoring as a reading strategy. Comprehension monitoring may include giving students vocabulary prior to reading a passage or story, asking questions throughout oral reading to check for understanding and assisting students in summarizing the reading. Students can adapt these techniques for their own comprehension monitoring by using graphic organizers to outline and understand the plot of a story or the development of a character, answering review questions during and after reading to check for understanding, and summarizing a story to create understanding of plot.
Another strategy for comprehension is using "cover-to-cover study" of a book. This includes studying the front cover, any author notes, reviews, notes on the back cover and images. Studying the text's structure and story grammar may also create understanding about a work of literature. Story structure may help predict events in the plot and help the reader infer traits about characterization.
Based in Los Angeles, Jana Sosnowski holds Master of Science in educational psychology and instructional technology, She has spent the past 11 years in education, primarily in the secondary classroom teaching English and journalism. Sosnowski has also worked as a curriculum writer for a math remediation program. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in print journalism from the University of Southern California.