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Skill Overview

What are the levels of understanding?

There are three levels of understanding: literal, inferential, and propositional. 

  • Literal comprehension is the basic understanding of the text, often answered by questions such as who, what, when, and where.

  • Inferential comprehension requires the reader to link ideas within the text that are not explicitly stated. Inferential questions often answer why or how. Inferential level of understanding also considers the author's purpose, word choice, and mood of the text.

  • Propositional comprehension use the literal and inferential knowledge of the text and connects it to other sources, whether background knowledge or information from another text. When new information is presented, the readers may be prompted to change their thinking or actions in response to the text. It asks of the reader to consider what's next.


What tasks should students be able to demonstrate to indicate mastery of this skill?

  • Ability to answer who, what, when, where, why, and how

  • Ability to link ideas within text

  • Ability to formulate new or changed ideas about a subject

  • Ability to create and describe a mental image of what is read


Why is understanding the levels of understanding important to reading?

Books were written to change the reader on some level.  Thinking about texts at various levels deepens the understanding of the text and aids in the reader understanding and growing from what they have read. 

Structured Literacy Tools

Sequential and Cumulative

Systematic and Explicit

To Mastery

Systematic instruction of comprehension demands a thoughtful and intentional curriculum that builds background knowledge, even as it is demonstrating critical thinking that leads to comprehension products (e.g., cause and effect, main idea, etc.).  Systematic and explicit instruction in this domain includes strategic and thoughtful text selections paired to learning goals.  Graphic organizers and anchor charts help make explicit the thinking process which is the essence of comprehension.

The levels of understanding required to make meaning of text provide a clear and logical sequence for teaching comprehension strategies:  literal, inferential, propositional.  The cumulative nature of teaching comprehension requires that students must first understand the facts as reported or accounted in a story or informational text before they can interpret more nuanced meaning.  This is reflected in the Common Core Standards (and Mississippi’s College and Career-Readiness Standards) that begin with “key ideas and details” before moving toward “craft and structure” and ultimately the “integration of knowledge and ideas.”

Since comprehension is the goal of reading and comprehension requires both proficient decoding and proficient language, achieving mastery must first secure skills in these two areas.  Hollis Scarborough’s Rope Model illustrates clearly the subskills of word recognition:

  • phonological awareness

  • decoding

  • sight recognition 


The subskills of language comprehension are:

  • background knowledge

  • vocabulary 

  • language structures

  • verbal reasoning 

  • literacy knowledge 


When a student has achieved a level of proficiency in these areas, they will be able to comprehend complex text at or above grade level independently (Scarborough, 2001). 

Practice Resources

Downloadable Files From BRI Resources
Downloadable Files From Literacy Partners



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