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Building a Deep Structure for Reading Comprehension

SEPTEMBER 14, 2023

Reading comprehension is the foundation for academic success across all subject areas. And yet, many students still struggle to engage deeply with written content and pull meaning from complex text. Why is reading comprehension so hard? And what can we do to support students in developing the cognitive habits required for reading?

The Elements of Reading Comprehension  

A lot of work goes into reading and understanding written material. 

  • First, students have to decode the individual words, which involves recognizing letters, matching letters to sounds (phonemic awareness), and putting sounds together to form whole words. Words that don’t follow strict phonetic rules simply have to be remembered and recognized.
  • Then, they have to parse groups of words and sentences to form meaning. That requires knowing the meaning of individual words (vocabulary development) as well as the rules of syntax and sentence structure. 
  • At the passage level, students must use higher-order skills to determine the main idea, figure out which details are important to support the main idea of the piece, and how different concepts relate to each other. Good readers use a variety of strategies to understand text, including drawing from prior knowledge, questioning, making inferences, predicting, and visualizing. 
  • As students get older, we also expect them to be able to put the passage they are reading into a wider context to understand the author’s purpose, compare the text to other texts on the same topic, identify bias, or synthesize knowledge from several sources.

For skilled readers, all of these things happen at once—with much of the work happening below the level of conscious awareness. It is well understood that decoding and fluency skills form a critical foundation for reading comprehension: students who are struggling to decode words spend so much cognitive energy at this level that they do not have the cognitive resources left for higher-order comprehension skills. However, many students who can read words perfectly fluently still struggle with reading comprehension. These are the students who can read every word of a passage out loud but have trouble answering basic questions such as “what was the main idea?” or “why did (event) happen?”

Skills, Habits and Deliberate Practice: Building a Deep Structure for Reading

To help these students extract meaning and engage more deeply with the text, they need to have a structure for deep comprehension. How do you build that cognitive structure? By deliberately teaching the component skills for comprehension and providing time for deliberate practice of the skills so they become habits. This is the same way that all critical thinking skills are developed. (For more on the importance of skills and habits, see the webinar: Building a Deep Structure for Critical Thinking.) 

As skills become habits, students develop automaticity in applying the skills. In turn, this reduces the cognitive load of the task, which gives students more brainpower to apply to higher-order thinking. To understand this phenomenon, think about the process of learning to drive. New drivers spend a lot of cognitive energy focusing on the mechanics of driving (steering, braking, turn signals, etc.) and rules of the road (signs, traffic lights, etc.). There isn’t much space left over to consider the big picture of where we are going or how to get there. But once the basics are mastered, they become automatic and largely below our conscious thinking, freeing up cognitive energy for other tasks such as navigating to and finding a specific destination or talking to a passenger about something else entirely. 

Supporting Five Essential Reading Skills

Reading is a complex activity with numerous subskills, but there are some essential “super skills” that teachers can nourish to build better comprehension. Thinking Maps make these skills visible and give students a concrete structure in which to apply them. By using the Maps consistently over time and across different types of texts, students develop deep cognitive structures in the brain that translate to fluency and automaticity in applying reading skills.

Understanding Text Structure

We’ve talked extensively about the importance of understanding text structure for reading comprehension. While most fiction uses a narrative structure, expository text may be organized in a variety of ways, such as problem/solution, cause-and-effect, compare-and-contrast, or sequence. Understanding how the text is organized helps students create meaning. Using a Thinking Map that matches the structure of the text makes the structure visible and provides a scaffold for analysis and understanding. For example, students might use a Multi-Flow Map to take notes from a cause-and-effect article about the dawn of agriculture. The visual Map helps students clearly see how ideas are related to the main idea of the article.

See Text Structures (Course 303) in TMLC for more information.

Finding the Main Idea and Supporting Details 

Students often struggle to see the “big picture” in a piece of complex text. Which is the main idea, and which are the details that support it? Which sentences contain important supporting details, and which pieces of information are less important or off-topic? Understanding the text structure, as explained above, can help students intuit the purpose of the text, which provides an important clue to finding the main idea. From there, students can start sorting supporting information into the key sub-topics. For an extended piece of text, each sub-topic may contain many individual details. Students can use a Tree Map for this exercise.


Questioning is also an important reading skill. Good readers are continually interrogating their own understanding as they read a text. How does this fit with what I already know? What do I still not understand? Where do I need to go back and read closer or find additional information elsewhere? Readers should also question the text and the author: is the information believable? Does the author’s point of view suggest bias? Questioning is a good way to make predictions and inferences. What do I think will happen next? Why is this important? Where would I apply this? Asking these kinds of questions is an important mechanism for activating metacognition

The Thinking Maps Frame of Reference makes this questioning process explicit and automatic. It provides a mechanism for students to ask (and answer) critical questions such as “what is the source of this information?” and “what is the author’s point of view?”

Summarizing and Drawing Conclusions 

Summarizing a piece of text in their own words and drawing conclusions from a piece of text are also important reading skills. Again, students who are proficient in the use of Thinking Maps have an advantage. We’ve already shown how the Maps can be used to analyze a piece of text using its structure and find the main idea and supporting details from a piece of text. Once this is done, students can take the information back off the Maps they have created to summarize the piece in their own words. The Frame of Reference helps them go farther to draw conclusions and put the piece in a larger context.

Building Vocabulary

Once students master basic decoding skills, vocabulary is the biggest stumbling block for comprehension. When students run across a word they don’t know, they may just skip over it entirely. This leaves gaps in their understanding of the material. Teachers should encourage students instead to identify words they don’t know and work to deliberately expand their working vocabulary. A Circle Map can be used to explore various ways of understanding a word, including a formal definition, synonyms, examples, and parts of speech. 

Thinking Maps Learning Community (TMLC) subscribers can find more ideas in the professional development module Academic Vocabulary (Course 301).

Building the Deep Structures

The key to developing the deep cognitive structures that make these reading skills automatic is deliberate practice. As students use the Maps to analyze text structure, find the main idea and supporting details, ask critical questions, and draw conclusions, they are activating these cognitive processes in the brain. Over time, this activation becomes automatic, so that when students are faced with a complex piece of text, they are naturally noticing the text structure, questioning as they read, and working to make sense of the content. Skills repeated consistently become habits, and habits practiced extensively become ingrained cognitive structures that students can draw upon at will. 

That’s why Thinking Maps work best as part of a whole-school (or district) practice that cuts across grade levels and content areas. By building these cognitive structures for reading comprehension, we lower the cognitive load of reading and free students to engage deeply with the meaning of the content. 

If you’d like to learn more about deep structures for reading comprehension, join the webinar: Building a Deep Structure for Reading Comprehension

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