About Literal Comprehension in Reading

The term "literal comprehension" refers to the ability to understand and recall information that has been explicitly stated in a text. The text may be written or spoken. Literal comprehension differs from inference, or inferential comprehension, which has to do with understanding information only implied in the text. To comprehend literally you have to remember only what was clearly and specifically said.

The Four W's

Basic questions on literal comprehension involve who, what, when and where. Dates, names and descriptions are all literal information easily understandable from a text. This is the most basic level of reading comprehension but, until it has been mastered, it's impossible to move on to higher forms that involve inference, interpretation and analysis.

Character, Setting and Time

In a story, for instance, you should be able to state what was said about the story's date and setting and any details about specific characters such as appearance, name, personality or personal history. You do not have to be able to analyze the characters in any way, just to understand how they were plainly described.


Literal comprehension involves being able to recall both the details of an individual event and the larger order of events within a sequence. You should be able to answer questions about what happened, how it happened and what other events preceded or followed it. That ability to recount a sequence of events in their proper order is the basic element of storytelling. If you understand a story, then you should understand how the events connect to each other and be able to repeat them.

Prior Knowledge

In order to literally comprehend, you need have an adequate vocabulary to understand all the words being used. You may also need to have some knowledge of the setting or subject matter. A technical article on computer programs, for instance, requires an understanding of computers to be fully comprehended.


If a comparison was stated explicitly in the text, you must be able to remember things like what were being compared, how they were being compared and whether one compared more favorably to the other. This happens in stories but also in news articles and other nonfictional sources of information.

Cause and Effect

Many texts describe how one event, motive or action resulted in another. The emphasis may be on the reason for a particular action or event, or the result of a particular action or event. You are not called upon to speculate here; if the causal relationship was not clearly stated, then that is what you say. Remember, you only need to comprehend what has been explicitly said.

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