Literal Comprehension Strategies
The first key to comprehending a written passage is to understand it from a literal point of view. Literal comprehension is the understanding of the written meaning of a passage: the definition of words, the context of the writing, the main idea of the passage, and the sequence of thought chosen by the author. Literal comprehension reserves studying author interpretation until after a student understands the basic message of a written passage.
A dictionary is an important tool for literal comprehension, but alone, it may not be enough. Researching the definition of words, to form a literal comprehension, begins with studying the definitions of words, but also requires a little experience with the way the author used the word during the time of the writing. Beyond the dictionary definition, review the cultural and political ideals present in the world where the author wrote the passage. As an example, William Blake’s poem “London” describes a dark image of London. If you continued studying Blake’s world, you would find that Blake wrote the poem during the early British industrialization and urbanization, giving you the clues to understand that Blake is discussing the dangers of industrialization.
Understanding in Context
While each word in a passage has a specific definition, each word is also defined by the words surrounding it in a sentence. A contextual analysis of a word involves looking at these surrounding words for clues about the meaning, or alternate meaning, of unfamiliar words. To form a contextual understanding a word, identify the definition of surrounding words and review how the surrounding words affect the definition of the original word. For instance, the sentence from Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out –“, “The doctor put him in the dark of ether” may require a definition for the word “ether.” The context is medical, from the word "doctor," and the poem suggests a surgery. From these clues, you could deduce that the word means sedation.
Read for Main Idea
The main idea of a passage is the primary idea presented by the work. Passages can be a part of a larger work, or written in the context of another work, such as a small passage from a story. Studying a passage from this perspective requires that the passage be read from the point of view of the main idea. As an example, William Blake wrote two major poetry collections, “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” If you were reading a section from the first, you would expect to interpret each poem from a youthful, optimistic perspective, giving you a clue about his meaning for each work.
A sequential study is reading a passage in a specific order. The order of the passage becomes an important element for understanding how you should interpret it. For instance, if you are reading an action sequence, each statement builds the scene, adding more information to the image as the passage describes the action. Reading the last line first would leave you confused, with no information about the meaning or perspective of the passage. A sequential study demonstrates how you can find interpretation clues about a passage from the previous information in it.
Kristyn Hammond has been teaching freshman college composition at the university level since 2010. She has experience teaching developmental writing, freshman composition, and freshman composition and research. She currently resides in Central Texas where she works for a small university in the Texas A&M system of schools.