How do we teach students to comprehend what they read? Educators have explored this question for decades. They've implemented strategies, developed lessons, and gained insights into what seems to work and what doesn't. Until recently, however, the question of comprehension was not explored in terms of what happens in our brains when we understand what we read. Today, thanks to advancements in neuroscience, we’re able to add this piece to the puzzle.

A group of researchers at Northwestern University recently examined students’ brains as they read long passages of difficult text. This study offers insights into the nature of comprehension and the ways educators might best support it.

The study, found here, measured the electrical activity in readers’ brains as they read difficult text. Participants read a version of the text in which the words were scrambled in an order that didn’t make sense. They also read the text in its correct order. Some students were able to comprehend the text in its correct order, and others weren’t. The study found that when students understood the comprehensible text, there was a significant difference in their brain activity as compared to when they read the scrambled text. When students didn’t understand the comprehensible text, however, their brain activity was largely the same as when they encountered the scrambled text.

Based on this, the researchers were able to isolate a difference between the comprehenders and the noncomprehenders in the part of the brain associated with working memory. In the noncomprehenders, “Something is not carrying the information along, binding together the past with the future in what’s just happened and what’s coming up,” the study author states. Working memory has been explored in terms of comprehension before; this study seems to reinforce its importance.

Additionally, the study may be helpful for educators looking for ways to test comprehension. To test comprehension, the study used questions with multiple answers each. Students received a point for the question only if they correctly answered all components of the question. This format was intended to eliminate the possibility that students could successfully guess, as the odds of guessing all components correctly within a single question are very slim. The study also minimized the influence of background knowledge by testing an old piece of fiction that none of the students were familiar with. These measures worked well to test whether or not students achieved comprehension.

Ideally such studies will continue to provide insight into how we can support struggling readers. As researchers explore the complex workings of the brain, educators may build on this knowledge to better serve our students.