Reading Skills – Literal and Inferential Comprehension

Stack of books

Reading Skills – Literal and Inferential Comprehension

Oh yes, I hear you say. Of course!  Literal and Inferential Comprehension – I absolutely know exactly what you are talking about.

Um.  Not really.

No, you wouldn’t because these are words used by teachers with our children in their classroom and often this ‘ educatory (yes educator is a made up word) terms’ are not relevant or comprehensible to the normal adult person.  Check out our post on Fluency and Expression for more teachery terms.

That is why you can thank me. I am here to explain.  I really should explain too because it might be something mentioned in a parent-teacher interview or a report card.  This way, you can know exactly what is being spoken about.

Let’s Keep It Simple

Comprehension is the ability to understand what you are reading.  You can find out more about this here.  When we comprehend a text we are looking at the words and images of a text to give us a good idea of what is going on.  For example, a text that is trying to convince you of something might use words like ‘must’, ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘certainly’.  The images in an advertisement for a great holiday location will have photos of beautiful people, beautiful beaches and yummy food. These words and images allow us to comprehend or understand a certain message.

Siblings reading together

Literal Comprehension

Literal comprehension is a type of comprehension.  It basically means that we can understand things from the text we are reading that we can take literally.  A simple one is this:

Sentence:  The black cat is waiting at the front door.

Literal Question:  What colour is the cat?

Answer: The cat is black and we can literally find the answer in the sentence.

Inferential Comprehension

Inferential comprehension is the ability to understand a text when things are not so obvious.  A reader must use their experiences to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in the text.  Let’s look at the same sentence:

Sentence:  The black cat is waiting at the front door.

Inferential Question:  Why is the cat waiting at the front door?

Answer:  The cat might be waiting to be fed.

The answer to an inferential question may differ depending on the reader’s experience.  If the reader had a cat at home and their cat waits at the front door to be fed they might make an assumption based on this experience.

As adults, we infer things every day without even possibly being aware of it.  Children from a very young age would know that someone crying probably means they are sad without that person having to actually come and tell them they are sad.  We are constantly making inferences and the same happens when we read.

Reading Skills - Literal and Inferential Comprehension

Helping at Home

The best way to encourage this at home is to be aware of the literal and inferential meanings in the books that your child is reading.  It is not a secret that we at The Schooled Parent believe daily reading is as important as brushing your teeth. Whether your child is reading independently before bed or reading aloud while you are prepping dinner, send a few good questions their way to check their understanding.

Literal Questions

These questions have the answer directly and obviously in the text (words or images):

  • Who was driving the car?
  • What colour was the cat?
  • When did the bus arrive?

Inferential Questions

These questions require experience or thinking outside the box and not as obviously in the text (words or images):

  • Why do you think the car was stopped on the side of the road?
  • How was Sally feeling at the football game?
  • Where do you think they are going next?

Stack of books being held up high

There you have it. You can now nod along confidently when you next hear a teacher talk about the ‘wide variety of inferential and literal comprehension questions being used in reading groups’.

Good on you! A parent with knowledge of what happens in the classroom provides a stronger partnership in educating our children.


  1. Gina September 12, 2018 Reply
  2. Rachel September 13, 2018 Reply

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