English > Comprehension

Comprehension at primary school

Comprehension is the ability to read a text and understand its meaning.

The English National Curriculum thinks of reading as being about two closely-linked skills: word-reading and comprehension. Word-reading is the name given to recognising the words on the page or screen. In English primary schools, phonics is often used to help children with this part of reading. But that is only half the story: to make sense of what they’re reading, a child needs to be able to understand the words. That is comprehension.

Comprehension is a key strand of the National Curriculum and is assessed in the national tests in Year 2 and Year 6 each year.

How children learn
comprehension at school

Age 5–6 (Year 1)

By the end of Year 1, children in England will have been taught to:

  • Listen to and discuss a wide range of poems, stories and non-fiction at a level beyond that at which they can read independently.
  • Become very familiar with key stories, fairy stories and traditional tales, retelling them and considering their particular characteristics.
  • Understand both the books they can already read accurately and fluently and those they listen to.

Age 6–7 (Year 2)

By the end of Year 1, children in England will have been taught to:

  • Listen to, discuss and express views about a wide range of contemporary and classic poetry, stories and non-fiction at a level beyond that at which they can read independently.
  • Understand both the books they can already read accurately and fluently and those they listen to.
  • Participate in discussion about books, poems and other works that are read to them and those that they can read for themselves, taking turns and listening to what others say.

Age 7–9 (Years 3 & 4)

Between ages 7–9, children will continue to develop across the different strands of reading, although the focus of the National Curriculum moves from word-reading to comprehension and building the habits that make a confident and keen reader. By the age of 9, the National Curriculum in England expects children to be able to:

  • Increase their familiarity with a wide range of books, including fairy stories, myths and legends, and retelling some of these orally.
  • Prepare poems and play scripts to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.
  • Check that the text makes sense to them, discussing their understanding and explain the meaning of words in context.
  • Draw inferences such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justify inferences with evidence.
  • Predict what might happen from details stated and implied.
  • Participate in discussion about both books that are read to them and those they can read for themselves, taking turns and listening to what others say.
  • Use dictionaries to check the meaning of words that they have read.

Age 9–11 (Years 5 & 6)

In Years 5 and 6, children in English schools will continue to develop as readers, becoming increasingly independent as they prepare for secondary school. The focus of the curriculum moves to comprehension, with national tests to assess the standard of children’s comprehension. The National Curriculum outlines what is expected of a reader in Year 5 and Year 6 in English schools:

  • Continue to read and discuss an increasingly wide range of fiction, poetry, plays, non-fiction and reference books or textbooks.
  • Identifying and discussing themes and conventions in and across a wide range of writing and making comparisons within and across books.
  • Learning a wider range of poetry by heart and preparing poems and plays to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone and volume so that the meaning is clear to an audience.
  • Checking that the book makes sense to them, discussing their understanding and exploring the meaning of words in context.
  • Drawing inferences such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justifying inferences with evidence.
  • Predicting what might happen from details stated and implied.
  • Summarising the main ideas drawn from more than one paragraph, identifying key details that support the main ideas.
  • Identifying how language, structure and presentation contribute to meaning.
  • Discuss and evaluate how authors use language, including figurative language, considering the impact on the reader.
  • Distinguish between statements of fact and opinion and retrieve, record and present information from non-fiction.
  • Participate in discussions about books that are read to them and those they can read for themselves, building on their own and others’ ideas and challenging views courteously and providing reasoned justifications for their views.
  • Explain and discuss their understanding of what they have read, including through formal presentations and debates, maintaining a focus on the topic and using notes where necessary.

Comprehension in primary schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

  • For information about comprehension and the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland see the experiences and outcomes for literacy and English on the Education Scotland website.
  • Details about comprehension in the National Curriculum for Wales can be found on the Curriculum for Wales website.
  • For information about comprehension in the Northern Ireland curriculum, see the Language and Literacy area of learning. Visit CCEA for more details.

How to help with
comprehension at home

1. Read to your child

Lots of parents try to read with their children when they are very young, but by the time your child can read independently it is often tempting to leave them to get on with reading on their own. However, hearing a story read to you (rather than watching a story on TV or as a film) is hugely important for developing comprehension, even for older children. Hearing a story read out loud means that children can have access to books that may as yet be too challenging to read alone – these are the challenging texts that will help to develop their comprehension skills.

To keep story time as special as possible, you might think about:

  • Make regular time. Life is busy, but even ten minutes of reading with your child each day is one of the best ways you can support their education and help them to become a strong reader. It doesn’t have to happen before bed – straight after school while they have a snack or while the bath is running can be more manageable and can help to make sharing a book a regular occurrence.
  • Think about where. Being curled up on the sofa or cuddled up in bed helps to make reading an enjoyable and special activity.
  • Choose a wide range of books. A mix of fiction and non-fiction, real stories and magical stories, familiar characters and new experiences help to broaden children’s interest and keep story time fresh. Sometimes you might choose the book, sometimes they might choose the book, and sometimes you might read both!

2. Read for a purpose (sometimes!)

As well as reading for pure pleasure, children are likely to need to read for particular purposes too – to find information, to learn about something or in order to answer questions. Practising this can be useful for success at school.

Your child may be asked to investigate a topic or find answers to questions set in class. You can help them with their research skills by talking about where to look to find the answers, although you may need to remind them to look in books and use the library as well as the internet. Children can struggle with information overload so they need your help to ‘search and sift’ through information to make decisions.

That said, it is still a good idea to allow plenty of time for reading things just for fun. The more your child enjoys reading, the more enthusiastic they will be to learn more.

For ideas on how to approach reading non-fiction, take a look at our blog post:
Four tips for getting the most out of non-fiction >

3. Use pictures to talk about stories

For younger children, pictures provide an excellent opportunity to practise comprehension skills. This can also be true of children as they grow older and become more confident readers – take a look at our blog post on Picture books for older readers >

Talking about what is happening in a picture, what the characters might be thinking, or what might happen next all help to develop their reading. You might use a photo or picture on its own, or an illustration from a picture book, non-fiction book or comic strip. Many popular books for children feature illustrations as part of the story. You can find lots of examples of fun picture books for free on the Oxford Owl eBook library >

Video help

Video: What is comprehension?
Get a clear definition of reading comprehension.

Video: Supporting your child's reading comprehension
Emily Guille-Marrett's top tips.

You can find more videos about comprehension on the Oxford Owl video library >

Comprehension activity sheets

Ages 7–9

Ages 9–11

You can find more comprehension activities on our Kids' activities pages >

Interactive activities

The Hare and the Tortoise activity

The Hare and the Tortoise activity (ages 4–5)
Put the pictures in the right order to tell the story of The Hare and the Tortoise.
Play the activity >


Word meanings activity

Word meanings activity (ages 7–8)
Draw lines to match the words to their meanings.
Play the activity >



Character feelings activity

Character feelings activity (ages 8–9)
Highlight the words in the extract that give clues about how the character is feeling.
Play the activity >


Fact or opinion activity

Fact or opinion activity (ages 9–10)
Sort the statements to show whether they are facts or opinions.
Play the activity >

You'll find more comprehension activities on our Kids' activities pages >

Books to develop
comprehension skills

Reading comprehension skills take time and effort to develop. Here are some books that could help your child along the way:

Progress with Oxford: Comprehension (6–7 years)

This activity book builds comprehension skills while helping your child to work independently. Engaging activities, fun characters and stickers keep them motivated and a progress chart captures their achievements.
Buy on Amazon >


Buy on Amazon


Bond SATs Skills: Reading Comprehension Workbook
(8–9 Years)

This workbook has been developed to help children to begin their preparation for the increased focus on these core English comprehension skills, demanded by the National Curriculum and tested in SATs assessments.
Buy on Amazon >


Buy on Amazon


Bond SATs Skills: Reading Comprehension Workbook
(9–10 Years)

This workbook follows on from Bond SATs Skills Reading Workbook for Age 8–9, increasing the level of difficulty in reading comprehension, to ensure progress towards the reading skills demanded by the National Curriculum and tested in SATs assessments.
Buy on Amazon >

Buy on Amazon


Bond SATs Skills: Reading Comprehension Workbook
(10–11 Years)

This workbook follows on from Bond SATs Skills Reading Workbook for Age 9–10, increasing the level of difficulty in reading comprehension, to ensure progress towards the reading skills demanded by the National Curriculum and tested in SATs assessments.
Buy on Amazon >

Buy on Amazon

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