Reading Comprehension Can Predict College Success

a shelf full of books at a library.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Even in the age of streaming video and interactive learning apps, reading matters. 

That’s one of the key takeaways in a new study that found a small, but significant, association between reading comprehension and college grades. For the study, researchers looked at 26 previous studies and a total of 25,090 students and found that differences in reading comprehension could explain 8.4 percent of the variation seen in college grades. 

“That's a substantial explanation of college student grades,” says Virginia Clinton-Lisell, the lead author of the study and a professor in educational psychology at the University of North Dakota who specializes in language and reading comprehension. “It's about the same magnitude as high school GPA, and high school GPA is historically regarded as the best predictor of college GPA.”

The study was recently published in the Journal of College Reading and Learning and was funded through a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education

Reading Still Matters 

Clinton-Lisell began studying the impact of reading comprehension on college grades after encountering the perception from some educators that reading comprehension is less important in college than it once was. “Having students actively demonstrating their knowledge and engaging with the material in a way that's visible is more emphasized now in best practices in college instruction,” Clinton-Lisell says. In addition, audio and visual options for learning are more abundant than ever, and there are anecdotal reports of college professors assigning shorter readings.

Given these trends, Clinton-Lisell and her team set out to discover whether reading comprehension has an impact on college success. Their research indicates the answer is a resounding yes.

“Reading comprehension matters,” Clinton-Lisell says. “It predicts college achievement, it's definitely something we should care about as far as a school. It’s a skill college students need.” 

In addition, if technological advancements or shifts in pedagogy had indeed diminished the importance of reading comprehension, researchers would expect to observe the impact of reading comprehension on college grades decrease over time. However, Clinton-Lisell and her colleagues did not see that in their research. 

Teaching Reading Comprehension 

In K-12, particularly in the earlier grades, there are many effective approaches for developing reading comprehension. “Nowadays, we have a very good idea of how to teach it,” Clinton-Lisell says. “First, just make sure kids have access to books, and that they get to read a lot, that they get to practice.” 

In addition, there are well-established strategies educators can use to support young readers. These include peer-assisted learning and inferential skill exercises.  

As students age, however, the education system is less focused on reading comprehension, Clinton-Lisell says. “We're getting better, but where we need improvement is adolescent literacy, and working with kids who struggle with reading who are in middle and high school.” 

In college, there is little attention paid to reading comprehension and limited data on what interventions work. “We do have lots of college students coming in who struggle with reading, and unfortunately, we’ve found out that doing developmental English courses just don't seem very effective,” Clinton-Lisell says. “They prolong time to graduation, and the longer it takes to graduate, the less likely you are to graduate.” 

Clinton-Lisell would like to see reading comprehension get similar attention to writing because of how closely linked those skills are. “The idea of writing across the curriculum and encouraging professors across the disciplines to have writing assignments and support writing and how to teach writing effectively has been pretty well communicated,” Clinton-Lisell says. “Perhaps a better movement would be reading across the curriculum, and incentives or initiatives to really help professors in various disciplines incorporate ways to scaffold their students’ reading comprehension.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.