Rethinking “Just Right”: Reader and Text Variables that Impact Comprehension by Jennifer Serravallo

Seven years ago when I was home on maternity leave, I found it really hard to get through the sorts of rich novels I’d devoured pre-baby. Sleep deprived, I struggled with remembering everything that had happened across the text and started abandoning books halfway through. Then, a friend handed me Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck—a collection of short essays. Lo and behold—that structure worked like a charm! Some variables in my life changed—less sleep, new baby—and suddenly texts that were “just right” for me before were no longer “just right.” How about you? How do memory, stamina, and attention impact your own comprehension and book choices? How do those variables impact your students?


How about listening to texts versus reading them from the page? I know for myself, if I’m listening to a book on Audible while driving to work it can’t be too complex, otherwise I’ll miss my exit or narrowly avoid getting into an accident. A text that is “just right” for me in this situation is usually something in the genre I like to call “Female Comedians Tell Their Memoirs,” such as Mindy Kaling’s Everyone Is Hanging Out Without Me and Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I promise I read more sophisticated stuff when the book is in my hand, but that’s my limit while listening and driving. Are you the kind of reader whose comprehension is positively or negatively impacted by listening to books? How about your students?


Consider prior knowledge as another important variable that affects comprehension. The schema we bring to the text influences how we understand the content. Two texts at the same level might not be equally understood by a reader if the reader has no background knowledge about one and a lot of background knowledge on the other. What do I know a lot about? Literacy instruction. I can read research volumes with high engagement and comprehension. But recently I picked up the professional book In the Moment by Jennifer Munson, which is about conferring in math workshop. I thought, “Conferring! I know about that.” But the “math” part got me….I haven’t taught math in a while. I had to adjust my reading rate, and do a lot of re-reading. It was written at the same “level” as the texts I write and read constantly, but the topic threw me for a bit of a loop. Take a moment to reflect on the role of your own prior knowledge on a recent book you have read. How did it impact your comprehension? How do you think your students’ comprehension is impacted by how much they know (or don’t) about what’s in their books?


Taken together, these variables (and eight others I discuss in Understanding Texts & Readers) illustrate just how dynamic our comprehension is at any given moment in any given text. They also illustrate how impossible it is to say with certainty that just one level of text is “just right” for any individual child on any given day. It’s important to take variables into consideration and have a flexible view about what a child will be able to read with comprehension.


These variables also mean that hanging all of our assumptions about readers on just one assessment won’t give us a complete enough picture of what they can read and make sense of. To see students’ comprehension more completely, consider changing up your assessments by:


  • Alternating genres (fiction, nonfiction)
  • Alternating text type (i.e., Incorporate a whole-book assessments)
  • Offering students choices of which text they read during the assessment
  • Updating the text selections to make them more culturally relevant to your students


Just as we are different readers in each book we pick up, so too are our students. They are not impermeable to the outside world, and the same is true for their comprehension. Enjoy the journey— and the art!—of matching them with books and getting to know them as readers.


Jennifer Serravallo is a literacy consultant, speaker, and the author of several popular titles including the NY Times Bestselling The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book. Her latest publication, Understanding Texts & Readers connects comprehension goals to text levels and readers responses. Upcoming publications include A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences (early 2019) and Complete Comprehension, which is a revised and reimagined whole book assessment and teaching resource based on the award-winning Independent Reading Assessment (due out in Spring 2019). She was a Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and taught in Title I schools in NYC. Tweet her @jserravallo.