Plain Language Summaries

More than reading skills? How comprehension of multiple texts relates to classical reading skills

Due to the progress of digitalization in recent decades, the Internet now offers an answer to almost any topic. During an Internet search, one is confronted with more and more contributions from the most diverse perspectives. The ability to meaningfully synthesize and evaluate this multitude of information is therefore becoming increasingly important. But is there more to it than simply understanding the individual texts?

We investigated how the ability to comprehend multiple texts on a topic is related to "classical" reading literacy, i.e., comprehending individual texts. Our results show that although these skills are similar, they are clearly separable competencies.

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Background and questions of the study

Reading literacy has been a hot topic since PISA. Since the PISA shock, the promotion of reading skills has been a top priority in German schools. Being able to understand texts well has become an indispensable part of everyday life in our society as well as in the everyday lives of pupils and students.

However, students in particular are often confronted with the situation of having to work not only with one but with several texts for an exam, a presentation or a term paper. Then it is not just a matter of reading and understanding a single text, but of comparing and combining different texts from different sources. This brings additional challenges, especially when you encounter information that contradicts each other. Then, as a reader, you should be able to relate the texts to each other in a meaningful way and also pay attention to the source information.

This study addresses the question of how the ability to comprehend single texts (classical reading literacy) relates to the ability to comprehend multiple texts on a topic (multiple document comprehension). Several alternatives are conceivable here:

  1. Multiple document comprehension could be essentially the same as classical literacy, only more difficult.
  2. Multiple document comprehension could be reading skills plus an additional skill (e.g., comparison skills).
  3. Multiple document comprehension could be another competency that is merely related to classical reading literacy.
In addition to this question, we examined how these two competencies are related to performance in school and college.


Data from 501 students were analyzed. They completed two computer-based tests: In the test on classical reading literacy, individual texts on various topics were to be read and questions answered. The test measures skills such as finding detailed information, drawing text-based conclusions, and evaluating and reflecting on statements in the text. The test for multiple document comprehension comprises several units, each of which contains two or three texts on one topic, the contents of which are largely redundant or complementing each other, but also contradict each other in detail. The tasks measure how well students can compare and integrate the different pieces of information and whether they also pay attention to the source information. A correct solution of the tasks in this test is only possible if several texts are used.

Students were also asked about their high school graduation grade and their level of study (bachelor's/master's/other). For master's students, the bachelor's degree grade and the expected master's degree grade were also surveyed.


The evaluation shows that classical reading literacy and multiple document comprehension are two related but nevertheless clearly separable competencies. This means that they require different mental abilities. Accordingly, there are students who are better at understanding single texts than multiple texts on a topic, for example, but also vice versa. The high correlation of the two competencies can probably be attributed to common underlying skills, such as decoding words and sentences or intelligence. However, our study cannot make any statement about this.

Both competencies are also closely related to school and college performance and to the level of study. The associations of these variables with multiple document comprehension are preserved even when classical reading literacy is controlled for. This means that the correlations of school and study performance as well as study level with multiple document comprehension cannot be (fully) attributed to classical reading literacy.

Relevance of the results

As mentioned at the beginning, reading and the associated requirements have changed dramatically in the course of digitalization. Search engines such as Google and Bing flood us with information from a wide variety of sources and perspectives. The ability to compare, combine and evaluate several texts on a topic is becoming increasingly important - not only in the field of school and study, but in general, if you want to inform yourself about a topic. This work shows that this skill does not only require classical reading literacy on a higher level or together with an additional skill, but has to be seen as a competence in itself and should be promoted in university students as well as in school pupils.

The scientific publication

Mahlow, N., Hahnel, C., Kroehne, U., Artelt, C., Goldhammer, F., & Schoor, C. (2020). More than (single) text comprehension? On university students' understanding of multiple documents. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 562450. (Open Access)

The project

The study was conducted within the project MultiTex, which was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research.