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Good Readers with Poor Comprehension

Reading comprehension refers to a reader’s ability to interpret a text successfully, i.e., making sense of what one reads and connecting the ideas in the text to what they already know. 

Duffy says reading comprehension is the essence of reading because if we do not understand the message, we are not reading. It is also said that reading without understanding is like eating without digesting.

Reading without meaning

Dyslexia, a reading disorder in which a person confuses letters and struggles with sounding out words, has been the focus of much research into reading.

However, that is not the case with the lesser-known reading comprehension disorder, Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit or S-RCD, in which a person reads successfully but does not sufficiently understand the meaning of the words. S-RCD often goes undiagnosed until it becomes problematic, according to the results of a five-year study published online in the journal Brain Connectivity (Cutting et al., 2013).

According to lead investigator Laurie Cutting at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, a person with S-RCD will explain it like this: “I can read Spanish because I know what sounds the letters make and how the words are pronounced, but I couldn’t tell you what the words actually mean.”

“When a child is a good reader, it’s assumed their comprehension is on track. But three to ten percent of those children don’t understand most of what they’re reading. By the time the problem is recognized, often closer to third or fourth grade, the disorder is disrupting their learning process,” Cutting said.

Brain differences in poor reading comprehension

Researchers have been able to pinpoint brain activity and understand its role in dyslexia. Now, functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI studies have also examined the neurobiological profile of those who exhibit poor reading comprehension despite intact word-level abilities.

Neuro-imaging of children showed that, while reading, the brain function of those with S-RCD is quite different and distinct from those with dyslexia. For example, those with dyslexia exhibited abnormalities in a specific region in the occipital-temporal cortex, a part of the brain associated with successfully recognizing words on a page. On the other hand, those with S-RCD did not show abnormalities in this region. Instead, they showed specific abnormalities in areas typically associated with memory.

That there are defects in the brain areas concerned with memory makes sense. Several studies have confirmed that reading comprehension relies heavily on working memory and long-term memory.

How memory assists reading comprehension

Short-term memory holds information in the mind for only a few seconds while it is being processed. Long-term memory is where such processed information is permanently stored. Working memory is an intermediary and active memory system in the information-processing area of the brain. It is a crucial memory system that most of us use daily.

Sentence comprehension depends heavily upon adequate working memory. For example, working memory is required to comprehend sentences that are complex in structure, such as, “The clown that is hugging the boy is kissing the girl.” It helps us interpret interpret lengthy sentences, such as, “Do every other problem on page fifteen and all of the problems on page sixteen before checking your answers in the back of the book.” Finally, we use working memory when preservation of word order (syntax) is important to correctly understand a sentence like, “It was the boy’s ball and not the girl’s that was dirty.”

How to improve reading comprehension

The good news is that weaknesses in cognitive skills can be attacked head-on. Dynamic training and practice can improve, strengthen, and enhance cognitive skills.

Edublox specializes in cognitive training and educational interventions that make children smarter, help them learn and read faster, and do math with ease. Our programs enable learners to overcome reading difficulties and other learning obstacles, assisting them to become life-long learners and empowering them to realize their highest educational goals.

If you suspect that your child has a cognitive deficiency, get appropriate help as soon as possible. The gap between children with and those without cognitive deficits gets wider and wider, making it harder and harder to close.

Improving reading comprehension: A success story

Elliot’s mom contacted Edublox about her adult son, who was struggling academically. Our assessment determined that Elliot’s word recognition and spelling were on par. As explained above, a memory deficit is a common cause of good reading without meaning. Elliot was thus advised to do one Development Tutor session daily to improve his memory. A session consists of three exercises and takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.

A year later, Elliot’s mom sent the email below:

Dear Susan,

When I approached you the first time, Elliot had already dropped off at college since his grades were not even close to allowing him to attend medical school, which he wanted. 

When he came home, he struggled through his EMT certification, since he wanted to work in the medical field.

As he started working with Edublox, his father convinced him to join the Navy as a corpsman. Six months into Edublox, he took the ability/cognitive test and scored in the 85th percentile! He had never scored that high on any academic test. He was on the 75th percentile in reading and comprehension! Usually, his reading and comprehension percentile was 55th to 65th. Nice jump! Even my husband was impressed! My husband is a physician who tends not to believe anything not proven in a lab!

The Navy ended up not taking him because, in his elementary school, he was labeled “educationally autistic.” 

Meanwhile, Elliot started working as EMT/security guard in a factory. One day the manager asked him to teach his colleagues the five steps to take when someone has a heart attack. As Elliot told me, when he had to study them (almost one year prior), he struggled through them. This time, though, he had to read them only once to memorize them. He memorized even the wording, making repeating the protocol to his colleagues easy.

Once, as we were having lunch, he told me about a site where he likes to go and read academic articles on the most disparate subjects. I told him I was surprised to hear that because I thought he only got his information through videos. To that, he answered, “That was before because I used to get lost in my reading. Now I do not get lost anymore.” That was music to my ears since he could clearly see a “before” and an “after.”

Encouraged by his successes, he signed up for a paramedicine program at a technical college, where he has been getting grades of B+/ A. It is true that, as my husband reminds me, he is attending only a technical college. However, he never got grades this high, not even in elementary school. A few days ago, he told me that studying has become so much easier for him that sometimes he feels he is cheating because he does not have to struggle as much, and he is getting better grades than ever. 

Needless to say, his academic successes had an incredible impact on his self-esteem. He is much happier and much less anxious about his future.

He is also making bolder career plans. After the associate degree in paramedicine, he wants to continue to finish his bachelor’s degree. And after that, he wants to get the highest education he can in the medical field. 

My very best,


Edublox offers cognitive training and live online tutoring to students with reading challenges. Our students are in the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.