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Ask Susan: Daughter Fails Comprehension Tests

Hi Susan

My daughter is in Grade 5. My concern is that she can read with perfect fluency, but her comprehension does not match her reading ability. She fails comprehension tests. She did OT and speech therapy in Grade 1 and 2.



Dear Monique

Thank you for submitting this problem. I am sure there are other parents who may also have noticed that their children have a similar lack of understanding.

Reading comprehension is the heart and goal of reading, since the purpose of all reading is to gather meaning from the printed page. If a student says words in a passage without gathering their meaning, one would hesitate to call that reading.

By age six to seven children should be sensitive to such characteristics of stories as the main character, sequence of events, inferences, the motives and feelings of characters, and sentence order. As they get older, children should be more efficient at recognizing and recalling facts, recognizing and inferring main themes and relationships, drawing conclusions, making judgments and generalizations, predicting outcomes, applying what has been learned, and following directions. The comprehension goals of the intermediate grades address these abilities as well as those required for independent study: skimming, using reference materials, outlining, summarizing, altering reading rate and focus as the purpose of reading changes, use of headings, note taking, and so on.

For many reading-disabled students, reading comprehension is a major problem.

It is assumed that the comprehension of children who are good readers is on track. But three to ten percent of those children don’t understand most of what they’re reading.

There may be other causes but these are the most common causes of a reading comprehension problem:

 1. Poor vocabulary

Vocabulary is essential for success in reading. Students cannot understand what they read without understanding what most of the words mean. Decades of research have confirmed the important role that vocabulary plays in reading comprehension and in students’ overall academic success.

2. Poor memory skills

Researchers have been able to pinpoint brain activity and understand its role in reading disabilities, but no functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI studies, until recently, have 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 reading comprehension problems is quite different and distinct from those with reading disabilities. Those with reading disabilities exhibited abnormalities in a specific region in the occipital-temporal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with successfully recognizing words on a page. Those with reading comprehension problems, on the other hand, did not show abnormalities in this region, instead showing specific abnormalities in regions typically associated with memory.

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

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 an important memory system and one that most of us use every day.

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 sentences that are lengthy, “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.” 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.”

3. Poor logical thinking skills

Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations that involve logical thinking call for structure, for relationships between facts, and for chains of reasoning that “make sense.”

The relationship between logical thinking and reading is well established in the literature. It has been said that “there is no reading without reasoning,” and even that reading is reasoning.

From theory to practice

To improve your daughter’s vocabulary, make little word cards, with the word on the front, and the definition on the reverse. For example, if the word “archipelago” is on the front, the explanation “a group of islands” will be on the reverse. Let your daughter start by studying five word cards; add five new word cards to the pile, every time she knows the meaning of the words. Regularly review and test old word cards.

Consider Development Tutor, which aims at improving memory: visual, auditory, sequential, iconic, short-term, long-term as well as working memory.

Development Tutor also teaches logical thinking. Besides being important for reading comprehension, it has been proven that specific training in logical thinking processes can make people ‘smarter’. Logical thinking allows a child to reject quick answers, such as, “I don’t know,” or “This is too difficult,” by empowering them to delve deeper into their thinking processes and better understand the methods used to arrive at a solution and even the solution itself.

Just for fun, I have provided an additional exercise to enhance logical thinking below.

An important learning principle, which should not be overlooked, is that there must be opportunities for application. While a person is learning to master the skills that form the basis of reading comprehension, they should already be given opportunities to apply these skills. This greatly speeds up the process of automation. So, while working on improving your daughter’s vocabulary, memory and ability to think logically, let her do comprehension tests on a regular basis. Start with easy comprehension tests and introduce more complex ones as she improves.

What is important is that the questions of the comprehension test must be on a separate page. She must:

1.) Read the story without looking at the questions.

2.) Turn the story over and answer the questions, using a gray pencil. The questions must be answered from memory. She may not re-read the story to find the answers.

3.) Lastly, re-read the story and self-correct her answers, using a red pencil.

Additional exercise to improve logical thinking 

To get started, print the quiz below. Using a red and yellow pencil, your daughter must replace the question marks with either a solid yellow, solid red, yellow border or red border.




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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3,000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 30 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.