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Ask Susan: How to Overcome Reading Comprehension Difficulties

Hello Susan

My daughter is great at reading, but she has deficiencies and has developed a great skill of hiding her deficiencies. Her teachers pushed her ahead, and the result is she can spell and pronounce quite complicated words, but she has no idea what they mean. She copies adult sentences in speech, and therefore her first and second interactions with adults make her seem quite intelligent, but she has little to no idea what she really is saying. I’m worried less about reading but more about comprehension, as she won’t be able to tell you any of the why’s or what’s after reading a text. How geared towards comprehension is your program?



Hi Olivia

Reading comprehension is the heart and goal of reading, since the purpose of all reading is to gather meaning from the printed page. 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.

Symptoms of reading comprehension difficulties

When a child is a good reader, it’s assumed their comprehension is on track. But three to ten percent of good readers don’t understand most of what they’re reading. They may

  • have trouble recalling, or summarizing what they have just read;
  • struggle to follow the sequence of events;
  • have difficulty distinguishing significant information from minor details;
  • be unable to connect ideas in a passage;
  • struggle to link prior knowledge to new information to make meaning; and
  • struggle to make inferences, which involves using what you know to make a guess about what you don’t know, or reading between the lines..

By the time the problem is recognized, often closer to third or fourth grade, the problem is disrupting their learning process.

Causes of reading comprehension difficulties

When a child is a good reader, yet still struggles with comprehension, there are mainly three causes:

  • The child’s vocabulary is poor.

Decades of research have confirmed the important role that vocabulary plays in reading comprehension and in students’ overall academic success.

Naturally, being able to pronounce a word correctly does not guarantee that one understands its meaning. For example, being able to pronounce the word archipelago correctly will not be very helpful when reading a passage about Lofoten, an archipelago in the county of Norland, Norway; it is vital that one also understands the word’s meaning, i.e. ‘an island group’.

  • The child’s memory is poor.

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 difficulties, on the other hand, did not show abnormalities in this region, instead showing specific abnormalities in regions typically associated with 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.”

Sentences must be held in working memory and must also be integrated with one another. Each sentence is read, understood, associated and integrated with the previous one and so forth. Eventually the entire paragraph is read and the reader continues to the next one. By the end of the chapter both the details and main idea need to be retained in working memory, otherwise the reader may have retained isolated facts but may not know the sequence of events nor understand the main idea.

  • The child cannot think logically.

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.

How to overcome reading comprehension difficulties

The good news is that weaknesses in cognitive skills can be attacked head-on; it is possible to strengthen these mental skills through training and practice. Edublox’s Development Tutor aims at strengthening underlying cognitive skills including short-term memory, working memory and logical thinking.

In addition, a child’s vocabulary will need to be improved, and they will also need application in the form of comprehension exercises. The old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ still applies. Edublox’s live tutoring services include a reading comprehension curriculum, aimed at improving vocabulary and at teaching students to identify the main idea, sequence events, make inferences, et cetera.

If live tutoring is impossible, for whatever reason, I suggest you subscribe to Development Tutor and follow the steps below:

Let your daughter do at least two comprehension tests per week. There are thousands of free comprehension tests on the internet. Start with relatively easy ones and gradually, as she improves, move to more difficult ones. What is important is that the passage, questions and answers must be on separate pages.

Your daughter must now follow the three steps listed below:

  • Step 1

She must read the passage before reading the questions. She may read the passage several times. What is important, though, is that once she starts answering the questions, she may not go back to reread the passage or search for the answers. The questions must be answered from memory.

She must use a gray pencil to fill in the answers.

  • Step 2

She must then take a blue pen, reread the passage and self-correct her answers (she may now flip between the passage and questions).

  • Step 3

Lastly, she must take the answer sheet and, using a red pen, give herself marks based on the answers written in gray pencil. Only half-marks may be awarded for answers that were corrected in blue.

  • Improve her vocabulary

To improve your daughter’s vocabulary, select five words in each comprehension test that she does now understand. 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.

Key takeaways

Reading comprehension difficulties



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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.