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Reading Comprehension: What It Is, Types, Causes of Deficits, Improving

Table of contents:

What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension
Reading is one of the most critical components of any language and it an essential tool for lifelong learning. Reading is comprehension is the heart and goal of reading.

Reading comprehension refers to a reader’s ability to interpret a text successfully. Mikulecky and Jeffries point out that reading comprehension means making sense of what readers read and connecting the ideas in the text to what they already know. Duffy defines reading comprehension as the essence of reading because if we do not understand the message, we are not reading.

What is the difference between literal and inferential comprehension?

Literal comprehension is a reader’s understanding of the events and information in a text. To test it, you can ask a child questions like “what happened?” or “where did it happen?” Answers to these questions are all available in the text itself.

Inferential comprehension depends on literal comprehension but goes further. This is the reader’s ability to form judgments that make sense (inferences) about the text, the author, or aspects of the text. For example, questions about the moral of a story or the writer’s intentions rely on inferential comprehension. Before one can deal with text at the inferential level, the literal level has to be automatic and effortless.

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 age, 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 they have learned, and following directions. The intermediate grades’ comprehension goals address these abilities and 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.

Reading comprehension and the reading disabled

For many reading-disabled students, reading comprehension is a significant problem. There are mainly three causes:

  • Poor decoding skills

Decoding is the act of connecting sounds with symbols. To decode a word,

(1.) you need to know which sound or sounds each letter makes, like how a g sounds in game and how it sounds in gym;
(2.) how to take apart the sounds in a word and blend them; for example, with man, the first sound is /m/, the next sound is /ă/, and the last sound is /n/; and
(3.) how groups of letters can work together to make a single sound, like ch in chip

This skill needs to be in place for proficient reading to develop, but it’s not enough. There are words that you cannot decode. For example, words whose spelling is very different from their sound, such as “enough.” To successfully read English, you need to recognize this word in the way you would recognize someone’s face. Words that have a high frequency (occur often), or must be learned by sight, are called sight words.

  • Poor fluency

Another condition that seems to be necessary for comprehension is fluency. Fluency is the ability to read “as you speak.” Hudson et al. define fluency this way: “Reading fluency is made up of at least three key elements: accurate reading of connected text at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression.” Nonfluent readers suffer in at least one of these aspects of reading:

(1.) they make many mistakes,
(2.) they read slowly, or
(3.) they don’t read with appropriate expression and phrasing.

This makes intuitive sense. After all, it isn’t easy to understand someone who speaks haltingly or without natural intonation.

  • Weak cognitive skills

There are many reasons why children struggle with decoding and fluency in the first place, the most common being weak cognitive skills. Cognitive psychology has now linked many brain-based skills to reading disabilities: phonological awareness; verbal fluency; attention and executive functions; visual attention; visuospatial abilities; processing speedshort-term memory; auditory working memoryvisual memory and visual sequential memory; visual long-term memory, especially for details; verbal long-term memory; and rapid naming.

What is Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit?

Someone can read fluently and still have poor comprehension. This problem has a clinical term: Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit (SRCD). It happens when a child’s decoding skills are more developed than their ability to understand a text.

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

  • Poor vocabulary

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

Decades of research have confirmed vocabulary’s essential role in reading comprehension and students’ overall academic success.

  • Poor memory

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 associated with successfully recognizing words on a page. On the other hand, those with reading comprehension difficulties did not show abnormalities in this region. Instead, they showed specific abnormalities in areas typically associated with memory.

Short-term memory holds information in one’s mind for only a few seconds while it is 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 vital memory system and one 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 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.” We use working memory when preserving word order (syntax) is essential 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. Each sentence is read, understood, associated, and integrated with the previous one. Eventually, the entire paragraph is read, and the reader continues to the next one. By the end of the chapter, 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.

  • Poor logical thinking skills

Logical thinking is the process in which one uses reasoning consistently to come to a conclusion. Problems or situations involving logical thinking call for structure, relationships between facts, and 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.

  • Text cannot be tied to foreknowledge

For a person to read with comprehension, they must be able to integrate what they are reading with foreknowledge. Foreknowledge is the range of one’s existing knowledge and past experiences. If one reads something that cannot directly be connected to or tied in with the knowledge one already possesses, one cannot decipher the message’s content. As Harris et al. state in Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and Treatment, “What a child gets from a book will often be determined by what the child brings to the book.”

A skill that is closely related to integration is classification. When a person sees a chair, although they may never have seen a chair precisely like this one, they will immediately recognize it because they are familiar with the class of objects we call “chair.” Whenever a name is ascribed to an object, it is put into a specific class of objects, i.e., it is classified.

The Gestalt principle of closure means that the mind can derive meaning from objects or pictures that are not fully perceived. W- -re s-re th-t y– w-ll b- -ble to und-rsta-d th-s s-ntenc-, although more than 25 percent of the letters are omitted. The mind is quite able to bridge the gaps in the sentence.

The idea of closure is, however, more than just seeing parts of a word and amplifying them. It also entails the amplification of the author’s message. No author can put all his thoughts into words. It stresses the importance of foreknowledge. If it were possible for an author to put everything related to the subject he is dealing with on paper, foreknowledge would not have been necessary. That, however, is impossible, as an author can, at most, present a limited cross-section of reality, and the reader must be able to expand on this before comprehension becomes possible. Poetry is an excellent example of the importance of foreknowledge. A person, unfamiliar with the Arthurian legend, will derive little meaning from reading Morte d’Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Lastly, imagination plays a role in comprehension. It is doubtful whether a person understands something unless they can think about it in terms of pictures. When we read, the words and thoughts comprising the message call up images in our mind’s eye. If this does not occur, the message might not make any sense. If you read or hear a sentence in an unfamiliar language, it will not make sense to you simply because none of the words will call up any pictures in your mind’s eye. Furthermore, by using one’s imagination while reading, one’s emotions can be addressed during the reading act.

Is poor reading comprehension holding your child back?

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 processing speed, 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 to improve vocabulary and teach students to identify the main idea, sequence events, make inferences, and so forth. Book a free consultation to discuss your child’s learning needs.


Key takeaways


Authored by Susan du Plessis (B.A. Hons Psychology; B.D.), an educational specialist with 30+ years’ experience in the field of learning disabilities, and Dylan Arslanian (B.A. Hons Linguistics, Cambridge DELTA).