Maybe it IS a Reading Comprehension Problem

reading-comprehension-pyramid“I don’t understand this.”  “I can’t remember what happened.”  “Why do I have to read this again and again?”  “I hate this book.”  “This is so stupid.”  Have you heard your child complain about reading, homework, and studying?  Have you met with your child’s teacher and heard comments such as:  “X doesn’t pay attention to the details,” “X tries very hard, but doesn’t seem to understand the main idea,” “X needs to work harder and apply himself,” or the standard, “X is making progress; give it time.”  In my thirty years as a teacher, reading specialist, tutor, and literacy coach to other teachers, I have heard them all.  The list goes on and on, and yet I constantly hear parents say they still don’t understand why their child struggles.

In my earlier post, “Reading Comprehension Problem? Maybe Not,” I tried to have readers look at decoding as the root cause of comprehension problems.  Research has shown that most reading difficulties are the result of unresolved word reading and word recognition difficulties.  Inaccurate word reading will manifest itself in comprehension problems.  But what if your child reads words accurately and still does not get the gist of the reading material?

Fluency is a factor that is highly correlated to reading comprehension, especially in the elementary grades.  If your child reads accurately, slowly, and labors to sound out every long word, he may be expending all his mental energy on word reading and not understanding.  An appropriate reading rate is necessary for comprehension to occur.

Weak working memory seems to be present in many people with learning difficulties.  Working memory is the ability to temporarily store and manage information while doing a complex cognitive task.  As new information comes in, we need to be able to access information that we already should have and use it to make meaning.  For many students, connecting and applying information is a real challenge.

Language comprehension, including a weak vocabulary, is also aligned with weak reading comprehension.  If you have ever heard of the Matthew Effect, “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer,” this sums up vocabulary development.  Vocabulary is accumulated over time, and there is a cumulative advantage to building up a strong word bank from early childhood.  The more words we know and understand, the more we will be able to extract meaning from text.  General background knowledge and language skills are also crucial as the material becomes more complex in the upper grades.  A fabulous book on the importance of background knowledge is The Knowledge Deficit, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. In a future post, I will review his newest book on the topic, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children From Failed Educational Theories.

To a lesser degree, grammar and syntax are factors that affect reading comprehension.  Sometimes, sentences are complex and hard to follow.  The reader may lose meaning when trying to figure out how to decipher the message within the structure of the sentence or passage.  When combined with a weak vocabulary, a student who has difficulty with this may get lost in a sea of words.

Higher level thinking skills, such as drawing inferences, are difficult for some students.  A friend and mentor of mine would use the expression “on the line and off the line” when describing how to locate information.  On the line information can be found directly within the passage.  Off the line information requires piecing together information that is already there but doesn’t directly answer a question.  One must formulate a reasonable thought based on clues in the context.  Some would call this “reading between the lines”; it takes a little detective work and is much more difficult for the struggling reader.

Finally, some students have attentional difficulties that interfere with their ability to focus on what is being read.  This is complicated because there could be multiple factors causing the inattention.  Many learning difficulties coexist and overlap.  Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) are perfect examples of problems that present together often, and exacerbate one another.  In my prior post, “Auditory Processing Disorder: What?” I discuss some of the common symptoms of both disabilities.

Without proper diagnosis, a child with reading comprehension difficulties can wind up being treated for the symptoms without the underlying cause ever being addressed.

Faith Borkowsky, Owner and Lead Educational Consultant of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching, is Orton-Gillingham trained and Wilson Certified, and has extensive training and experience in a number of other research-based, peer-reviewed programs that have produced positive gains for students with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADD/ADHD, and a host of learning difficulties.

High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching is located in Plainview, Long Island. Read about what we can offer you and your child: http://highfiveliteracy.com.

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2 thoughts on “Maybe it IS a Reading Comprehension Problem

  1. Sybil Gelfand says:

    You are such a talented writer! I would love to see you published. Better yet, I would love to see you teach at the university level. It is so heartening to know there is still someone out their, carrying the torch for SBRI. Thank you so much for the ” on the line, off the line” reference. It’s great to know some one was listening!

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