What did I just read? : The complexity of reading comprehension

I love to read, but what if you read and you don’t understand what you have read. Working with clients to improve reading comprehension is a challenge because reading comprehension relies on many skills including but not limited to vocabulary, grammar, visualization  Often I hear learning specialist say,  that a child is having problems with reading comprehension. When reading comprehension come up in conversation one program is usually recommended that revolves around visualization. However, because reading is dynamic and involves multiple cognitive processes one program is unlikely to solve reading comprehension problems for all. That does not mean those programs aren’t helpful, they are a place to start.  However when approaching reading comprehension problems, identifying areas of weakness and strengths and providing instruction in those areas is effective.

“Extracting meaning from text and forming a coherent mental model relies on the coordination of multiple cognitive processes (Kintsch, 1998; RAND Read-
ing Study Group, 2002). It is, therefore, not surprising that researchers have not been able to isolate one causal factor to explain children’s weaknesses in reading comprehension, but have instead found multiple sources that contribute to such difficulties, including weaknesses in decoding, working memory, linguistic reasoning, executive functioning, vocabulary, and prior knowledge (e.g., Cutting & Scarborough, 2006; Perfetti, Marron, & Foltz, 1996). Thus, it seems sensible that instruction targeting only one aspect of reading comprehension will likely yield limited results.”1

Examples of reading comprehension problems

For example, one client struggled with understanding who was speaking when reading.  Part of the problem was that they confused pronouns and often didn’t understand what the pronoun was referencing.They often where not clear on which character was speaking. T is problem could have been attributed to not applying  background knowledge, poor visualization or difficulty with social cues, but the main problem for this child was incorrect pronouns use.  For example in the passage below the child might have difficulty understanding who the “he” is who is jumping up, Peter or Mr McGregor?

 “MR. McGREGOR was on his hands and knees planting out young cabbages, but he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out, “Stop thief!”

It seems obvious that McGregor is the  “he,” since he is the subject of the sentence, but for this child this was confusing.   The reasons why understanding this passage could be difficult are many including not accessing background knowledge, poor visualization, poor grammar, and difficulty with vocabulary.  For this child it was confusion with pronouns. Once he understood the rules around pronouns,  he easily understood the rest of the story.  Only by recognizing the child’s pattern and addressing the root problem could his problem solved .Another child with reading comprehension issues wasn’t able to visualize because they had difficulty with word memory which resulted in reduced visual vocabulary.  That child read a sentence and if there were 2-3 keywords they did not know, they were lost. Since reading is a dynamic process there are several ways that we glean information from written text.  In the case of unfamiliar vocabulary, one way is to figure out the word meaning from context.  Young readers are often not efficient at this skill.  The second approach young children rely on is asking nearby adults.  This child would ask adults for a definition and by the time they went back to read the sentence they’d forgotten it. The end product was an inability to create a visual image, but the problem was not caused by the inability to visualize but by the inability to retain language. For that child having her write the words down and draw a picture of the meaning helped, but again the problem was not so easily resolved there were other skills to address such as teaching her to define words from context.

Reading comprehension is a skill that demands the integration of many cognitive skills. Identifying the problem is one aspect that can help improve a struggling readers comprehension, but there are also elements that would improve overall instruction in the classroom some ideas are addressed in the article below including more reading with  discussion in class and assigning reading that builds on background knowledge in addition to providing strategy based intervention for those who benefit from it.   In order to solve reading comprehension difficulties one must be willing to approach the problem from using multiple approaches.

1 Elleman, A. M., & Compton, D. L. (2017). Beyond Comprehension Strategy Instruction: Whats Next? Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools,48(2), 84. doi:10.1044/2017_lshss-16-0036

References for reading strategies

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