Reading Comprehension > Decoding Words

photo of girl reading book
Learning to read

Reading comprehension is one of the most complex cognitive activities in which humans engage, making it difficult to teach, measure, and research. (2)

Reading is not equal to just decoding words. In order to have excellent reading skills, children must have strong decoding skills, a strong language foundation, in addition to other cognitive skills.  Reading involves coding sounds into words in order to create a mental picture that has meaning. Reading comprehension heavily relies on language knowledge in grammar, vocabulary semantics and syntax. For example, students must understand that words have multiple meanings, and word endings matter. Therefore, reading comprehension problems can result from a variety of difficulties.

“Extracting meaning from text and forming a coherent mental model relies on the coordination of multiple cognitive processes (Kintsch, 1998 RAND Reading 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).(1)

Each person is different and their comprehension problems are caused by a unique set of weaknesses. However identifying the specific areas of weakness and targeting those areas in a comprehensive reading approach that teaches general reading strategies maybe a more time consuming, but effective approach. There is no program that teaches reading comprehension because reading  comprehension is a complex problem that takes time to effectively remediate.

Reading Comprehension Problems

For example, one client had difficulty understanding the following sentence.   “MR. McGREGOR was on his hands and knees planting young cabbages, when he jumped up and ran after Peter, waving a rake and calling out, “Stop thief!” Problems with comprehension could be the result of limited background knowledge, difficulty with vocabulary, or an inability to visualize. They might have never planted a garden, so they simply read the words and have no accompanying mental image. They might have difficulty with vocabulary or grammar. This example was taken from an actual case and the child had difficulty understanding the pronoun reference. Once he understood the rules around pronoun references, he easily understood the sentence and the rest of the story. Only by recognizing the error pattern could the appropriate rule be taught to address the problem.

Another child with reading comprehension challenges wasn’t able to visualize because they had weakness in word memory. 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 define vocabulary in text. In the case of unfamiliar vocabulary, one way is to figure out the word meaning from context. Young readers are often inefficient at this skill. The second approach young children rely on is asking nearby adults. This child asked an adult for definitions, but by the time they went back to read the sentence, they’d forgotten the definition. The end product was an inability to create a visual image, but the inability to visualize did not cause the problem. For that child, writing the meaning down or drawing a picture of the meaning helped her retain the information until she could incorporate it into the sentence, but again, that was only addressing one problem. The other skill that needed to be addressed was defining words from context.

Targeted Intervention in an Integrated Approach

Reading comprehension is a skill that demands the integration of many cognitive skills. Identifying and targeting specific problems and integrating them into the entire reading process which focuses on vocabulary, inference, and background process is one way to help struggling readers. There are also elements that would improve overall reading comprehension instruction in the classroom for all students.  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 requiring students to use reading strategies in all academic classes. If all academic subjects taught in schools focused on using reading strategies when reading text students would be required to practice their skills.  In order to solve reading comprehension difficulties, one must encompass a broad range of skills, target areas of weakness in a broad holistic reading approach, and consciously and consistently teach strategies that improve reading comprehension in all subject areas starting in elementary school.

An early and sustained focus on developing background knowledge, vocabulary, inference, and comprehension monitoring skills is necessary to improve reading comprehension across grade levels. (2)

Reading Comprehension Focused Strategies

Vocabulary/Word memory – Play word memory games Going on a picnic etc things that encourage memorizing words

Background knowledge – How does what I am reading relate to what I know?

Reread and Summarize – After each sentence summarize and reread as needed

Visualize –  Create your own movie – mental image ( What image do the words create? What does the character look like? etc)

Monitor and repair ( while reading) STOP if something doesn’t make sense and reread

Additional strategies

References for reading strategies

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

2 Elleman, A. M., & Oslund, E. L. (2019, March). Reading comprehension research: Implications for … – sage journals. Retrieved October 31, 2022

Published by Kai Long

Kai currently lives in MA and is interested in collaborating with others to develop a deeper understanding of our speech and language needs.