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Comprehending Reading Comprehension

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Image of three books open on a table with stacks of books in the background.How many parents and professionals have experienced the following scenario? The child in question is reading very fluently (Landi & Ryherd, 2017) but comprehending very little of what s/he is reading.  Attempts at remediation follow (oftentimes without the administration of a comprehensive assessment) with a focus on reading texts and answering text-related questions. However, much to everyone’s dismay the problem persists and worsens over time. The child’s mental health suffers as a result since numerous studies show that reading deficits including dyslexia are associated with depression, anxiety, attention, as well as behavioral problems (Arnold et al., 2005; Knivsberg & Andreassen, 2008; Huc-Chabrolle, et al, 2010; Kempe, Gustafson, & Samuelsson, 2011Boyes, et al, 2016;   Livingston et al, 2018).

Sadly, the above scenario is far from unique but occurs rather frequently. That is because many professionals providing intervention to children with reading comprehension deficits, fail to grasp that reading comprehension is not a unitary skill but rather a collection of skills  (Gray, 2017) that require mastery prior to improvement taking place.

So what skills are involved in reading comprehension? In the words of Helen Lester’s Pookins, “Lots!”  Let’s begin with a very important fact that having solid language abilities will strongly influence reading comprehension outcomes (ClarkeSnowlingTruelove, & Hulme, 2010). But I am not merely speaking about oral vocabulary knowledge, which is of course hugely important for reading comprehension (Ouellette & Shaw. 2014). I am talking about strong discourse and narrative abilities, from an early age onwards, which significantly positively correlate with reading comprehension abilities (Catts, Fey, Tomblin, & Zhang 2002; Dickinson & McCabe, 2001; Griffin, Hemphill, Camp, & Wolf, 2004).  Thus, it is very important to keep in mind that good reading comprehension is heavily reliant on the following areas of language: phonology, morphology, syntaxsemantics, and pragmatics.

So what does it mean for learners diagnosed with Developmental Language  Disorder (DLD)? Well, studies show that their reading comprehension abilities will show weaknesses, which is why it would be important to improve those abilities explicitly in the context of language and literacy therapy services (Gough KenyonPalikara, & Lucas 2018).

Hence, parents and professionals need to be mindful of “illusory recovery” or  “a time period when the students with early language disorders seem to catch up with their typically developing peers” by undergoing a “spurt” in language learning, which is followed by a “post spurt plateau”. Due to their ongoing deficits and an increase in academic demands “many children with early language disorders fail to “outgrow” these difficulties or catch up with their typically developing peers” (Sun & Wallach, 2014). As such, if a formerly discharged from language therapy student begins to display reading comprehension difficulties, it is very important to reassess their language abilities in order to determine the extent to which their covert language deficits are contributing to their reading comprehension issues.

Image result for reading rope readign comprehensionSo yes, having strong foundational language skills is hugely important for developing good reading comprehension abilities, but that is only the very beginning in a very long list of skills needed for reading comprehension mastery.

Image result for memory attention and processingLet’s discuss cognitive factors for a moment. Memory, attention, and processing play another very significant role in reading comprehension. Working memory (WM) is the memory used for temporarily storing and manipulating information so we can perform a particular task. Its two important subcomponents are a phonological loop that stores verbal information and a visuo-spatial ‘sketchpad’ which stores visual and spatial information (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Together these components are responsible for the acquisition of sound-letter correspondence, phonemic awareness and ultimately reading comprehension. So what does that mean for readers with working memory deficits? Students with poor working memory will expend all their capacity on basic tasks such as decoding, which leaves them with very little capacity to devote to the comprehension of read text (Nouwens, Groen, & Verhoeven, 2017)

Now let us move on to the role of attention in reading. If one “zones out” during reading tasks, becomes distracted, and attends poorly to text, their comprehension of read text will be adversely affected. To illustrate, studies on reading abilities of children with ADHD consistently identify their reading comprehension abilities as being poorer as compared to peers without the ADHD diagnosis (Miller et al, 2013).

Finally, there’s processing speed which refers to the speed of task completion with accuracy. The tasks provided to the child can be visual (e.g., rapidly naming colors, numbers, letters, etc during RAN/RAS assessment), or verbal (asked to answer a question, summarize information, etc).  Children with slow processing speed may take a significantly longer time decoding text (Landerl et al, 2018). This, in turn, will affect how well they comprehend the read text.  Together, memory, attention, and processing will affect not only the comprehension of read text but also the child’s ability to respond to open-ended concrete and abstract reading comprehension questions regarding the presented text.

Now that we have covered the role of impaired language abilities as well as memory, attention, and processing led us move on to cover numerous other components of reading comprehension. On the surface, reading comprehension involves understanding the meaning of the read text. However, there are numerous fundamental skills required for the readers to meaningfully understand they read as confirmed by a reliable assessment means. Of course, it is important to reiterate once again that in this post I am referencing specifically fluent readers. These are children who can decode the text accurately in a reasonable timeframe. This is important to reiterate because additional deficit areas will be present for non-fluent readers as related to reading comprehension.

To continue, to be good comprehenders, children need to know the meanings of numerous literate vocabulary words (abstract nouns, metacognitive verbs, etc.), and not just in isolation but in the context of read text (Nippold Hegel , & Sohlberg  1999; Nippold, 2006). This is once again a challenge for children with undiagnosed language deficits. On the surface, they may present with seemingly excellent vocabulary repertoires. However, when asked to define more abstract vocabulary words, use them in the context of discourse or reading comprehension tasks, parents and professionals become highly surprised to see how poorly these kids actually perform.

Image result for background knowledgeFar more important than even vocabulary is the role of background knowledge in his reading comprehension. Specifically, the knowledge threshold or “precisely how much knowledge is necessary to understand a text and whether there is a specific amount of knowledge required before understanding is compromised” (O’Reilly, Wang & Sabatini, 2019, p. 1) For example,  these authors identified that a quantifiable point of 59% correct on a knowledge test “resulted in a qualitative change in the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension” (pg. 5). They also found that certain vocabulary words (activation words) were more predictive of exceeding the knowledge threshold than others.  In this study, students who attained the highest, above threshold scores, had knowledge of all the activation words, which the authors hypothesized “activated information described previously in the text as well as relevant background knowledge not included in the texts” (pg. 6).  But this information should be interpreted with significant caution. This is because the authors stated that some of the limitations of their study included testing students on only one topic (ecology). This means that we need additional studies to investigate student performance on a variety of other topics. Additionally, student performance was measured only by “topical-vocabulary choice and factual multiple choice” questions. This is a concern because given certain texts and tasks, even students who perform poorly on tests of reading comprehension can perform well. To illustrate, if poor readers are asked to take a multiple-choice test about a passage they are familiar with; poor readers can perform better than good readers who are asked to read and summarize a topic they know nothing about  (e.g., Recht & Leslie, 1988 in Catts & Kamhi, 2014).

This brings us to the two hugely important determiners of reading comprehension: the ability to coherently and cohesively state the main ideas of read texts, as well as cogently summarize read texts. This is a monumental area of difficulty for children with language as well as social communication disorders (Fitch, Fein, & Eigsti, 2015) secondary to deficits in the area of Gestalt Processing (the ability to grasp the “big picture” vs. over-focusing on irrelevant details) (Brosnan et al, 2004). 

Image result for making inferencesBut there are still more skills needed for good comprehension. Good readers constantly make inferences regarding read text. “Inference making is the process of integrating information within text and between the text and one’s general knowledge of the topic” (O’Brien, Cook, & Lorch, 2015 in Barth & Elleman, 2017, pg. 31) Good readers make two types of inferences during reading to help them fill the gaps in text. These are text-based inferences, which link current information to previously read information, as well as knowledge-based inferences which integrate currently read information with one’s prior knowledge of the topic (Barth & Elleman, 2017, pg. 31). Making inferences also allows readers to make sense of adjacent sentences as well as of the overall text (local and global coherence respectively) (Kendeou, 2015McNamara & Magliano, 2009 in Barth & Elleman, 2017, pg. 31) Hence, students with difficulties in the areas of inference making are at a significant disadvantage with respect to comprehension of read text (Cain &  Oakhill, 1999).

Good readers are also adept at following and grasping passage organization or text structure (e.g., descriptive, chronological, cause/effect, compare/contrast, primacy or the order of importance, problem/solution, sequencing or steps of a process, etc.).  Readers who lack this ability need to be explicitly taught. But the good news is that we have multiple studies with information on how to improve this ability (Roehling et al 2017).

In addition to the above, students also need to have a good grasp of the numerous literary devices (e.g., foreshadowing, allusion, imagery, juxtaposition, flashbacks, symbolism, etc) used by authors of various texts.  Similarly, they need to grasp the mood of each text as well as to determine the writer’s purpose for writing the text.

It is also very important to explicitly point out that there are significant differences found between various texts even at the same grade level. To illustrate, fourth grade-level language arts passages may contain far simpler literate vocabulary words as compared to social studies and science texts containing esoteric vocabulary and explaining technical topics (e.g., electricity). Similarly, fictional texts also possess various complexity. Poetry contains a number of literary devices and as such is much more difficult to analyze than a simpler fictional text.

I could write on and on, as there’s still a great deal more to say regarding many other skills pertaining to reading comprehension, but for the sake of practicality, I would like to stop right here in order to address some of the effective ways good reading comprehension can be reliably measured.  This in itself is of course yet another problem as different tests of reading comprehension have been found to measure different abilities (Keenan et al, 2008).

Image result for gort-5First of all, all standardized tests of reading possess limitations. To illustrate, the Test of Reading Comprehension Fourth Edition (TORC-4) assesses untimed reading comprehension abilities primarily via multiple-choice questions of reduced complexity. This allows for score over inflation as even poor readers have the opportunity to guess the correct answers 25% of the time. Furthermore, the presence of certain words in multiple-choice responses may trigger the student to correctly choose that answer even in the presence of poor reading fluency and reading comprehension skills. In contrast to the TORC – 4, the Gray Oral Reading Tests – Fifth Edition (GORT-5), is a timed reading test that assesses reading fluency (rate and accuracy) as well as reading comprehension via open-ended questions. Unfortunately, it is also not without certain limitations. Many of the answers to the open-ended questions can be guessed if the student possesses some adequate background knowledge and vocabulary awareness.

So what is the best way to assess reading comprehension? For starters, standardized reading assessments such as the GORT-5 or the TORC-4, etc, are a good start to establish basic reading competence and ensure that the student has a solid mastery of foundational basics. Clinical grade-level reading assessment is the next step as it allows the clinicians to determine the student’s reading abilities on a deep vs. shallow level.

Image result for summarizeThe most effective way is via the following methods:

  1. Asking abstract verbal reasoning questions
  2. Asking to define literate vocabulary words
  3. Asking to state the main idea of the passage
  4. Asking to summarize the passage

The above methods will reveal a true understanding of passage content. In contrast, multiple-choice questions and factual open-ended questions will tap into the student’s shallow knowledge of the passage and may result in an illusion that the student understands the passage,  but are not adequate enough to ascertain true comprehension of passage content.

There you have it! Now that you know the skills involved in reading comprehension you understand what a monumental role strong language abilities, play in it. This is exactly why speech-language pathologists should be integral members of every team involved in assessment and remediation of students with reading comprehension deficits! Reading comprehension involves mastering a highly complex set of skills that goes far beyond answering comprehension questions based on text. So now that you know that, go out there and create truly meaningful goals in order to serve the students on your caseloads in the most evidenced way possible!

For more evidence-based information pertaining to assessment and treatment of reading cmprehesnion difficulties, visit the SLPs for Evidence-Based Practice group on Facebook.


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8 thoughts on “Comprehending Reading Comprehension

  1. Sadly, even when brought to their attention about the illusory recovery for many students, SLP’s often don’t have the skills or even a stepping point into remediating higher order language skills and this jams up SPED case loads. I know SLPs are busy and overtaxed, but for those students not remediated properly and early enough – it is no wonder the numbers on remediating students past 2nd grade are so dismal.

    1. I absolutely agree with you! That’s why the Power Up Conference that I run with Adriana Lavi focuses only on how to provide the most functional assessment and remediation so these strategies are available to all SLPs to maximize client outcomes.

  2. Amazing post! So much wonderful information!

  3. As usual this article is right on target. I will be digesting it further. I would also like to point out that I have worked with hyper-lexic students who are very fluent but have no idea what they have just read. Also autistic students have great difficulty with referents while reading. They do not know who the various pronouns refer to in the story so they cannot get the gist of what is happening. I have had to backtrack and teach pronouns, then introduce in simple sentences with nouns. In fact I am working with a student now on this. I agree that we have so much to “bring to the table” and I am glad to say I am a member of the team as I collaborate with our reading specialists in my school. However, reading comprehension is complicated and I appreciate all your articles that are shedding more light on this.

  4. This article came at the perfect time. I have a HS dyslexic student whose decoding and oral reading abilities are almost on grade level but his comprehension skills are still stuck several grade levels behind. I am rereading and digesting the information in your article so I can better help his reading elective teacher, case manager, and parents better understand his growth and how we move forward.

    Question.. In the following paragraph, “Readers who lack this disability needed to be explicitly taught.” Should it read ability instead of disability?

    “Good readers are also adept at following and grasping passage organization or text structure (e.g., descriptive, chronological, cause/effect, compare/contrast, primacy or the order of importance, problem/solution, sequencing or steps of a process, etc.). Readers who lack this disability needed to be explicitly taught. But the good news is that we have multiple studies with information on how to improve this ability (Roehling et al 2017).”

    1. Thank you for poin8ng out the typo which was corrected.

  5. This is spot-on. However, our district insists that language services, even as a related service for those students who do not have SLI eligibility, are not provided, unless they find an oral language deficiency via their language testing. (CELF-5 and CASL-2) They do not see their SLPs having a role in working with students with reading and writing difficulties. Info on ASHA website even seems to agree with this, although perhaps to a lesser degree.

    1. The problem with both CELF-5 and CASL-2 is they both possess psychometric limitations and are not necessarily the best tools to detect oral language deficits. Info on the ASHA website actually strongly supports the role of SLPs in reading and writing. I even created a document which actually outlines this information, which is available here

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