“I don’t understand what I’m reading” – reading comprehension problems (and what to do about them)

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The whole point of reading – for education, work, social activities, self-improvement, community participation, or entertainment – is of course to understand the words that you’re reading. Reading comprehension is crucial for success at school and life.

Reading comprehension depends on two main things:

  • word decoding skills (the ability to convert print into sound and to read fluently); and
  • listening comprehension skills.

How do we know?

The Simple View of Reading

Since the mid-1980s, reading researchers have found good quality evidence to support what is known as the ‘Simple View of Reading’ (e.g. Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990; and Garcia & Cain, 2014). According to this theory, understanding written text is the product of decoding and listening comprehension. This theory (which is actually far from simple) implies that:

  • when decoding skills are poor, they limit reading comprehension; and
  • when decoding skills are stronger, listening comprehension becomes a more important influence on reading comprehension than decoding.

Examples: A tale of two struggling readers; and what can get in the way of reading comprehension

  • Jake struggles to ‘decode’ text, and has significant reading difficulties, perhaps even dyslexia. He has to expend lots of effort to convert each printed word (‘elephant’) and its letters (‘e-l-e-ph-a-n-t’) into speech sounds (/ɛ-l-ə-f-ə-n-t/) and syllables (/ɛ-lə-fənt/). He then struggles to blend the speech sounds together to read the words fluently (/ɛləfənt/, ‘elephant’). When decoding text is such a struggle, it’s no wonder that Jake’s comprehension suffers!
  • Laura is pretty good at decoding the words on the page into speech, but, when quizzed, struggles to remember or explain what she’s read. She also sometimes has problems following complex directions in the classroom. At times, she fails to read between the lines and has a limited vocabulary. Her mum thinks she might even have hyperlexia.

Both Jake and Laura score poorly on reading comprehension measures on standardised reading assessments. But, unfortunately, many reading interventions treat them the same way.

What do we mean by listening comprehension (and why does it matter)?

‘Listening comprehension’ is often used by researchers when talking about the Simple View of Reading because Gough and Tunmer used the term in their original paper. It’s a shame, because the term isn’t technically ‘a thing’. What the researchers mean is oral language comprehension, otherwise known as ‘oral receptive language‘.

A recent 5-year longitudinal study of almost 200 Norwegian school children – starting when the kids were in Year 2 and ending in Year 7 – found that variations in reading comprehension amongst the children were almost completely explained by differences in:

  • decoding skills; and
  • listening comprehension skills.

The researchers found that differences amongst the children in listening comprehension were almost entirely explained (95% explained) by a factor defined by:

The researchers also found that oral language comprehension was a predictor of early and later growth of reading comprehension skills (Lervåg et al., 2017 – see citation below).

The findings of this study sit well with the:

  • Simple View of Reading; and
  • growing body of evidence showing that improvements in oral language skills lead directly to improvements in reading comprehension, both with younger and older children (e.g. Fricke et al., 2013; Clarke et al., 2010).

Note, however, that the Lervåg study had some limitations. For example, the Norwegian alphabet and spelling system are simpler than their English counterparts; and it’s unclear how easily the findings can be applied in countries where English is the main language.

Clinical bottom line: How to help readers with poor reading comprehension skills

  • Anybody struggling to understand what they read – such as Jake and Laura above – should have a comprehensive reading assessment covering the Big 5 skills needed to read successfully. But they should also have their oral language skills assessed by a speech-language pathologist; in particular, to assess their receptive oral language skills.
  • Decoding problems can be a bottleneck for the development of reading comprehension skills. As a priority, readers like Jake who struggle to decode text should receive evidence-based treatments to improve their decoding. (The Lervåg study found that even fairly small gains in decoding skills for poor readers can have big effects on reading comprehension.)
  • Readers like Laura who have relatively good decoding skills but poor reading comprehension should be treated with interventions focusing on improving a broad set of oral language skills, including grammar/syntax, morphological awareness, narrative skills, and inference making.

Related articles:

Principal source: Lervåg, A., Hulme, C., Melby-Lervåg, M. (2017). Unpicking the Developmental Relationship between Oral Language Skills and Reading Comprehension: It’s Simple, but Complex. Child Development, in press, published online on 12 June 2017, see abstract here.

Image: http://tinyurl.com/yayukqqe

Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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