For many students, the start of the new school year brings increased academic challenges. As students progress into the upper elementary grades and beyond, one of the most frequent concerns expressed by teachers and parents are difficulties with reading comprehension. Difficulties with reading comprehension are not always apparent in the earlier grades simply because the student is still learning to read. However, by third grade, there is a critical shift in expectations where the student is required to “read to learn”. Many students experience difficulty making this shift and initially may be able to rely on background knowledge and context to facilitate their comprehension of printed text. However, as the material becomes less familiar, they are no longer able to use background knowledge and contextual cues to make connections to the text and reading comprehension difficulties become more apparent. In order to appropriately address reading comprehension concerns, one must first consider the underlying causes of the difficulty.
Difficulties with reading comprehension are often a result of:
- Poor reading fluency. Reading fluency includes both reading speed and reading accuracy. Students who demonstrate a slower reading speed and/or who make frequent errors when reading demonstrate deficits in their reading fluency. This means that more mental effort is required during the decoding process leaving very little room for understanding. Weak decoding skills are often the main cause of difficulties with reading comprehension. Improvements in reading fluency often result in improved comprehension.
- Weak language skills. We often see students who seem to be reading well but continue to have poor comprehension of the material. Often the culprit is weak overall language skills. While the student may not demonstrate difficulty in everyday communication and conversations, they have difficulty with some higher-level language skills which limit their ability to understand the material they are reading. Higher level language skills include difficulty understanding figurative language, symbolism, multiple meaning words, and vocabulary not typically used in conversation. These students have difficulty “reading between the lines” and struggle to make inferences and predictions which further limits their comprehension. These students often go unrecognized in the classroom because their oral reading appears accurate and fluent and it is assumed that with these skills in place- they should be comprehending. Teachers and parents may assume difficulties are due to difficulty with attention, poor motivation or lack of effort.
Regardless of the underlying cause, deficits in reading comprehension can have long term consequences including:
- Reduced interest in reading for pleasure which results slowed vocabulary growth and knowledge deficits.
- Oral and written language skills are impacted due to reduced exposure to higher level language present in text but not in conversational language.
- Homework takes longer and grades don’t match the effort expended
- Self-esteem diminishes as students are criticized for “not trying hard enough”
How do speech language pathologists support students with reading comprehension difficulties?
- The first step is an evaluation to determine the main cause of their underlying comprehension difficulty as this will determine the most effective intervention approach. Do they need support with decoding skills or language?
- Students with weak language comprehension benefit from targeted language intervention that focuses on higher level language skills that are often not used in everyday language including figurative language, inferencing, predicting, understanding ambiguous language and multiple meaning words, using contextual cues, and support for advanced vocabulary development.
- Direct instruction in study skills and use of technology to support reading comprehension and homework completion
Benefits of supporting reading comprehension:
Without reading comprehension, reading loses its very purpose: to help us learn and acquire knowledge. Supporting your child’s reading comprehension is really a gift that keeps on giving throughout your child’s life span. In addition to acquiring knowledge, oral and written language skills continue to develop with exposure to new ideas and vocabulary in printed text. Improved comprehension allows for more academic success and also creates enjoyment in reading for pleasure. The best gift of all is allowing your child access to unlimited new experiences and emotions by getting lost in some great books!