Reading Comprehension Problems

Reading Comprehension Problems: There is reliable evidence that reading comprehension difficulty occurs frequently in children who are actually good decoders and spellers. The breakdown in reading comprehension can occur for any number of reasons, several of which are detailed below.

It's important to understand that for a child to adequately comprehend an author's written message it requires them to be able to analyze and sort through multiple layers of text meaning.

For simplicity's sake I've broken those layers down to four separate processes.

First, to properly comprehend a written passage a child must be able to decode the words on the page.

Second, the child needs to hold the information in working memory long enough for the information to be more extensively processed.

Third, the child must have adequate vocabulary, grammar and syntactical skills to organize and interpret the written message efficiently.

Fourth, the child needs to access higher order thinking skills to process the written message and go beyond the surface layer of the text and infer possible meaning.

If a breakdown occurs in one or more of these steps then the child may fail to grasp the meaning of the text, which often results in reading comprehension problems and failure.

Let's look at these processes in more detail...

Working Memory

Working memory can be thought of as a mental workspace where new information is held briefly before being transferred to higher level language and executive functions. Reading comprehension tasks can place enormous strain on a child's working memory capacity, particularly if the child has poor language skills. For more information about working memory please follow this link.


Deficits in language ability, particularly receptive language, can significantly compound students' reading comprehension problems. These are the students who on testing don't present with language disorder but have low abilities in key language areas, such as grammar, syntax and, perhaps most importantly, vocabulary knowledge.

To explore one example, problems with understanding syntactical rules can result in students not understanding the difference between simple, compound and complex sentences, which can result in confusion in understanding the author's intended meaning. This is certainly the case in non fiction text where authors, who write history and science texts, use complex and compound-complex sentences routinely to communicate more detailed and elaborate ideas.

But complex sentence use is not restricted to non-fiction text. Let's look at the following passage from Herbert & Harry by popular children's author, Pamela Allen. The story, Herbert & Harry is a grade 2-3 level text.

'Át last Herbert lay down to sleep. But even though it was very dark, and he was very tired, he could not sleep.'

The second sentence contains a compound-complex structure, which in my experience, some students find difficult to comprehend when they read it.

When asked questions about this passage, some students fail to recognize that it's 'very dark' or that 'Herbert is tired.' Certainly, the context of the story helps with comprehension in that we know Herbert is tired, and on the run from his brother. But, when read in isolation, and without context the students' understanding of this particular sentence tends to unravel.

Why does this occur?

I believe, in this instance, that reading comprehension failure is caused by the complexity of the passage and its intricate construction. The clause 'he could not sleep,'is preceded by the subordinate clause, 'But even though it was very dark,' the coordinating conjunction 'and,' and the main clause, 'he was very tired.'

As we can see, the construction of this particular sentence could quickly overload a student's working memory capacity and syntactical understanding. Even if the student had only a mild deficit in working memory and reasonable understanding of syntax.

Pamela Allen, and other authors who write for this age group, construct their passages with, at times, quite complex passages. To my mind, reading comprehension problems often occur because of students' lack of experience and knowledge with complex sentences.

This is an area that perhaps requires extra research and more targeted intervention.


Research indicates that children with reading comprehension problems have poor inference skills. To infer what's happening in a story is a vital cognitive skill. It enables the reader to go beyond surface meaning of a text and to go deep and discover the author's concealed meaning.

Of course, in children's fiction not everything on the page is concrete and literal. An important part of reading and comprehending fiction is to infer from what the author doesn't say, but hints at.

Children with poor comprehension skills don't 'read between the lines' well. Poor inferencing skills could result from poor background knowledge, weak vocabulary and semantic word knowledge, and incomplete knowledge of story grammar and prediction.

For more information about inferencing please follow this link.

To read more about vocabulary knowledge and comprehension follow this link here.


Allan, P. (1986) Herbert and Harry, Puffin Books

Gathercole, S.E. & Alloway, T.P. (2008) Working Memory and Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers Sage Publications, Ltd

Paul, R. (2006) Language Disoders form Infancy through Adolescence. Assessment and Intervention. Mosby

Wallach, G.P. (2008) Language Intervention for School-Age Students: Setting Goals for Academic Success. Mosby Elsevier

Wagner, R.K. Muse, A.E. & Tannenbaum, K.R. (2007) Vocabulary Acquisition: Implications for Reading Comprehension. The Guilford Press

Wolf, M. (2008) Proust and the Squid. The Story and Science of the Reading Brain Icon Books Ltd.

Content Last Modified 8/11

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