Some children can read aloud beautifully, but, when questioned, have no idea what they’ve just read.
Over the years, different reading experts have put forward three main theories to explain poor reading comprehension in children who have no problem decoding the words:
In a very recent paper, Mercedes Spencer, Richard Wagner and their colleagues from the Florida Centre for Reading Research and Florida State University tested the three explanations on over 425,000 students. They concluded that more than 99% of these children had general language comprehension problems. In other words, most children’s comprehension problems could be explained by theory 2.
What does this mean for parents and teachers?
It’s worth noting that the study had several limitations. For example, the researchers used only one measure of oral language skills (vocabulary); and many of the children studied were from low socio-economic backgrounds and attended schools in the US with special reading programs. However, the size of the study is compelling and the results were consistent with many previous studies looking at general language deficits.
We recommend that:
Mark is in grade 2. He can read age-appropriate books fluently. But he consistently performs poorly on reading comprehension tests.
Mark is assessed by a speech-language pathologist and diagnosed with a moderate language impairment in both oral and written language. In consultation with his teacher, the speech-language pathologist tailors a therapy program combining elements of:
Outcomes are measured to track Mark’s progress.
Principal Source: Spencer, M., Quinn, J., & Wagner, R.K. (2014). Specific Reading Comprehension Disability: Major Problem, Myth of Misnomer? Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(1), 3-9.
Reading comprehension disorder is a reading disability in which a person has trouble understanding the meaning of words and passages of writing. Sometimes, a reading comprehension disorder is diagnosed by specialists as specific reading comprehension deficit (S-RCD).
Some students with reading comprehension disorder have trouble learning to read and pronounce words, but grasping meaning from text is their main challenge. However, many students with this learning difference are fluent readers who just have trouble understanding what they are reading. If your child is able to read a passage out loud but can't tell you much about it afterward, they might have specific reading comprehension deficit.
Reading comprehension disorder is common. About 10% of school-aged kids have specific reading comprehension deficits. For many kids with S-RCD, their reading challenges are first identified around 7 or 8 years old, though they can surface later when kids are expected to analyze more complex texts. Your child could have reading comprehension disorder if they show any of the following signs:
Students who have trouble understanding what they are reading may struggle for a good part of the school day. Any class that relies on reading, understanding, and explaining written material (such as language arts, science, and history) can pose special challenges for those with reading comprehension problems.
If you believe your child has reading comprehension disorder, you'll want to have them evaluated by an expert. You can start by contacting your child's school principal or guidance counselor for information on how to request an assessment. Parents are legally entitled to have their child assessed for a learning disability that may require special education services.
Learning disability diagnostic reading tests can be used to determine what specific types of problems are affecting your child's reading skills. Through observations, analyzing your child's work, cognitive tests, and possibly a language evaluation, a specialist like a school psychologist or a neuropsychologist can assess whether your child has reading comprehension disorder.
It is also possible for teenagers and adults to have a reading comprehension learning disability that was not diagnosed in childhood. Older students should ask their school's advising office for resources for a learning disability assessment. For adults, the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) recommends contacting a psychologist, community mental health center, or an LDA chapter to find a professional who can perform an assessment.
There are a number of potential factors that can contribute to a reading comprehension problem. There are also certain disorders that put a person at higher risk for this specific type of reading disability.
Kids can have reading comprehension difficulties that relate to challenges they face with other diagnoses such as dyslexia, ADHD, or autism.
Like other learning differences, reading comprehension problems are often a hidden disability. Parents, teachers, and peers may be unaware that someone is struggling with this issue, especially when their reading proficiency seems fine otherwise.
This often means that people with reading comprehension disorder must work harder to get their work done, which can be overwhelming. Children with learning disabilities also often know they are behind their peers in certain academic areas, which can affect their self-esteem and motivation.
That's why reaching out to teachers and specialists when kids have trouble understanding what they are reading is key. If your child is found to have a learning disability like specific reading comprehension deficit (S-RCD), your child's teachers can work with you and local specialists to come up with strategies to get your child the help they need to succeed in school. These strategies should be a part of your child's individualized education plan (IEP).
Some strategies to help a child with reading comprehension disorder include:
Kids and adults who have reading comprehension disorder are no less smart than their peers. People with comprehension challenges have general learning ability that is as high as, or higher than, those without learning disabilities. They simply have a deficit in this single area.
By getting help to improve their grasp on what they read, children can become more confident and capable in school and beyond. Reading comprehension skills can influence a student's performance in the classroom and later in the workplace. Offering early interventions and providing support can help those who struggle with comprehension problems succeed—and get more enjoyment out of what they read.