Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading-Research Monday: Reading Comprehension Difficulties: Where Do They Come From?


Since the purpose of reading is to gain meaning from texts, comprehension is essential to the act of reading.  If someone can read every word but lacks understanding after he has finished a passage, few would call that real reading.  Whether it is for pleasure or for academic learning, comprehending what is read is a vital component to the reading process.  However, this is an area where many struggle.  

Comprehension Difficulties: The Usual Suspects

When a person struggles to comprehend texts, his ability to decode words and his vocabulary (or more precisely his lack of those skills) are often the first to be blamed.  It is true that insufficient decoding skills and a poor vocabulary create comprehension troubles.  Certain groups of students encounter these types of comprehension difficulties more than others.  For example, Joan Sedita points out in Effective Vocabulary Instruction that students with limited or no knowledge of English, students who do not read outside of school, students with reading and learning disabilities, and students who enter school with limited vocabulary and reading skills have a more difficult time building their vocabularies.  Since vocabulary and comprehension are related, this puts those students at a direct disadvantage.

While decoding and vocabulary issues can be the cause of reading comprehension problems, they are not the only reasons, and others often go over looked.

Comprehension Difficulties: Other Reasons

Published through the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, Isabel L. Beck's Five Problems with Children's Comprehension in the Primary Grades highlights both decoding skills (word attack) and vocabulary skills (word meaning) as sources of comprehension problems.  However, Beck also discusses three other areas:
  • Fluency
    • Comprehension is impeded by halted, non-automatic, monotone, and/or hesitated reading
  • Syntactic Structures
    • While most students understand the syntactic structures present in oral language, the cues and contexts they use when speaking with another person are not inherently present in print
  • Background Knowledge
    • Students may lack the schema necessary to fully understand a given passage; this can particularly be seen when children encounter unfamiliar names and are not able to connect that it is a person doing the specific action
Nell K. Duke of Michigan State University presented Comprehension Difficulties at the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement's Summer Institute. Duke's presentation confirms Beck's conclusions while also adding in other possibilities for reading comprehension difficulties including:
  • Poor Short-Term and/or Working Memory
  • Difficulties with Oral Language
    • Speech and Language Impairments
    • Limited English Proficiency
  • Difficulties with Written Language
  • Lack of Reading Engagement
  • Lack or Poor Use of Strategies
    • Comprehension Related
    • Word Attack Related
  • Self-Regulatory Issues 
    • Lack of Metacognition

In all of the above examples, meaning of the text is lost as students struggle to form an understanding.

It is essential that teachers not only recognize reading comprehension difficulties in students, but teachers also need to understand that these difficulties can stem from different places.  One blanket approach to increasing reading comprehension will not work.  Specific interventions need to be chosen to meet students' needs.  

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