How language skills impact reading development: Part II

Reading can be separated into two domains: word reading and reading comprehension. This second post of two will discuss how reading comprehension skills depend on the development of semantics and grammar.

Reading comprehension and semantics

Learning words involves acquiring information about the phonological features of the word and the meaning (semantics) of the word. Reading comprehension then involves integrating these two understandings into a coherent and complete mental model of the text.

Poor comprehenders

Poor comprehenders typically have deficiencies in understanding what they have read, but intact phonological and decoding skills. For some, effortful semantic processing may leave limited cognitive resources available for making meaning at word and sentence level, while others may have deficits in integrating meaning across the whole text.

Poor comprehenders may not have a specific problem just with reading comprehension, but deficits in a wide range of language skills such as vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension and grammatical skills. Studies have shown that students with persisting language impairments are those that also fit the “poor comprehender” profile.

Reading comprehension and grammar

Grammatical knowledge is the implicit knowledge used to extract meaning from sentences through cues including ‘word order, grammatical morphemes, and function words such as relative pronouns, conjunctions and modals’ (Kamhi & Catts, 2002, p.54). This knowledge aids word recognition, inferencing, predicting, comprehension monitoring and error detection and correction; all of which support comprehension. Grammatical difficulties impair sentence comprehension which in turn impedes text comprehension as a whole. Some studies have found however, that the link between grammar and reading comprehension is indirect and cannot be separated out from the effect of vocabulary knowledge and memory.

What does this mean from a practical perspective?

For those children already at school age with literacy difficulties, identification of oral language and literacy skill strengths and weaknesses are imperative in order to determine the best path forward in terms of remediation.

Interventions that include a focus on oral language skills as well as narrative skills, story structure knowledge and inference making have been found to be the most effective in aiding reading comprehension. Interventions focussing on oral language skills have significantly improved poor comprehenders’ expressive vocabulary, and have led to long-lasting improvement in their reading comprehension abilities.

Furthermore, interventions such as Colourful Semantics (Bryan, 1997) and Shape Coding (Ebbels, 2007, Ebbels, Van Der Lely & Dockrell, 2007) which link vocabulary learning with sentence production and grammatical awareness have demonstrated an improvement in the grammar of children with language impairments.

Success! You're on the list.


Adams, C., & Bishop, D. V. M. (1990). A prospective study of the relationship between specific language impairment, phonological disorders and reading retardation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31(7), 1027–1050.

Bryan, A. (1997). Colourful semantics: Thematic role therapy. In S. Chiat, J. Law & J. Marshall (eds.), Language Disorders in Children and Adults: Psycholinguistic Approaches to Therapy (pp.143-161). London: Whurr.

Cain, K. & Oakhill, J. (2007). Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language. New York: The Guildford Press.

Cain, K. (2007). Syntactic awareness and reading ability: Is there any evidence for a special relationship? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28(4), 679–694.

Clarke, P. J., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating Children’s Reading-Comprehension Difficulties. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1106–1116.

Ebbels, S. H., Van Der Lely, H. K. J. & Dockrell, J. E., (2007). Intervention for verb argument structure in children with persistent SLI: a randomized control trial. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50, 1330–1349.

Ebbels, S. H., (2007). Teaching grammar to school-aged children with specific language impairment using shape coding. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 23, 67–93.

Fricke, S., Bowyer-Crane, C., Haley, A. J., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2013). Efficacy of language intervention in the early years. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 54(3),

Kamhi, A. G. & Catts, H. W. (2002). The language basis of reading: Implications for classification and treatment of children with reading disabilities. In K., G. Butler & E., R. Silliman (eds.) Speaking Reading and Writing in Children with Language and Learning Disabilities (pp.45-72). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stothard, S. E., & Hulme, C. (1992). Reading comprehension difficulties in children – The role of language comprehension and working memory skills. Reading and Writing, 4(3), 245–256.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: