What causes reading comprehension problems?

In this post we will discuss what causes reading comprehension problems. We will argue that comprehension problems are caused by poor oral language skills and discuss two of those skills- semantics and grammar. Poor oral language skills can also impact word reading development, which we discuss in another post.

What is semantics?

Learning words involves acquiring information about the phonological (or sound) 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.

The relationship between reading comprehension problems and semantics

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.

What is 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).

The relationship between reading comprehension problems and grammar

Grammar 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?

We have argued that poor oral language skills can cause reading comprehension problems. 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.

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