Is it Really Poor Comprehension?

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The number one reason that students score poorly on reading comprehension assessments is because they can’t decode.  If you can’t accurately read the words in the text, then it will be impossible to accurately comprehend the message being conveyed.

Students may also present as having poor comprehension when in fact they have poor working memory.  If students are not permitted to look back into the text they have just read to assist in finding the answer, it could well be that their working memory is being tested and not their comprehension of the text.  It is also worthwhile keeping in mind that it is much more difficult to comprehend text that has been read aloud compared to text that has been read silently.

Assuming that a student really does have poor comprehension (as opposed to poor decoding skills or a poor working memory), the most common underlying areas of weakness are poor vocabulary knowledge and/or poor general knowledge.

If the meaning of a high proportion of the words in the text are not understood (this is often true of technical texts) then it will be impossible to understand the text as a whole, even if you can accurately read the words.  In contrast, if the majority of words in a sentence are known, it is often possible to deduce the meaning of the unknown word(s). For example, read this sentence:

We huddled inside the quinzhee that we had made from the soft snow.

If you didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘quinzhee’ you could surmise that given that you ‘huddled inside’ and that it was ‘made from snow’ that it was some kind of shelter made from snow.  Of course, you could also be wrong!

Good vocabulary knowledge also requires the reader to know the often multiple meanings of a word and then to be able to select the correct meaning in the context of the sentence and passage being read. Think of the word ‘blue’.  Blue can be a colour, but it can also refer to royalty (as in blue blood) or being sad (as in feeling blue) or having an argument.

It is also important to have a wide general knowledge beyond the basic meaning of a word.  Read these sentences:

It was Mother’s Day on Sunday. Sue wondered if her mother would like a necklace. She gave the jeweller her bankcard, but he soon handed back the card, shook his head and said, “Payment declined.”

To understand this passage, you need to know that it is a common convention to give your mother a present on Mother’s day.  There is no mention of the word ‘present’ you have to make the connection yourself. You need to know that you can buy a necklace from a jeweller and that payment can be made using a bankcard.  You would also need to know that if you don’t have sufficient money in your account, you will not be able to use the bankcard to make the payment. You might then infer that now Sue has a problem and that she might feel upset.  We could also make some predictions as to what she might do next.  A skilled reader needs all this background knowledge to understand the text and the reasons for the characters’ actions.

Good comprehension also requires you to understand the words connecting sentences and parts of sentences (conjunctions). Compare the following:

Tom was upset. He submitted his assignment late.
Tom was upset because he submitted his assignment late.
Tom was upset so he submitted his assignment late.

In the first sentence we don’t know why Tom was upset or why he submitted his assignment late.  In the second sentence, the conjunction ‘because’ tells the reader why Tom was upset (but we don’t know why he submitted his assignment late).  In the third sentence, the conjunction ‘so’ tells the reader why Tom submitted his assignment late (but we don’t know why he was upset).

Lastly, it is important to look at the type of comprehension questions being asked. The most basic type of comprehension is literal comprehension in which the answers to the questions can be determined simply by looking back in the text. However, good comprehenders can infer the author’s intentions and synthesise and make sense of the text. They can also incorporate their own knowledge and values to evaluate the text. Thus, there are many factors to consider in determining a student’s comprehension skills.

Check out the Cracking the ABC Code Reading for Comprehension programs.

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook. Routledge: New York.