The Complexity of Reading Comprehension

A simplistic view of reading comprehension is that it is text decoding plus listening comprehension. While accurate, this simple definition obscures the complexity of the comprehension process, both for reading and for listening. The drawing below illustrates some of the activities that are involved in reading comprehension.  As the drawing indicates, the reading process can be divided up into low level skills that can be performed automatically, and higher order skills that require conscious attention. In the section on developing automatic skills (1.3) there was a discussion of the importance of being automatic at identifying letters and words, and the drawing adds two additional skills to the mix: determining what words mean and performing syntactical analyses of text.

Knowledge and Reading Comprehension

Often when a skilled reader reads, particularly if the text is not complex (a romance novel for example), reading comprehension is almost an effortless process. Eyes skim over the page and the reader is aware of the meaning of what is being read and is completely unaware of letters, individual words, word definitions, and whether a word is a noun or a verb.

With more complicated reading material much more cognitive effort comes into play. First, we must have the background knowledge necessary to comprehend the text.  To illustrate this, ask yourself what the following sentence means: The notes were sour because the seam was split. If you are like the average person you draw a blank. You know what the individual words mean, but the combination of the words makes no sense.  Now I give you one word: bagpipes.  Most people now have a sense of what the sentence means.  We comprehend the sentence because we can relate the content of the sentence to something we already know.  This is a critical part of the comprehension process.  When we comprehend, we must always be able to relate what we are reading or listening to something we already know.  No relating, no comprehension.

Factors that Can Inhibit Comprehension

Automaticity and prior knowledge

We can now talk about factors that hurt comprehension, all of which are contained in the drawing above.  If you read the section on automaticity you already know one.  Low level skills that are not automated are certain to create comprehension difficulties.  The paragraph above indicates another source of comprehension difficulties.  If we do not have the necessary prior knowledge to interpret what we are reading, comprehension will be difficult.

Strategic reading

Strategic reading activities refer to the fact that we need to change how we read depending on what we are reading.  Good readers read novels different than chemistry textbooks. When a good reader reads a chemistry textbook they slow down and place a lot of emphasis on monitoring whether they understand what they are reading.  In contrast, a poor reader will often read a romance novel and a chemistry textbook the same way, not realizing the importance of changing what you do depending on the demands of the reading activity.

Analogical reasoning and problem solving

Analogical reasoning is the conscious process of relating things we are reading about to things that we already know.  That is, drawing an analogy between the new information in the text and related information that we already know.  Good readers are constantly identifying relationships between new information and know information, and this greatly enhances their ability to understand what they are reading. Sometimes the process of identifying relationships goes beyond the process of identifying analogies.  This is what is meant by the problem solving link in the drawing. Sometimes we read a description of something in a text that we cannot relate to anything we know. In this case we invoke problem solving skills that can be used to identify a solution to the dilemma posed by the text.

Inferential processes

The final link in the drawing refers to inferential processes. Inferences in reading comprehension are of two kinds; near inferences which connect two ideas that are closely separated in a text, and far inferences that connect an item of information in a text with prior knowledge information. Many near inferences, for skilled readers at least, occur automatically. We don’t think about the fact that the “Bill” mentioned in sentence one is the same person as the “he” referred to in sentence four. Skilled readers are also adept at making far inferences, easily recognizing that something under discussion is an instance of something that they already know. However, some readers with comprehension difficulties do not perform either the near or the far inferencing activities easily and this inhibits comprehension.

If You Have a Child with Reading Comprehension Problems, You Need to Find the Source of the Problem

If a parent or a teacher is working with a child who is having comprehension difficulties if is very important to identify the source of those difficulties.  For the vast majority of children, comprehension difficulties are associated with poorly developed automated skills. See the section on dyslexia information for more discussion of this source of comprehension problems.  Also, the Reading Success Laboratory Assessment Module can identify if automaticity is a problem, and Reading Success Laboratory Skill Builders can be used to strengthen poorly developed skills.

If low level skills are not a problem, the parent or teacher should identify which of the other comprehension processes illustrated in the drawing might be the source of the comprehension difficulty.

Reading Comprehension Problems and Working Memory Capacity

There is also one additional possibility that is not contained in the illustration. Some children have comprehension difficulties because of working memory deficits. This syndrome is relatively rare and it can generally be identified by administering working memory tests and by comparing listening and reading comprehension performance.  If the comprehension problem is reading specific, listening comprehension is generally superior to reading comprehension when the difficulty of the text remains constant. If there is a memory problem though, both reading and listening comprehension are often poor.