Reading comprehension

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Today is one of those days when I wonder whether the education system really has redefined “literate” to mean “can turn pages”.

Good language comprehension, poor decoding

I’ve just come back from a secondary school where there is a student who recently got an A for English.

Just one small problem. She can’t read.

Well, she can read many high-frequency words, look at the first letter and guess from context, look at some of the other letters and see if she can think of a word that sort-of-approximates the one on the page. These are all things she has probably been systematically taught.

However, when reading, she makes constant mistakes, can’t tackle new words, and doesn’t persist (fair enough) or read for enjoyment. Reading is always a chore, and instead of reading books being studied in class herself, she gets the audio book. She doesn’t have any problem with language comprehension, her problem is getting the words off the page (decoding).

The most likely reason for this is that she wasn’t able to crack the complex English spelling code for herself as a young child, and so far nobody’s taught it to her, explicitly and systematically.

Poor language comprehension, good decoding

I wasn’t actually at the school today to see the student who can’t read, I was there to see another, senior student who does have severe difficulties with language comprehension.

This student has a severe Specific Language Impairment (normal intelligence but severely impaired speaking and listening), and I worked fairly intensively with him when he was in primary school, along with one of the world’s most fabulous integration aides. So I found it a little hard not to give him a bear hug today like a mad auntie (“So tall! So handsome! I remember when you were in Prep!” etc), but managed to restrain myself.

This student can decode written language, and encode too, but that didn’t happen by chance, it took a lot of hard work. His aide and I high-fived each other in the staffroom the day he got the top mark on a Grade 4 spelling test. I designed the first version of the teaching materials in this website’s shop for him and a couple of other students with Specific Language Impairment, because I couldn’t find materials that were fine-grained and phonetically accurate enough to help them crack our spelling code.

At one stage during a listening task today, he said “Oh this is hard, I wish I could read it”, and of course he couldn’t easily explain why that would be easier (because he has a Specific Language Impairment) but it’s because written language is visual and permanent, whereas spoken language is auditory and transient, so harder for him to access.

When this student learnt to read and spell, this boosted his listening and speaking.

Poor language comprehension, poor decoding

Students with Specific Language Impairment usually have weak phonemic awareness, so unless they are actively taught how to hear sounds in words and systematically learn the spellings that represent them, they often fail to learn to read and spell.

This means they often drop out of school early and are at high risk of unemployment, poverty and getting on the wrong side of the law – see this earlier blog post.

Every school of any size has students with Specific Language Impairment, but where I live these days, they just about have to be stabbing their classmates with scissors, absconding from excursions, hearing the voices of aliens or unable to get dressed independently to get additional support at school. The eligibility goalposts have simply been moved to an impossible location.

The student I saw today was lucky to start school when funding to meet his needs – such as regular speech therapy, and an integration aide – was available.

Bad luck for the kids with Specific Language Impairment coming through nowadays, especially if they’re not being taught synthetic phonics in their early years classrooms, if their school speech pathologist has a caseload of six, eight or even more schools, and their parents can’t read themselves, or don’t speak English. They are at high risk of illiteracy, and this in turn means they can’t use written language to boost their oral language, and help them get through school.


Years ago I worked in a Special Developmental School with many students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and severe intellectual disabilities. One teenage girl could speak a little bit, but only did so to get her basic needs met, and still needed lots of assistance with basic daily life skills like showering, dressing and making herself a sandwich. She could only follow very short spoken instructions e.g. “Get your shoes” but not “Get your shoes and put them in your bag”.

However, this girl could read. You could write “antidisestablishmentarianism” on a piece of paper, put it in front of her, and she’d read it out loud. Good decoding in the absence of comprehension is sometimes called “hyperlexia” or, dismissively, “barking at print”. It’s essentially the opposite of “dyslexia” – a “hyperlexic” can read but not understand, a “dyslexic” can understand spoken language, but not read.

This student’s good decoding, however, proved valuable in teaching her how to use language for social purposes. I’d sidle up behind her with pen and paper as she approached people in the morning and scribble, for example, “hello Chris”, hold it in front of her, and she’d read it aloud. After a while, she started to get the idea that when you arrive at school in the morning, you’re meant to say “hello (name)” to everyone, not just ignore them.

It’s sometimes claimed that many people on the Autism spectrum have remarkable reading skills (e.g. two-year-olds who can read) because they have memorised words they’ve seen around them, on the TV, in the supermarket and so on, as well as in books.

I wondered about this because I was pretty sure that this student had never seen words like “antidisestablishmentarianism” before, so one day while we were waiting for a bus to take us on excursion, I made up some nonsense words (cloop, squibble, nangapong etc), wrote them on a piece of paper and showed it to her.

She couldn’t have memorised these words, because I had just made them up, yet she was able to read them all without difficulty. It was clear from the way she did it that she was sounding them out, sound by sound, syllable by syllable.

We’re all hyperlexic in Tetum

Come to think of it, I’m hyperlexic in the Roman script languages I don’t speak, which is all of them except English, Spanish and a little French. You probably are too.

I was in Timor Leste last year as an election observer, and could read the road signs, menus, shop signs and ballot papers (like the one in this photo) in both Tetum and Portuguese, plus the occasional things that are still written in Bahasa Indonesia. I didn’t understand much, but I could look at most words and say them aloud, more or less correctly.

Try reading this aloud: Ola, bemvindu, ita nia naran saida? You just said “Hello, welcome, what is your name?” in Tetum, and I bet a fluent Tetum speaker would have been able to understand you.

Now try Portuguese: Olá, bem-vindo, como o senhor se chama? Now Bahasa Indonesia: Apa kabar, selamat datang, siapa nama anda?

However if you write “hello” in Thai (สวัสดี), Arabic (سلام), Hindi (नमस्ते) or Russian (privEt   Привет) I can’t even begin to read it, and I offer my congratulations if you can.

Good reading comprehension = good language comprehension plus good decoding

Decoding is a separate skill from language comprehension, but reading and spelling are often taught in a way that focusses on comprehension/meaning, and largely ignores decoding.

To read and spell well, you need both.

Assessments of “reading comprehension” only tell you whether a person has both these skills.

If one is missing, these assessments’ scores won’t tell you which one, though of course the way a person tackles these assessments gives you some pretty good clues. Different assessments are needed.

If you want to find out whether someone has a problem with language comprehension, get a Speech Pathologist to test their Receptive Language.

If you want to find out whether someone has a problem with decoding, give them a non-word reading test (if you don’t have one, try the free Castles and Coltheart 2 on the MOTIF website).


3 responses to “Reading comprehension”

  1. Hi there,

    Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy reading your blog.  Very informative and entertaining.  I am spreading your words on Twitter and on my blog.  Loved your video clip too.  Great stuff!


    Best wishes,

    Tami from Phonic Books, creators of Dandelion Books and Talisman Series.

    • alison says:

      Dear Tami, thanks heaps for the nice feedback and for telling other people about this website, and also thanks for writing your lovely books. I have some of the Dandelion Readers and the ones for older kids are on my wishlist for next term. Local organisation SPELD sells them and does a good job of promoting them here. All the best, Alison C

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