The Comprehension Connection



Steven G. Feifer, D.Ed., ABSNP


“Faster, faster, faster”…….these are words often echoed among many teachers when helping students develop reading and literacy skills.  More and more school systems are using reading speed as their primary criteria for determining which students are making progress and which are not.  In fact, reading comprehension skills and learning specific strategies to derive meaning from print sometimes gets short changed as we push children to read quicker and faster.  However, the notion that improving speed and fluency will naturally yield better reading comprehension skills appears to be more myth…than fact.   It has been estimated that some 10% of all school aged children have adequate reading speed, though possess specific difficulties with comprehension (Nation & Snowling, 1997).  Certainly, students with conditions such as hyperlexia (the uncanny ability to decode words despite significant cognitive limitations) and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (which often results in a lack of awareness to the content being read) are among those who suffer from significant reading comprehension difficulties.  However, the vast majority of children with reading comprehension deficits do not have substandard intellectual skills or deficits with attention or poor phonological processing skills.   Instead, there are three general reasons why most children often struggle understanding what they read: 1) content affinity, 2) language development skills, and 3) executive functioning skills.

Content affinity, or the ability to passionately and emotionally relate to the text is what initially engages our attention, maintains our interest, and helps focus our attention to printed material on the page.  In other words, there are emotional factors which facilitate the interest level each reader brings to the text.  Therefore, reading about your favorite sports team, a review of a new movie,  or the secrets to mastering  “Call of Duty” on your new XBox game are often more intrinsically appealing to an 8th grader, than a thorough review of the geopolitical strategies which brought an end to the Cold War.  Text affinity and reading age appropriate material allows students to become less passive in their approach to reading, and actively engage with the material.  The net result is heightened interest, and better comprehension skills.

Second, there is overwhelming support in the literature that children with poor reading comprehension skills also have deficits in vocabulary development  as well (Catts, Adloff, & Weismer, 2006; Nation & Snowling, 1998).  Specifically, students who have relatively poor overall language development skills especially have difficulty drawing inferences from passages and making predictions about the story (Cain, Oakhill, & Elbro, 2003).   Therefore, these children may perform better on multiple choice tests, or questions that ask about a specific detail in the passage.  On the other hand, children with lower vocabulary skills tend to do more poorly when having to write a BCR (Brief Constructed Response) to a specific question, or when asked to draw a conclusion about a passage.  Clearly, there are many students with weaker vocabulary development skills who do not necessarily qualify for speech and language services.  This places an increased burden among educators in the regular class setting to balance phonological decoding with text comprehension and vocabulary building exercises.  For instance, it is imperative that difficult vocabulary and obscure terms be highlighted and discussed prior to formally engaging in the passage to best assist these students.  Often, reading comprehension difficulties are particularly exposed at the higher grades, as students lack the core vocabulary skills to tackle courses such as English, Literature, Biology, and World History.

Lastly, some children struggle with reading comprehension skills because they simply lack the strategies to self-organize printed material very effectively.  In addition, these children may also have difficulty sustaining their attention to verbal information over longer periods of time as well.  Consequently, these students have deficits in executive functioning, a collection of skills that help us strategically organize printed material so we can effortlessly retrieve the information at a later date.  By understanding the strategies students use when reading information, educators can better target specific interventions.  For some, this may require a formal assessment by a psychologist who can target and measure specific learning strategies, and customize an intervention approach to best meet the needs of a struggling student.  A few simple strategies to help children take a more strategic approach to organizing printed material are listed below.  For further resources on reading interventions and accommodations, please go to











(a)   Stop and Start techniquethe student reads a passage out loud, and every 30 seconds the teacher says “stop” and asks questions about the story.  Eventually the time interval is lengthened.

(b)   Directional Questionsask questions at the beginning of the text instead of the end so students can become more directional readers.

(c)    Story Mapsa pre-reading activity where graphic organizers are used to outline and organize information prior to reading the text.

(d)   Narrative retellinghave the child retell the story after reading it aloud.

(e)    Read Aloudreading out loud allows students to hear their own voices and can facilitate working memory.

(f)    Multiple Exposureencourage students to skim the material upon reading for the first time, with emphasis on chapter and text headings.  Read for detail on the second exposure of the text.

(g)   Active Participationencourage active reading by getting children in the habit of note-taking or putting asterisks next to important material in the text.

(h)   Create Questionshave students write their own test questions about the material.

(i)     Reduce Anxiety anxiety inhibits working memory, and leads to ineffective recall.  Children who are anxious about reading out loud in front of their classmates should be provided an opportunity to read in a “safety zone” in class.  This may also help to eliminate distractions as well.

(j)     Practice Terminology – practice defining new terms and concepts prior to reading material with dense language.  Vocabulary enrichment is often the key to improving comprehension.

(k)   Classroom Discussions – introduce new topic areas with general classroom discussions to capture a student’s attention and interest prior to reading the material.


































Cain, K. , Oakhill, J. V., & Elbro, C. (2003).  The ability to learn new word meanings

from context by school-age children with and without language comprehension

difficulties.  Journal of Child Language, 30, 681-694.


Catts, H. W., Adlof, S. M., & Weismer, S. E. (2006).  Language deficits in poor

comprehenders:  A case for the simple view of reading.  Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49, 278-293.


Nation, K., & Snowling, M.  (1997).  Assessing reading difficulties:  The validity and

utility of current measures of reading skill.  British Journal of Educational

Psychology, 67, 359-370.


Nation, K., & Snowling, M. J. (1998).  Individual differences in contextual facilitation:

Evidence from dyslexia and poor reading comprehension.  Child Development, 69, 994-1009.



Steven G. Feifer, D. Ed.,  ABSNP  is a nationally renowned speaker and author in the field of learning disabilities, and has authored six books on learning and emotional disorders in children. Dr. Feifer is currently on faculty at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development in Washington D.C, and maintains a private practice at the Monocacy Neurodevelopmental Center in Frederick, MD.