Happy Cheetah Reading

What to Do with Children Who Are Reading, But with Poor Comprehension?

Your child is reading, and everything is right with the world. Or is it? Sometimes children have no problem with the mechanics and technical skills needed to read the words on a page but struggle when face with explaining what they read. 

Comprehension issues are often apparent when a child scores poorly on the reading comprehension section of a standardized test. It can seem confusing because they are reading, yet something is missing in their understanding.

However, it can also appear as resistance. They can read, but drag their feet and protest at every turn with any subject. If this is your child, I have something for you to consider to help your frustrated learner.

Great Reading, Weak Comprehension

In Dr. Karen Holinga’s clinical practice as The Reading Doctor, she has many clients who come with children who learned to read without difficulty, but by fourth or fifth grade are struggling with comprehension. What is going on? 

To diagnose the problem, she first asks if the students like to listen to stories and if they have any trouble comprehending the audiobooks. 

Usually, the students have no problem understanding what they hear. 

When that’s the case, the issue is not a neurologically-based comprehension problem. If it were, the students wouldn’t be willing to sit and listen. 

As she would put it: it’s not a learning disability. It’s an input problem. 

And with that, the input problem might be either hearing or vision.

Most of the time, the issue is vision. Something with visual tracking isn’t working as it ought, and as the font gets smaller, comprehension diminishes.

The Saccadic Sweep in Reading Fluency

When eyes are working together correctly, they do what’s called a saccadic sweep. Good readers don’t read word-for-word, but more like phrase by phrase. Adults see about 9–13 words out in front of where they’re reading, and children see 6–9 words ahead.  

Taking in groups of words is how fluent readers have proper phrasing, where their reading sounds like talking. They know where the sentence is going to end and automatically pay attention to punctuation. 

If your children can read but are having trouble with comprehension, the saccadic eye movement could be the problem. 

As I’ve mentioned before, in a slightly different context: with a smaller font, these students have to work harder and harder to keep the print clear. When their attention is on keeping words focused, they lack attention to think about what they’re reading, which is what makes comprehension almost impossible.

Difficulty With Font Sizing

So if you’ve wondered if your children were struggling because the font is too small: yes! That happens! 

If you want your children to do their schoolwork, and they are fighting it, really protesting, really dawdling. In Dr. Karen’s experience, the vast majority of these children are dealing with a visual tracking issue. 

But what if you’ve already had an appointment with an optometrist, and the results came back normal? 

The beautiful thing is: if your children are showing the symptoms of a visual tracking issue, the signs point to the issue. When students are balking at schoolwork, having low comprehension, and dealing with reading fatigue, even if one doctor misses the diagnosis, the problem is there. So get a second opinion.

However, this assumes that your students aren’t trying to read too far beyond their ability level. More on that to come! 

Reading Difficulties Are Not All the Same

Although we’re all well acquainted with the issue of dyslexia in the process of learning to read, other difficulties can also arise that can cause a child to struggle with comprehension.

Perhaps your child appears to read fluently, but doesn’t retain information or cannot retell what they have read. Not every reading issue is rooted in dyslexia, and other interventions may serve your struggling child well. 

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