The 4 Most Common Reasons for Breakdowns in Comprehension

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“Reading words without understanding is a string of meaningless noise.” – Don Holdaway

The ultimate goal of reading is to make meaning or glean information from text – to comprehend what has been read. For some students, reaching this level of the reading process can be quite difficult. It is important to understand the underlying causes of breakdowns in comprehension.

The 4 Most Common Reasons for Breakdowns in Comprehension

1 - Weak Decoding Skills

When a student is laboring over the process of decoding words, there simply isn’t the opportunity to begin understanding what is being read. Only once the student is able to read fluently, with word recognition being an automatic process, will they have the ability to focus their energy on understanding what the words are saying.

Most often, poor decoding skills are the underlying cause to a student’s breakdown in making meaning from text. It is often assumed that older students have mastered phonemic awareness or phonics skills necessary for decoding, explicit instruction in these areas typically dwindles as students advance from second grade to third grade. However, there are a number of students who still need skill development in this area in order to progress in their reading abilities.

2 - Limited Background Knowledge

Students may lack knowledge of the concept being taught or lack experiences that help them understand the subject matter. It is a natural progression of reading strategies that are taught in our classrooms, as students’ progress from learning how to read, they move into the process of reading to learn. However, if students are still struggling with learning how to read they have likely missed out or not tapped into this instruction as it was being delivered in their classrooms. If a student is struggling with cementing their sound-symbol knowledge for example, they aren’t ready to understand instruction about how stories work, or the difference between non-fiction and fiction text features – they are still grappling with the foundational pieces of reading and have missed out on this instruction. I often feel like our dyslexic or struggling readers can easily get lost in the shuffle or left behind as the class progresses through these stages of reading development.

3 - Inadequate Vocabulary Knowledge

Comprehension can be hindered if students do not understand the vocabulary or meaning of words in a text. This can relate directly to a lack of exposure to vocabulary words in print. It has often been my observation that dyslexic students possess a stronger spoken vocabulary than written vocabulary. While they may be able to use higher level words in their day to day conversation, these words often go unrecognizable in texts due to the difficulty associated with decoding or due to the level of books these students can access. Teachers will also note that dyslexic students shy away from using advanced vocabulary (even if it is part of their spoken vocabulary) in writing. This is due to the fact that spelling advanced vocabulary words is intimidating to a student who struggles with encoding or is dyslexic. They will instead opt to spell simpler words that are easier to spell or they have memorized.

4 - Poorly Developed Comprehension Strategies

Students may not have mastered strategies for monitoring their reading or understanding. This is another area that was likely out of reach for our struggling readers as it was being taught in their classrooms. These comprehension strategies are taught and then applied in texts. If a student is struggling with the process of decoding and reading, they are unable to practice or apply the comprehension strategy being taught as they must first be able to simply and automatically read the words. This is rarely due to a lack of instruction and more due to the fact that at-risk students aren’t able to tap into this instruction or access it as it is being presented.

Check out our blog: Moving Beyond Questions to Assess Comprehension.

If you have a student who is struggling with comprehension, it is important to drill down further into their skill set to identify what the underlying cause to this breakdown might be. Once you have identified the root cause to their difficulties, you will be better able to target your instruction to meet their needs.

You can download this resource to help you begin to put together thoughts on this for parent-teacher conferences. We have taken the different breakdowns and made them into a checklist so you can easily narrow down your students' areas of struggle.  

As you go through the checklist, it is important that you have examples and data to support what you are saying.  For example, if you are going to check the box in the "Weak Decoding Skills" category that says "they are reading more than 5 words inaccurately in a paragraph" you should have some kind of data to support this. 

If you are interested in learning how we incorporate data tracking and comprehension skills development in our reading intervention - we’d love to have you join us at our free upcoming online training, 7 Steps to Reading Instruction that Works!

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