A Closer Look

Problem-Solving the Complexities of Reading Comprehension

Being able to comprehend written text is an essential life skill. Consider all the ways in which one uses reading comprehension skills in everyday life. Everything from reading the comics in the newspaper and social media online to reading the voter's pamphlet or a job application are impacted by one's comprehension skills. Because of its importance, school psychologists need to understand which reading and language skills are critical to the development of reading comprehension.

It probably won't come as a surprise that reading comprehension is a complex construct consisting of several component skills and processes that work together in an integrated, and often synergistic, fashion. As such, when it comes to understanding reading comprehension problems, we may need to untangle the variety of reasons why a student might struggle.

The Complex Nature of Reading Comprehension Problems

Some of the reasons students experience reading comprehension difficulties include poor basic skills in phonemic awareness and decoding. While these basic skills may impede reading development, students may exhibit reading comprehension problems for reasons beyond these basic skills, for example, vocabulary and higher order language skills (e.g., figurative language). In what follows, I describe how several skills beyond phonemic awareness and decoding contribute to comprehension development as well as difficulties with comprehension.

Reading fluency. A student's reading fluency must be sufficient to support comprehension and focus their attention on understanding the meaning of text, rather than on decoding words. Fluent readers not only read words accurately and effortlessly, they simultaneously integrate understanding of vocabulary and background knowledge and attend to prosodic cues (i.e., they read with expression) when reading connected text. As such, reading fluency is not merely about speed, but rather the quality of reading.

Vocabulary and word knowledge. Vocabulary impacts comprehension directly with respect to the understanding of text and indirectly because knowing a word's meaning impacts word recognition fluency. A strong vocabulary makes it easier for students to understand text and become fluent while reading. Breadth of vocabulary knowledge is related to background knowledge. Greater background knowledge helps students comprehend more challenging text. Notably, vocabulary is one of the largest contributors to reading comprehension skill. Work by Stahl and Nagy (2006) suggests that vocabulary knowledge contributes 50–60% of the variance in reading comprehension outcomes. Students with more poorly developed vocabulary show declining comprehension skills later on in elementary and middle school. Oral language is a fundamental building block for learning. Students who come from a rich spoken language environment often have less difficulty comprehending text.

Syntax and grammar. Students with comprehension difficulties tend to have more difficulty with word order (Mokhtari & Thompson, 2006) as well as difficulties in correcting sentences or grammatical errors (Cain & Oakhill, 2007). Knowledge of syntax and grammar aids student comprehension by providing greater ease with:

  • chunking sentences into meaningful units,
  • making sure decoding is accurate so they can fix decoding errors quickly and not disrupt the flow of their reading,
  • verifying the meaning of unfamiliar words, and
  • clarifying meaning of ambiguous words, or words with multiple meanings.

Morphological awareness. Ways in which knowledge of morphology aids student comprehension include:

  • increased vocabulary as students make connections between root words and the new words created by adding prefixes and suffixes (e.g., act + ion = action; re + act = react; re + act + ion = reaction);
  • increased knowledge of syntax and grammatical understanding; and
  • increased fluency in reading connected text, which frees up cognitive resources that can then be allocated for comprehension.

Story coherence/text structure awareness. These elements involve a student's skill in following the organization of a passage, as well as identification of antecedents and referents in text. Story coherence is related to the quality of a story, the structural elements of it, and how these elements relate to one another in a meaningful way. This skill is logically connected to a student’s standard of coherence, which is related to the expectation that text should make sense (Perfetti & Adlof, 2012) and the extent to which the reader notices when it does not and makes efforts to maintain coherence (van den Broek, 2012). Students who struggle with comprehension tend to have difficulty producing a well-structured and integrated story, identifying the main event or main point (Yuill & Oakhill, 1991), as well as correctly sequencing stories (Cain & Oakhill, 2006). Inferences made about what will happens next in a story (i.e, prediction) also should support story coherence (Perfetti & Adlof, 2012).

Important Characteristics of Reading Comprehension Diagnostic Measures

So how might we pinpoint student difficulties in these critical component skill areas? One way to do so is by using diagnostic tools that directly assess them and can be linked to targeted intervention. Pinpointing instructional needs in these critical areas can provide students the keys to unlocking the power of reading comprehension. In addition, assessment should be as time efficient as possible, so that more time may be allocated to intervention. Furthermore, assessment is most informative when it provides an opportunity to directly observe the student performing the skill of interest and affords opportunities to examine what prompting and teaching procedures elicit correct responding. Finally, the assessment should be valid and reliable for the decisions that the results will be used to make. One example of an assessment that fits these characteristics is Acadience Reading Diagnostic Comprehension, Fluency, and Oral Language (CFOL).[1]

Resources for Reading Comprehension Instruction and Intervention

Several free resources address reading interventions by essential skill (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics/decoding, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary). Examples of these sources include the Florida Center for Reading Research (see Student Center Activities), Free Reading (see Find Activities), Reading Rockets (see Target the Problem), and the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts (see Materials).

An additional free resource for improving language and reading comprehension is called Let's Know!, which is available from the Language and Reading Research Consortium (LARRC) at Ohio State University. This 25-week curriculum supplement is available for free download from their website and is available in both English and Spanish (see https://larrc.ehe.osu.edu/curriculum/).

Beyond these material resources, freely available webinars and trainings on these topics exist. Examples include the following:

  • Video series containing from Nancy Lewis Hennessy on the Comprehension Construction Zone: A Blueprint for Instruction posted at Middle Tennessee State University, available here.
  • IDA conference recording – Reading Comprehension Strategies for Students With Dyslexia, available here.
  • IDA sponsored webinar on Supporting Comprehension Through Writing About Reading: Instructional Suggestions, available here.

Related Webinar: Problem-Solving the Complexities of Reading Comprehension


Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2006). Profiles of children with specific reading comprehension difficulties. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 683–696.

Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2007). Reading comprehension difficulties: Correlates, causes, and consequences. In K. Cain & J. Oakhill (Eds.), Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language: A cognitive perspective (pp. 41–75). Guilford.

Mokhtari, K. & Thompson, H. B. (2006). How problems of reading fluency and comprehension are related to difficulties in syntactic awareness skills among fifth graders. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(1), 73–94.

Perfetti, C. A., & Adlof, S. M. (2012). Reading comprehension: A conceptual framework from word meaning to text meaning. In J. P. Sabatini, E. Albro, & T. O’Reilly (Eds.), Measuring up: Advances in how we assess reading ability (pp. 3–20). Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Stahl, S. A., & Nagy, W. E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Erlbaum.

van den Broek, P. (2012). Individual and developmental differences in reading comprehension: Assessing cognitive processes and outcomes. In J. P. Sabatini, E. R. Albro, & T. O’Reilly (Eds), Measuring up: Advances in how to assess reading ability (pp. 39–58). Rowman & Littlefield.

Yuill, N. M, & Oakhill, J. V. (1991). Children’s problems in text comprehension: An experimental invesitigation. Cambridge University Press.

[1] Information about Acadience Reading Diagnostic CFOL is available through emailing info@acadiencelearning.org or going to the Acadience Learning website: www.acadiencelearning.org

About the Author

Dr. Kelly Powell-Smith, Vice President, Director of Research and Development
Kelly A. Powell-Smith, Ph.D., NCSP, is Vice President and Director of Research & Development at Acadience Learning. Dr. Powell-Smith is the lead author on Acadience RAN, Acadience Reading Survey, and Acadience Reading Diagnostic assessments (PA/WRD and CFOL). Dr. Powell-Smith, a nationally certified school psychologist, obtained her doctorate in school psychology from the University of Oregon. She has served as an Associate Professor of School Psychology at the University of South Florida, a faculty associate of the Florida Center for Reading Research, and consultant with the Eastern Regional Reading First Technical Assistance Center. She also has served on the editorial boards for School Psychology Review, Psychology in the Schools, School Psychology Forum, Journal of Evidence Based Practices for Schools, and Proven Practice in the Prevention and Remediation of School Problems. Dr. Powell-Smith has provided training in formative assessment and academic interventions in 22 states and Canada and conducted over 230 national, state, and regional workshops and presentations.