Reading Comprehension Shawn O'Brien, Psy.D. Goal Achievement Psychological Services Did you know that dyslexia is not the only type of reading disability? There are some people who can read words fluently, but who have difficulty answering questions about what they read. These individuals have a disability in reading comprehension. This disability may result from deficits in a variety of psychological processes. Some of these deficits do not actually interfere with comprehension, but rather prevent the individual from remembering what he has read. This, in turn, interferes with the ability to answer comprehension questions when the reader cannot refer back to the text, as in tests. One deficit that interferes with comprehension is poor vocabulary knowledge (sometimes called receptive language ability). If a person does not know the meaning of many words in a passage, then she will comprehend little of what she has read. Although a dictionary may provide some assistance, the distraction of frequently stopping to look up words makes it difficult to focus on the main ideas of a text. In addition, having to memorize many new words in order to understand the text places a strain on the reader's memory. Poor receptive vocabulary knowledge can be caused by lack of exposure to print or stimulating activities, or by a learning disability in language. Deficits in working memory also lead to problems in answering questions about text. This is a relatively new area of research, and there are different theories about working memory. It is generally viewed as an intermediary between short-term (a few seconds) and long-term (permanent) memory. Working memory allows one to hold several facts or thoughts in mind temporarily while actively solving a problem or performing a task. For example, if somebody gives you a three-step direction, you may visualize the steps in sequence, or silently repeat the steps in your mind, to help you recall them until you carry them out. Working memory performs these strategies. Deficits in working memory can negatively impact reading skills in several ways. For example, working memory deficits may have a negative impact on vocabulary and syntactic development. The effect of poor vocabulary on reading was discussed previously. Syntax refers to the order of words in sentences that affect their meaning. For example, the difference in meaning between, "The boy kissed the girl" vs. "The girl kissed the boy" is due to the different order of the words. Working memory is especially important to the comprehension of long sentences, whether spoken or written. It allows one to hold the words in mind long enough to make sense of the sequence of words and process them for storage in long-term memory. Speed of lexical access is another deficit that can interfere with comprehension. This term describes the efficiency with which individuals are able to retrieve pronunciations of letters, word segments, or entire words from long-term memory. This is another relatively new area of study within reading research. This ability may be linked to the more general ability known as processing speed, which refers to how quickly and automatically a person is able to process various types of information. Oral reading of people with this deficit is slow and halting. The extra mental effort required to read words leaves less mental energy available for comprehension. Speed of lexical access is measured by rapid serial naming speed tasks (e.g., reading a series of words as quickly as possible, naming pictures of objects as rapidly as possible, etc.). Difficulty paying attention is another deficit that can negatively impact a reader’s ability to answer questions about text. Research in this area often divides this ability into four components: Focused or selective attention (sometimes called concentration) is the ability to focus on a task when distracting stimulation is present. It allows one to "screen out&" noises and other distractions which are not relevant to the task at hand. Sustained attention (sometimes called vigilance) is the ability to stay focused on a task for a continuous period of time. Divided attention is the ability to shift one's focus of attention back and forth from one part of a task or situation to another. Finally, attentional capacity refers to the ability to hold information in memory while using it to perform some action. The latter two types of attention involve working memory. Thus, it is not surprising that individuals who have been diagnosed with Attention- Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often have problems with working memory. If a reader has deficits in attention, he may comprehend what he reads, but he may not actually read every part of the text. This is not done purposely, but is due to unconscious shifts of attention away from the text. In addition, he may take a very long time to read a passage, and/or may not recall parts of what he has read at a later time. Finally, difficulty with reading comprehension may result from a reader's failure to use comprehension strategies. This is known as a deficit in metacognition, and has also been linked to ADHD. Metagcogition refers to "thinking about thinking." In the context of reading, metacognition is concerned with how readers plan, monitor, and repair errors in comprehension. There are many types of metacognitive strategies used by good readers to aid comprehension; some of the more common strategies include: thinking about what one is going to read before beginning (activating background knowledge, making predictions), using context to determine the meaning of unknown words, thinking about the meaning of the text as one reads and taking corrective measures if necessary (e.g., rereading, looking up the meaning of words), and identifying and emphasizing main ideas to aid retention (e.g., visualizing, underlining, outlining, formulating questions and answers about main ideas). Metacognitive knowledge also includes understanding about the reading process; for example, knowing that one is less likely to retain information from text when tired, and planning accordingly. These skills are sometimes referred to as "executive functioning." If a parent suspects a child has a disability in reading comprehension, the first step is to seek a thorough psychoeducational evaluation. For information about what the evaluation should include and qualifications of examiners, refer to the author's article, "Identifying Students with Reading Disabilities: Special Education Laws."