Struggling readers do not understand why they have difficulty comprehending. In order to assist these children we need to understand why and where their difficulties are occurring. (For the purposes of this discussion I am assuming the child’s visual perceptual skills are intact.)
A breakdown in Reading Comprehension can occur at different stages in the processing of language
Vocabulary and Prior Knowledge
Learning to read written texts is not the same as learning to understand written texts. Reading comprehension involves understanding the vocabulary, seeing relationships among words and concepts, organizing ideas, recognizing the author’s purpose, evaluating the context, and making judgments
Many children who successfully learn to read in grade one or two are unable to understand books they need to read by grade three or four. One of the reasons for this is lack of adequate vocabulary.
Prior knowledge is an important aspect to successful reading and studies have shown that lack of cultural familiarity with the subject matter has a greater impact on reading comprehension of a passage than the pre-teaching of vocabulary.
The child’s ability to recall information and make inferences is enhanced when they are familiar with the subject matter.
Before children learn to read, they are dependent on oral language and pictures to understand the world around them. Once they obtain knowledge of phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters), they begin to use their understanding of print and sounds to read words. For children who experience decoding difficulties, word recognition is like a traffic jam on a highway. Regardless of their level of listening comprehension, they have to learn the process of word recognition, much like every car on the highway must slow down and pass through the bottleneck. Once decoding is mastered, and students become fluent readers, they are able to develop proficiency in reading comprehension.
Fluency is not an issue in listening, as the speaker controls the pace, but is needed for reading comprehension because of working memory constraints.
For children who experience difficulties with word recognition, struggle with decoding words, or read very slowly, the information in the text is often inaccessible.
Reading quickly enough so that it sounds like “natural” language contributes to a student’s comprehension; the reading flow and focus on comprehension are not disrupted by decoding
Cognitive Speed/Working Memory
The information that we read needs to be held in working memory in order to comprehend it. If reading fluency is poor, then it becomes less and less likely that the needed information is still active in working memory, making comprehension less and less likely
There are many different purposes for reading. Sometimes you read a text to learn material, sometimes you read for pure pleasure, and sometimes you need to follow a set of directions. As a student, much of your reading will be to learn assigned material. You get information from everything you read and yet you don’t read everything for the same reason or in the same way or at the same rate. Each purpose or reason for reading requires a different reading approach.
Two things that influence how fast and how well you read are the characteristics of the text and the characteristics of you, the reader.
Characteristics of the text:
- Size and style of the type (font)
- Pictures and illustrations
- Author’s writing style and personal perspectives
- Difficulty of the ideas presented
Characteristics of the reader:
- Background knowledge (how much you already know about the material or related concepts)
- Reading ability – vocabulary and comprehension
Good readers employ strategies before, during, and after reading that help them comprehend text. The following strategies have been identified:
- Begin reading with an understanding of the purpose for their exploration of the text,
- Bring to the table what they already know (their schema), and associate what they read to that basis,
- Predict before they read and then adjust as necessary their predictions as they move through the text
- Self-monitor (listen to themselves when they read) and stop to reread when they recognize that they are losing meaning
- Have a broad oral toolbox of vocabulary (words they understand the meaning of when they hear them or when they use them in speech)
- Pause to ponder and consider (think deeply, in other words, analyze, interpret and evaluate).
Reading comprehension is a complex process in itself, but it also depends upon other important and complex lower-level processes. It is a critical foundation skill for later academic learning, many employment skills, and life satisfaction. It is an important skill to target, but we should not forget about the skills on which it depends.
The frustration of talking to children where information goes “in one ear and out the other” is common to both teachers and parents. But for children with a poor auditory memory, this statement is pretty close to the truth.
Auditory Working Memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing
the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension
Can you add together 23 and 69 in your head?
When you ask for directions somewhere, can you get there without writing the instructions down?
Such tasks engage working memory, the memory we use to keep information immediately “in mind” so we can complete a task.
Some children find this relatively easy. Others try to carry out the instructions, but lose track of the details along the way.
Auditory Working Memory involves:
- Taking in information that is presented orally and Listening actively in order to rehearse what we have because this information rapidly decays after one or two seconds.
- Attending Selectively in order to repeat the information to ourselves. Research has shown that if short term memory is low, we have a hard time selecting what we wish to hear. In other words, selective attention doesn’t work so well when auditory memory is poor.
- Processing that information for meaning
- Storing it in your mind
- Recalling what you have heard.
A “breakdown” in auditory memory can occur at any point in the pathway
Auditory Memory Pathway
In the classroom, teachers may describe these children as
- Easily distracted
- Forgetting what they have learned,
- Forgetting instructions
- Makes place-keeping errors (skipping or repeating steps)
- Not completing tasks,
- Making careless mistakes,
- Difficulty in solving problems
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you are right!
A great deal of research in the last few years has shown that low auditory working memory is indeed associated with ADD/ADHD. Some research has shown that stimulant medications can enhance one’s auditory-verbal and visual-spatial working memory. However, there is no long term benefit. In other words, the working memory is improved only as long as the medication is in the system.
However some auditory memory weaknesses of students can easily go undetected by a teacher especially when there are no signs of ADD or ADHD.
Often children with auditory memory problems appear to be trying very hard to listen.
Their eyes are focused on the teacher and they appear to be attentive.
The teacher assumes that the child has heard all that is being taught. However, in reality, they often absorb and make sense out of very little of what is being stated by the teacher.
As a result, these students recall only a small amount or none of what is being said. They might remember a word here or there, or parts of a thought, but often do not truly understand much of the information presented orally to them.
The ability to learn from oral instructions and explanations is a fundamental skill required throughout life.
The following difficulties may arise because of poor auditory memory.
Poor Comprehension of Orally Presented Directions:
- Often the child thinks that he has understood directions for completing an assignment, when actually he has understood very little. As a result, assignments are often completed incorrectly.
- The child may only be able to take-in and think about only three or four words at a time so they only hear three or four words.
- Subconsciously he stops listening in order to process the information.
- Then he listens again.
- As a result, the child loses a word or two from every phrase. The information no longer makes sense and becomes confusing, boring, and hard to pay attention to.
While some children can recall a lengthy sentence well, they may not be able to process and recall a short passage that is presented orally. These students may be able to answer a specific question about the information that has been presented to them orally or that they have read, but are not able to grasp the whole paragraph.
The child thinks that he knows what he has heard or read orally, when actually, he has processed and recalled very little of the material.
Sometimes parents and educators assume that children have understood an entire passage when they answer a specific question about the passage, yet, that specific information might be all that they have gleaned from the passage!
It is therefore important that when reading stories to children, they are encouraged to retell the story with the main idea and supporting details, in order to demonstrate that they have total comprehension.
Difficulty Copying from the Board:
As mentioned in the first example, a child with auditory memory difficulties can often only remember one or two words at a time. He therefore needs to constantly look up at the board, down at his paper, up at the board, down at his paper. Copying from the board is a tedious task for him whereas other children can remember a sentence at a time.
Difficulty Taking Notes:
In order to take notes you need to:
- Listen to the teacher.
- Hold what you have heard in memory while writing it down.
- Continue listening as the teacher continues with the next sentence.
- If you are not writing verbatim what the teacher says, you must also use logic and reasoning to form your own thoughts about what’s being said, while writing, while listening.
If your auditory memory is poor, auditory processing, processing speed, or logic and reasoning, note taking could be practically impossible.
Phonics (sounds) is an auditory learning system and it is imperative to have a sufficient auditory short term memory in order to learn, utilize and understand reading using phonics. The ability to hold speech sounds in memory is needed for tasks such as comparing phonemes, relating phonemes to letters, and sounding out words.
Many poor-spellers depend on memory for spelling and so they don’t do very well. Even someone with a superior memory can only “remember” the spelling of a few hundred words. Spelling is actually an auditory and a visual skill.
You must be able to hear the sounds within the words and to visualize. How often have you spelled a word and recognized, “No, that doesn’t look right?”
Children who memorize spelling words often forget the words soon after the spelling test. The brain says, “I don’t need that anymore,” and dumps the words to make room for next week’s spelling list.
Children may experience difficulty developing a good understanding of words, remembering terms and information that has been presented orally, for example, in history and science classes. These students will also experience difficulty processing and recalling information that they have read to themselves.
When we read we must listen and process information we say to ourselves, even when we read silently. If we do not attend and listen to our silent input of words, we cannot process the information or recall what we have read. Therefore, even silent reading involves a form of listening.
The good news is that auditory memory is trainable and like any muscle the more you exercise it, the more it will improve.
The not so good news is that the capacity for auditory memory appears to have a genetic basis and if you have a poor auditory memory the chances are that you won’t be able to rely on someone in your family for help.