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Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic!

Learning Difficulties in Comprehension

A learning disability in comprehension affects the learner's ability to understand the meaning of words and passages. They may be able to read aloud with little or no difficulty pronouncing words, but they do not understand or remember what they've read.

These difficulties may not present in a tangible way until middle school, when the child can no longer compensate for their weakness in an efficient enough way to keep up academically with their peers.


People who have a disorder in reading comprehension have difficulty understanding the important ideas in reading passages. They struggle with basic reading skills such as word recognition. In some cases, they may read aloud with little difficulty but do not understand or remember what they've read. Their phrasing and fluency are often weak. Naturally, reading comprehension problems affect many academic areas.

We’ve learned that reading comprehension is not a passive, receptive process, as previously believed, but rather an active and intentional one; it is an ongoing interchange between reader and text, involving a wide array of skills.

Other learning disabilities that have particular trouble with comprehension include non-verbal learning disability (NLD), as these students have problems with inferring, interpreting, and reading between the lines of complex assignments.
How To Help
Be aware that decoding, fluency and vocabulary skills are key to reading comprehension, and being able to connect ideas within and between sentences helps kids understand the whole text and make sense of it. These are key concepts in comprehension.
  • Decoding is a vital step in the reading process. This skill is used to sound out words that have been heard before but haven’t been seen in writing. The ability to do that is the foundation for other reading skills.
  • To read fluently, kids need to instantly recognize words, including ones they can’t sound out (usually referred to as "sight words"). Fluency speeds up the rate at which they can read and understand text. It’s also important when kids encounter irregular words, like of and the, which can’t be sounded out. Sounding out or decoding every word takes a lot of effort, and the meaning can get lost in laboring over each individual word. Fluency requires recognizing whole words instantly by sight, without sounding them out.
  • To understand what you’re reading, you need to understand most of the words in the text. Having a strong vocabulary is a key component of reading comprehension. Students can learn vocabulary through instruction, but they typically learn the meaning of words through everyday experience, and also by reading. The more words they are exposed to, the greater their vocabulary becomes. You can help build your child’s vocabulary by having frequent conversations on a variety of topics, and include new words and ideas. Telling jokes and playing word games can be a fun way to build this skill.
  • Understanding how sentences are built, and connecting ideas within and between sentences—called cohesion—might seem like writing skills. But these skills are important for reading comprehension as well. Knowing how ideas link up at the sentence level gives meaning from passages and entire texts, and leads to something coherence, or the ability to connect ideas to other ideas in an overall piece of writing.
  • Gaining good background knowledge and reasoning skills through reading, conversations, movies and TV shows, and art can give your child a boost in comprehending new reading material. Life experience and hands-on activities also build knowledge. Expose your child to as much as possible, and talk about what you’ve learned from experiences you’ve had together and separately. Help your child make connections between new knowledge and existing knowledge. And ask open-ended questions that require thinking and explanations.
  • Working memory and attention are part of executive function. When kids read, attention allows them to take in information from the text. Working memory allows them to hold on to that information and use it to gain meaning and build knowledge from what they’re reading. The ability to self-monitor while reading is also tied to that: they need to be able to recognize when they don’t understand something. They need to know when to stop, go back and re-read to clear up any confusion they may have.

When kids struggle with one or more of these skills, they can have trouble fully understanding what they read. And some, if not all, of these skills can be explicitly taught in regular, everyday interactions with your child.

A key to improving comprehension is teaching students to monitor and rethink their understanding of text as they are reading. This involves learning when to stop and re-read confusing or critical passages. Help younger children by asking them questions about what they are reading: [beginning] What is the title? What do you think the story will be about? [while reading] Who is the story about? Oh no, what happened? What else did they do/say/feel? What would you do in the story? [ending] Tell me the story in your own words. Do you remember when…? What did they do right or wrong? What else could have happened? Did you like this story/why or why not?
Help older children read textbooks by asking questions and reviewing unknown or confusing vocabulary: this word is in bold type, do you know what it means? We can look it up. Why do you think this word or phrase is underlined or in italics? What does the paragraph heading tell us? Can you explain that to me in your own words?
The students begin to ask themselves the same questions, which helps them follow the story or passage as they are reading. In addition to improving their comprehension, they will learn to be critical thinkers (which is a very good thing!). This is also excellent practice for improving working memory and short-term memory (see executive function disorder), with which many children struggle.
Graphic organizers for story reading and for math problems have a tremendous impact in helping a student remember and put together the words they are reading into a cohesive whole so they can make sense of what they are reading. Graphic organizers are also very helpful for writing assignments, and there are different types of organizers for different projects such as writing a book report, or figuring out a word problem in math. Effective teaching includes developing strategy acquisition and self-regulation, reading to learn content, and writing to learn. Teaching organizational skills (an executive function area) in this way is critical for effective comprehension and writing.

Find Their Learning Style

Allow extra time for your child to listen to, think about and form his own thoughts about the written and spoken materials used in class. Don't force immediate comprehension—sometimes kids need a little extra time to process. An environment most conducive to your child's learning style matters, too: some kids prefer quiet solitude while others do better with background noise to stimulate the senses.

Some students learn better in a group setting. Encourage your child to study with friends, or to play games with friends that help reinforce language skills. Word games at home offer a less formal and less stressful learning environment than a classroom can. Board games can be helpful for skill building in several basic areas including comprehension. Suggested games for preschoolers can be found here ; for gradeschoolers here ; and for tween and teens, here

There are many graphic organizers available for free online, or you can purchase a book of graphic organizers (in various forms for different problems) and learn what is most beneficial for your child. Here is one excellent source of free organizers.

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