Reading Comprehension

Is your child struggling with reading comprehension?

Is your child:

  • Having trouble answering comprehension questions?
  • Reading okay but not remembering what he reads?
  • Reading a whole story but not recalling any characters?
  • Reading aloud okay but forgetting the main idea?
  • Getting frustrated with homework?
  • Struggling more than classmates?
  • Reading below his or her grade level?


Reading is one of our first measures of academic success. If your child does not read well, it is likely that this challenge has been a source of stress for your family.

Some children appear to be reading fine, but do not understand what they read. These children are known as “good decoders.” It may seem more like your child views words as algorithms to be decoded than messages to be understood.

Children who struggle with reading comprehension may show the following signs:

First, they tend to fail to remember what they read. As they are reading aloud, they may appear to understand, but cannot recall much of the story when asked comprehension questions.

Second, they tend to “miss the point.” They cannot tell you the main idea or answer a question like, “What’s the most important thing that happened in the story?’”

Third, children with poor comprehension may not remember important characters. Children with good comprehension can tell you what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of a story, using a logical sequence.

In comparison, children with poor comprehension struggle with this skill. Finally, children who have inadequate reading comprehension skills tend not to integrate what they read; that is, that they fail to put the elements of the story together into a coherent whole.


Clinically, these problems are referred to as deficits in reading comprehension and are sometimes referred to as “hyperlexia.”

Children with this pattern tend to read accurately and fluently, but do not glean as much meaning as they should from what they read. This difficulty is sometimes referred to as “word calling.”

Children with very low reading comprehension, in spite of adequate education and evidence-based intervention, are generally considered to have a specific learning disorder, with impairment in reading.

In schools, learning disabilities are generally identified through a response-to-intervention process, whereby children are provided with evidence-based interventions specifically targeted to meet their needs. Progress is monitored. If the child does not make adequate progress, or “respond to the intervention,” he or she is considered to have a learning disability in reading. Children who have chronically low scores in reading, even with good education, are generally considered to have a learning disability in reading.

A proprietary model of reading comprehension is presented below. This model describes the skills that must be in place for an individual to gain understanding from what he or she reads. First, the roots of the tree show the foundational skills of reading.

The child must be able to access and “activate background knowledge” by relating the story to information already known. He asks himself, “Have I heard anything like this before?” Next, the child must monitor her reading comprehension and repair any errors, regularly asking herself, “Does this story make sense?” Inferencing skills are also included in the roots of the tree. Good readers ask themselves, “What is going to happen next?”

The trunk of the tree is the “dual coding” and “integration” aspects of reading comprehension. These skills build a mental model in one’s mind while reading. Good readers “make movies in their heads” as they read. Next, the branches of the tree are the “main idea,” “linking connections,” “integration,” and “cohesive representation.”

These terms mean that good readers think about the main idea of the narrative as they read. They ask questions like, “What is this story basically about?’” By integrating information across the text, they make connections between characters and events. In this way, they construct a cohesive mental representation of the reading.

The leaves of the tree are a variety of other pieces of information that good readers glean from text. The setting, characters, actions, and sequence of events are all important elements to understand in any story.

Digging deeper, people with good reading comprehension think about the perspectives of the characters and the causal events in the story. It is also necessary to consider the emotions and senses the author is attempting to elicit in the reader. Good readers can tell you how it “feels” in the story. Taken together, good readers form a mental model that puts all of these important story elements together into a sensible, meaningful whole.


If your child does not remember what he or she reads, it is important to consider intervention, early and often.

Reading comprehension has oft been defined in the literature as the most important academic skill. [2]

With that in mind, it is extremely important to make sure that your child not only can read well, but can understand what he or she reads. If your child is struggling, consider the following:

Consult the school: If you are concerned that your child is not understanding what he or she reads, reach out to the teacher. The teacher may have assessments that he or she can do to find out where your child’s skills are, in comparison to peers. Your child’s teacher will likely have a variety of comprehension strategies you can work with your child on at home.

Practice: Reading with your child can be one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences of his or her school career. When reading, stop frequently to ask your child some of the questions mentioned above. Ask your child who the characters are, what the setting is, and the main idea of the story. Regularly stop to find out if your child is following along as you read together.

Evaluation: If your child continues to struggle in spite of intervention at school and at home, an evaluation may be necessary. A clinical or school psychologist can assess your child’s intelligence (IQ) to determine if there are cognitive factors that interfere with your child’s reading. In addition, diagnostic reading tests can be conducted. Most importantly, if your child is diagnosed with a learning disability in reading, your child should be considered for reading supports at school, either through intervention or through specialized instruction on an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

A model of imagery-related comprehension skills


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Verbal Comprehension: difficulty understanding spoken language generally impacts reading
  • Learning problems or disabilities: difficulty learning may be an issue if your child is not understanding what he or she reads
  • Spatial reasoning: difficultly seeing how words and images are supposed to look on the page may impact reading comprehension
  • Intelligence: difficulty thinking and understanding may impact reading comprehension


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Developmental Delay: deficits in IQ combined with slower development in motor, learning, and/or speech delay may impact reading comprehension
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. Some children with ASD also have intellectual disabilities. Many children with autism are able to read adequately but struggle with their comprehension (hyperlexic pattern)
  • Intellectual Disability (ID): deficits in intelligence or an IQ score below 70 and Vineland Adaptive/Daily Living Scores below 70, are likely to impact reading comprehension . Thus, IQ and Adaptive skills must be low to qualify as ID. Children with intellectual disabilities are very likely to struggle with reading comprehension
  • Learning Disability: deficits in reading comprehension, may be referred to as a Specific Learning Disorder; With Impairment in Reading Comprehension. This disability may co-occur with other learning disabilities in reading, writing or math
  • Receptive Language Disorder: deficits in language comprehension, or ‘receptive language,’ tend to impact reading comprehension


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in mental health context and can administer an IQ test, to look at thinking and reasoning abilities, as well as language, comprehension and learning measures to determine a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • School Psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context, evaluate for school services, and can administer an IQ test.
  • Speech Language Pathologist: to consider issues with receptive or expressive language

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • WISC-V: IQ test (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • WPPSI-III: IQ test for pre-school aged children (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • GORT-5: diagnostic reading test (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • WJ-IV: test of academic achievement (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • WIAT-III: test of academic achievement (Clinical or School Evaluation)
  • CELF-5: test of language (Clinical or School Evaluation)


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Chiang & Lin (2007). Reading comprehension instruction for students with autism spectrum disorders: A review of the literature. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 22 (4), 259-267.

[3] Kilpatrick, David A.(2015) Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (Essentials of Psychological Assessment).


[4] Willard, M. (2013). Development of an integrative comprehension imagery scale for children with and without autism. Proquest: Dissertations and Theses (PQDT) UNIVERSITY OF DENVER, 177 pages.…/Willard…/Willard_denver_0061D_10648.pdf

Image Credit:
Description: Young woman hiding behind a book
Image: 91661069 (iStock)
By: Portishead1
Previously licensed on: October 21, 2016

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