Why ‘fluent’ readers still can’t comprehend.

Why can’t my students comprehend what they are reading? Should I be teaching comprehension strategies?

Reading comprehension, explained by the Simple View of Reading (Rose Report, 2006) and The Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001) .

As I have discussed in previous posts, fluent reading can be explained by the Simple View of Reading, as well as The Reading Rope.

These models show that students must first become fluent decoders so they can sound out  new words they encounter (even the tricky ones which have less common phonic patterns). Once they have established strong orthographic representations, or Mental Graphemic Representations (allowing for instant word recognition), they can free up their cognitive load to make meaning from the text. Cognitive load relates to working memory- how much information can be processed at once. If students are spending all of their cognitive load decoding the text (getting the words off the paper), then there isn’t much working memory capacity left to attend to the meaning. Using the Reading Rope visual, we need to ensure decoding and SPOKEN language comprehension is prioritised for emergent readers (using decodable texts), and once adequate orthographic representations of Phoneme-Grapheme correspondences and Mental Graphemic representations of whole words have been established, we combine these skills together for the ultimate goal of READING COMPREHENSION.


Image result for simple view of reading
The Simple View of Reading: https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/teaching-reading-its-simple-but-not-simplistic
The Reading Rope- Language comprehension and word recognition

That being said, even students who are capable decoders and have strong word recognition processes can experience reading comprehension problems. Let’s talk about WHY.

Reading comprehension difficulties

Research has shown that there is a very strong link between reading comprehension difficulties and listening comprehension difficulties (e.g., Gernsbacher, Varner, and Faust, 1990). A good reader can decode fluently while also having a strong vocabulary and background knowledge on the text topic to be able to gain meaning.

Let’s take for example the following passage on sport cars, from Wikipedia:

From Wikipedia- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_car

If a student has limited background knowledge of sport cars, and is unfamiliar with much of the Tier 2-3 vocabulary in the text (such as automobile, spartan, manoeuvrability, aerodynamically, suspension, roadsters, coupes etc) , chances are, he/she will not be able to comprehend the text. Teaching the child particular comprehension strategies, such as summarising and comprehension monitoring, will probably not assist him/her if they are unfamiliar with the words in the text- it’s a bit hard to summarise the main points of something if you don’t understand what you are reading!

Factors which can hinder reading comprehension of a text:

1. Decoding fluency- if they are not fluent decoders, they probably won’t have the working memory capacity / cognitive load to make meaning.

2. Background knowledge of the text- If the student has limited knowledge of the text topic, e.g. cars, and has very little personal experience with this topic, then comprehending the text will be much more difficult. Studies have shown that students who have a strong knowledge on the text topic will generally outperform those who do not. This is why PM Benchmarking (and similar assessment processes) are so unreliable, because they rely considerably on the students’ background knowledge on the text topic. For example, the student may score better on a level 14 book, compared to a level 10, if they are more familiar with the text topic of the higher level book.

3. Vocabulary- good readers can usually work out the meaning of some unfamiliar words using the context, however, this process becomes much more difficult if there are a number of words in the text that they do not understand. Think of all the Tier 2-3 words in the sports car text above. If the child did not understand the words automobile, spartan, manoeuvrability, aerodynamically, suspension, roadsters, coupes, do you think they would be able to gain a strong idea about what the text is about? Do you think they would be able to use a comprehension strategy such as summarising or mental imagery? I would think not.

4. Spoken language comprehension- understanding sentences with complex grammar and syntax. If they can’t comprehend spoken sentences due to the length or complexity of the sentence structure, they won’t be able to understand written sentences of the same length or complexity (even if they are fluent decoders!).

5. Working memory and processing speed – students who have difficulties holding information in their working memory and short term memory, will find it difficult to comprehend the overall message of the text and will have difficulty recalling key pieces of information. Many students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Specific Learning Disability (SLD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) present with working memory difficulties which could impact on their reading comprehension.

How to effectively target reading comprehension. What reading comprehension strategies are effective?

Research summarised by the National Reading Panel Report and subsequent studies since have identified key strategies to improve reading comprehension. Here are some key points to take away:

Students who are still learning to decode fluently are unlikely to benefit from any reading comprehension ‘strategies’ . The focus should be on decoding fluency for most students in the Early Years and Lower Primary (Australian system). Comprehension should be targeted orally through shared reading. View my post on text selection in Primary Schools for more information on this.

If students do not have adequate topic knowledge or vocabulary, specific comprehension strategies such as summarising and comprehension monitoring will not improve their comprehension. Research has demonstrated that people with fluent decoding but poor comprehension do NOT show impairments in their phonological awareness/processing. They do however, show problems in spoken language (listening) comprehension and vocabulary. Topic knowledge (or schema knowledge) can be expanded on during pre-and post-reading group discussions. Explicit instruction of Tier 2-3 vocabulary within the text should also be taught BEFORE, DURING and AFTER reading tasks. Isabel Beck’s model of vocabulary instruction explains how to teach vocabulary to improve reading comprehension. The Freya model is also an excellent tool to teach vocabulary, as shown below. This can be adapted into a worksheet or PowerPoint for introducing vocabulary prior to reading a text which will assist in reading comprehension.

Explicitly Teaching comprehension strategies IS effective IF the student has adequate topic knowledge of the text and vocabulary. However, research has demonstrated that these strategies are generally learnt quickly and there is no benefit of continued instruction once students have acquired this skill. Here are some examples of effective reading comprehension strategies which can be taught to fluent decoders with adequate background knowledge and vocabularies:


For the fluent decoders in the room, here is a research-aligned sequence for comprehension instruction, using the example of a non-fiction text about The Pyramids of Egypt.

  1. PLANNING PLANNING PLANNING (teacher): I cannot stress the importance of reading the text BEFORE you introduce it to your students. I know this sounds obvious, however due to the never ending to-do-lists and busy schedules that teachers face, often this step is missed, particularly in Primary School Settings. You need to establish what concepts, knowledge and vocabulary the students will need to know to be able to comprehend (make meaning) from the text. E.g. They will need to have some knowledge about Ancient civilisations, geographical locations. They will need to understand Tier 2 and 3 Vocabulary that the author infers the readers already have (e.g. tombs, ancient, pharaohs, construction, slavery).
  2. ACTIVATE PRIOR KNOWLEDGE: Prior to reading the text/ specific chapter, facilitate a class or group discussion about Egypt, Pyramids etc. I like to use a KWL chart for this (What I know, What I want to Know, What I have learnt).
  3. TEACH TIER 2 AND 3 VOCABULARY: Explicitly teach Tier 2 and 3 words in the text which may hinder student comprehension, i.e. words that the author expects readers to have prior understanding/knowledge of and doesn’t explain in the text. It is important to teach and revise this vocabulary regularly throughout the reading unit, focusing on the word’s orthography (spelling) and semantics (meaning) for automatic recognition (and thus reducing cognitive load).
  4. PREDICTIONS AND INFERENCES: Facilitate discussions and pose questions to students to scaffold their comprehension of the text and ability to make logical predictions and inferences. ‘Think Alouds’ in a great strategy to support prediction and inferences, whereby the teacher models the thinking process involved in reaching logical conclusions- e.g. “the author stated that the wheel had not been invented yet, so I wonder how the Egyptians moved the slabs and construction materials to the site of the pyramids.”
  5. EXPLICITLY TEACH COMPREHENSION STRATEGIES: Once students have adequate topic knowledge and receptive vocabularies, introduce specific comprehension strategies such as summarisation, comprehension monitoring, use of graphic organisers/text mapping.
  6. REVIEW AND DISCUSS: After reading a text / part of a text, always leave ample time to discuss it with the students. Pose questions which facilitate higher order thinking:

Questions to facilitate higher order thinking in fiction texts:
Predict what the character will do next
Why did the character feel …?
How would you feel?
What is the relationship between these two characters?
What was the turning point?
Analyse how the character’s feelings changed throughout the text.

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a good model to use for asking higher order thinking:


If you are interested in learning more about reading comprehension, I found this book to be extremely informative and practical for teachers in Primary and Secondary school.

3 thoughts on “Why ‘fluent’ readers still can’t comprehend.”

  1. Great summary of how we now need to think about reading comprehension lessons in classrooms. Total rethink needed in primary schools. Thx so much for summarising this important topic so well.


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