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Learning — Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension in Children

Young boy happily reading a book.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 11 Sep 2023

Published 16 Jan 2022

What Is Reading Comprehension In Childhood?

Reading comprehension in childhood is the ability to understand the material that one is reading. 

When reading fiction, this skill includes comprehending the content of the text, such as the actions, characters, and plot sequence. 

Children with good reading comprehension make movies in their minds as they read. When attempting to recall the story later, they can look back at the pictures in their minds as a reference. They can use working memory to hold information in their mind as they connect ideas forming this cohesive story. 

For nonfiction, reading comprehension includes understanding and remembering the information presented. We tend to assess both reading comprehension and basic reading skills according to grade level. In the third grade, we have a significant learning shift from the idea of learning to read to reading to learn. 

Symptoms of Reading Comprehension Issues in Children

Reading is one of our first measures of academic success. If your child does not read well, this challenge has likely 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:

  1. First, they tend to fail to remember what they read. As they read aloud, they may appear to understand but cannot recall much of the story when asked comprehension questions.
  2. 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?’”
  3. Third, children with poor comprehension may not remember important characters. They cannot tell you what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of a story, using a logical sequence.
  4. Finally, children who have inadequate reading comprehension skills tend not to integrate what they read. They fail to put the elements of the story together into a meaningful whole. 

Causes of Reading Comprehension Issues in Children

There can be many reasons why a child may struggle with reading comprehension. 

Basic reading skills

A precursor to reading comprehension is basic reading skills involving phonological awareness, sounding out and reading words, word recognition for sight words, and vocabulary development. 

Limited vocabulary or background knowledge

Reading comprehension will be difficult if a child has a limited vocabulary or background knowledge. Also, reading slowly can impact understanding. Sometimes, teachers can identify a reader who needs help with phonological skills, language skills, or other reading difficulties via oral reading exercises in school. 

Listening comprehension

For young children, assessing listening comprehension is one way to get a read on a child’s comprehension skills before they have fully developed as readers. Reading comprehension is impacted when children read very slowly or do not recognize words. These issues may be seen as learning problems or learning difficulties. Identifying these challenges early in school allows a child to participate in small group support or tutoring (private and in school) that can have a considerable impact. 

Types of Reading Disorders

  • Specific learning disabilities in reading: children who have difficulty accurately reading the words will also struggle with reading comprehension. In the school system, kids may receive an educational identification of Specific Learning Disability due to comprehension or fluency. When the child has significant difficulty decoding words accurately, despite average or higher intellectual ability, this pattern is generally associated with a clinical or medical diagnosis of Dyslexia
    • At school, reading disorders are identified differently. Students with very low reading comprehension, despite adequate education and evidence-based intervention, are generally considered to have a Specific Learning Disorder, With Impairment In Reading. Most children are identified with this disorder in elementary school, but learning disorders persist even into adulthood.
  • Reading comprehension disorder: When reading comprehension is the main issue, psychologists call this a ‘hyperlexic’ profile. 
  • Cognitive or processing issues: Some children will struggle with reading comprehension due to difficulty thinking quickly or visually processing the information on the page. Children with intellectual disabilities or slower processing speed are likely to struggle with basic reading skills and reading comprehension. You may see these children also struggle with skills like following directions.


The most important way to differentiate reading issues is to understand the difference between reading comprehension and reading fluency. In the Dyslexic reading profile, a child will have extreme difficulties with reading fluency but not necessarily comprehension. 

Reading issues are often misunderstood when parents are looking at standardized test results. It is important to understand that your child may score in the 25th percentile for reading skills and still be considered ‘average’ by the school. This placement is technically true. Most tests consider the 25th – 75th percentile to be the average range. 

Unfortunately, most tests do not differentiate between reading fluency and reading comprehension. As psychologists, we have often seen a child score in the 25th percentile on standardized tests who has not received any reading intervention. 

However, when the child’s reading skills are tested more comprehensively, the following pattern emerges:

  • Basic Reading (Reading Fluency & Accuracy): 5th percentile 
  • Reading Comprehension: 45th percentile
  • Reading Overall (Reading Composite): 25th percentile

A pattern of results like this one causes the psychologist to have an immediate concern for dyslexia. 


This child is showing extreme difficulty with basic reading skills but has the intellectual capacity to make sense of the reading materials. This pattern is a classic sign of dyslexia and indicates that further intervention will be needed at home and school. Many children with this reading pattern need intensive intervention from a private tutoring program like Lindamood-Bell or Orton Gillingham. 

A child with an average IQ who cannot read accurately has the dyslexic reading pattern. Children with the opposite pattern who can read accurately but not understand the reading have the hyperlexic reading pattern.

What to Do About Reading Comprehension Issues in Children

If your child does not remember what they read, consider getting intervention early and often.

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

With that in mind, make sure that your child not only can read well but can understand what they read. 

If your child is struggling, consider the following:

Consult the school: If you are concerned that your child does not understand what they read, reach out to the teacher. The teacher may have assessments that they can do to find out where your child’s skills are compared 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 their school career. When reading, frequently stop to ask your child comprehension questions. Ask your child who the characters are, what the setting is, and the story’s main idea. Regularly stop to find out if your child is following along as you read together.

Avoid criticism: Although you do want to check on your child’s comprehension, it is more important to keep reading fun. Here are some great strategies to use when reading with your child to help them learn without making reading a chore.

  1. Popcorn read: Read one page and then ‘pop’ it over to your child to read the next page. Go back and forth until you get through the chapter or section. Talk about the reading afterward and tell your child what you enjoyed about the reading.
  2. Neurological impress: Read at the same time as your child, following along with your finger. Do not stop to make sure your child reads every word correctly. Practice together reading smoothly and fluidly. Then talk about the text afterward and share your favorite parts of the text.
  3. Parent read for comprehension: Pick a fun novel that is a little bit of a high level for your child. Read it aloud to your child each night, one chapter at a time. Stop after each section and talk through your child’s comprehension. Ask questions like, “what happened to…” “why do you think that happened…” and “what do you think will happen next….”
  4. Picture walk: Before reading a book, ask your child to tell the story from the pictures. You can prompt your child by saying, “If these pictures could talk, what would they be saying?” Then, you can read the story to your child. Follow up to see if the pictures matched what the story said. By reading books in this way, you are teaching your child to think about the meaning and context of the words.

All of the above strategies are excellent ways to encourage your child to enjoy reading. It is more important to make reading enjoyable than it is to get all the words right. Your patience and persistence can go a long way in advancing your child’s skills.

When to Seek Help for Reading Comprehension Issues in Children

An evaluation may be necessary if your child continues to struggle despite intervention at school and home. 

A clinical or school psychologist can assess your child’s intelligence (IQ) to determine if cognitive factors are interfering with your child’s reading. In addition, diagnostic reading tests can be conducted, such as the GORT or CTOPP, which will help identify the specific areas where your child is struggling. 

Most importantly, if your child is diagnosed with a learning disability in reading, they should be considered for reading support at school, either through intervention or specialized instruction on an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Further Resources on Reading Comprehension Issues in Children

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider mental health, intellectual abilities, reading skills, and overall learning abilities.  Psychologists can diagnose Dyslexia after completing a comprehensive evaluation. 
  • School psychologist: to consider symptoms in a learning context, evaluate for school services, and can intellectual abilities. In collaboration with a special education team, School Psychologists can identify Specific Learning Disorders in Reading.
  • Speech-language pathologist: to consider issues with receptive or expressive language. Speech-Language Pathologists can help identify language disorders and provide interventions for comprehension issues.

Similar Conditions to Reading Comprehension Issues

  • Verbal comprehension: difficulty understanding spoken language generally impacts reading
  • Learning problems or disabilities: difficulty learning may be an issue if your child does not understand what they read
  • Spatial reasoning: difficulty 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

References on Reading Comprehension

[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.