The Parish School Blog

Why Reading Comprehension Stalls

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Every parent looks forward to the day their child can read fluently. Society leads us to believe that this is the pinnacle of a child’s early academic career. We wait anxiously as they finally decode and make sense of paragraphs and chapters, and we celebrate because they can finally read! We gain major bragging rights if kids can read before preschool. And according to society, the earlier they can do this, the better! We’ve been told it indicates children will be more successful in their overall long-term education. Actually, this isn’t exactly true.

An article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (July 21, 2009) found the opposite to be true. They determined that early reading abilities (decoding) are often associated with early academic success, but less lifelong educational attainment. An internet search of many articles finds similar results. Early reading is correlated with success in elementary school, but doesn’t seem to lead directly to college enrollment or success.

What most people don’t realize is that decoding is only a small piece of the reading puzzle. The far greater challenge to becoming a successful reader is comprehension, especially in fiction. Reading comprehension is the ability to read text, process it and understand its meaning.

When a student isn’t comprehending, it seems logical that you should teach this directly or have them read it over and over. But our comprehension abilities rest on many synergistic concepts and dynamic processing. In other words, understanding the meaning of text relies on many different areas of knowledge, including our social knowledge. For example, in addition to the ability to decode and understand vocabulary and grammar, a reader must also recognize context or situation, understand inferencing and abstract language, get to the “gist” or gestalt, understand character and author “point of view” or perspective, and share imagination to envision a situation or experience different from their own. Interestingly, these are also the skills necessary to share space and interact with others.

While educators can directly teach and improve some areas required for reading comprehension, many other areas are innate and dependent on brain neurology. These are often not areas that can be quickly taught or learned, but rather, areas where students need more time to understand concepts and find strategies for learning or compensating for what their brain makes very difficult. For example, if your child struggles to see the gist or big picture and happens to be a very detailed thinker, they will need help with finding clues to see the big picture, as well as help interpreting what they see to even infer the big picture. Often, this can take therapy or specific tutoring to master. If your child is a black-and-white or literal thinker, then inferencing can be difficult for their brain. They will need specific work on learning to guess, finding clues in the text, and making inferences that fit those clues.

What else is required in comprehension past decoding, vocabulary and syntax (grammar) skills? Take a look at this list of essential abilities and concepts. This is just a sample, as there are MANY more. When your child struggles with comprehension, work with your educational team to identify the areas that might be challenging for them. Prioritize intervention and focus on these areas to help your child become a lifelong learner.


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Essential skills for successful reading comprehension:

  • Visualizes the text as they read it (uses the details that describe setting, situation, characters, etc.)
  • Imagines or visualizes an experience that is different from their own
  • Uses prior knowledge of the world to understand the context (relies on the ability to socially observe the world around us)
  • Uses context awareness to recognize the situations in the story and expected behaviors
  • Gestalt thinking to figure out the “gist” or big picture, and which details matter versus which details are not important (also helps us determine the main idea)
  • Makes inferences to understand indirect meaning (this is called smart guessing, too)
  • Understands vocabulary with abstract/figurative language (multiple meaning words and figuring out indirect meanings) to compare, contrast and categorize
  • Perspective-taking using clues to identify “point of view” (or the thoughts and feelings) of the different characters or even the author
  • Uses Theory of Mind (understanding another person’s knowledge, beliefs, emotions and intentions) to imagine how the thoughts of the character are different from their own
  • Understands and switches between the “voice” of different characters, including understanding the difference in perspective between first and third person narratives
  • Uses “people files” (recalling previously known information about a character) to observe and note details about a character
  • Perspective-taking to imagine what the characters think and feel about each other and in response to other characters’ actions
  • “Reads” character intentions and motives from the text
  • Compares their own world experiences and point of view to the character’s point of view
  • Identifies themes and moral messages in the text (relies on perspective taking, inferencing and indirect language)
  • Understands a wide breadth of emotions and emotional vocabulary
  • Shows awareness of the characters’ code switching (shifting languages or expressions used) in text based on different audiences, situations and settings


The Parish School specifically addresses these areas. However, every child’s brain is different and they all progress at their own pace and understanding. Work with your child’s teacher to break down what is challenging for your child and develop a teaching plan. In addition, many of the teachings, frameworks and strategies in Social Thinking® address the areas needed for reading comprehension. Refer to for more information.