All Articles Education Analysis Find the why to help adolescents improve reading comprehension and more

Find the why to help adolescents improve reading comprehension and more

Solve reading comprehension and other reading problems by determining why an adolescent is struggling, Suzanne Carreker writes.

5 min read


Young student against yellow background sitting at table with books and holding a finger to his head as if thinking for article on reading comprehension

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Some adolescent students (sixth grade and up) demonstrate deep knowledge of vocabulary in class discussions, but they may read slowly and inaccurately. Others are fluent readers who don’t always understand what they read; they’re proficient readers, but they don’t always meet grade-level expectations. 

SmartBrief Education Insights blurbThis variability in reading proficiency among adolescent readers — word recognition, fluency, oral language, vocabulary, general knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, cognitive capabilities and motivation — presents unique challenges for teachers. Pinpointing exactly why an adolescent reader struggles isn’t always easy, but it is critical. Studies show that students in sixth grade and above who read proficiently can expect greater academic success and economic opportunities overall.

Answering the “why?”

Many states have implemented college- and career-readiness standards to ensure that all students have acquired the knowledge, skills and work habits they need to succeed in college, work and life by the time they get to high school. Every year, secondary teachers await the assessment scores for validation of students’ achievement; administrators anticipate improved scores and higher graduation projections; and parents hope their children’s academic performance is on track. 

And every year the results are usually mixed: success for some, improvement for others. But still too many adolescent readers remain nonproficient. And while end-of-year assessment results reveal which students aren’t reading proficiently, they don’t answer the critical question of why the knowledge gap exists. If they don’t know the why, educators can’t adequately improve the proficiency of adolescent readers.  

Some of the answers to the why question are rooted in the concepts of decoding and linguistic comprehension. Decoding is the ability to read increasingly complex grade-level-appropriate material assuming that students have mastered the lower-level skills of reading. The goal of decoding instruction is for the reader to recognize words accurately and instantly. This is important because instant word recognition (aka automaticity) leads to fluency. 

Linguistic comprehension is the ability to derive meaning from sentences and texts through listening.  Without adequate linguistic comprehension, readers receive little reward for their effortless decoding. The contrast between these two components of reading distinguishes the possible causes of nonproficient reading and creates four distinct learner profiles.

4 distinct learning profiles

The Simple View of Reading proposes that reading comprehension is the product of two mutually dependent components: decoding and linguistic comprehension. Each component is necessary but not sufficient alone. This means that inefficiency in one or both components leads to overall reading failure.

This can result in four different learning profiles.

  • Profile 1: Grade-level readers. Students with adequate listening and reading comprehension are more than likely able to read grade-level-appropriate and increasingly complex text independently and proficiently.
  • Profile 2: Adequate linguistic comprehension and inadequate decoding. Students with adequate linguistic comprehension but inadequate decoding may be students with diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia. Here, inadequate reading comprehension is unexpected in relation to adequate linguistic comprehension, which may be at or above grade-level expectations. 
  • Profile 3: Inadequate linguistic comprehension and adequate decoding. Conversely, students with inadequate linguistic comprehension but adequate decoding are able to read fluently and spell accurately. However, they struggle to understand what they are reading, or what they are listening to. Poor listening and reading comprehension suggest that these students may have a language-based learning disability.
  • Profile 4: Inadequate linguistic comprehension and decoding. Students with inadequate linguistic comprehension and decoding may be garden-variety poor readers who may always struggle with either or both components. These students may have strengths in other cognitive abilities (e.g., spatial-oriented skills, problem-solving ability, musical ability). 

The majority of nonproficient readers will match profiles 2, 3 or 4, but some students may struggle with reading for reasons other than linguistic comprehension or decoding. For example, they may have executive function issues (e.g., attention, monitoring, remembering details, organizing information); experience difficulties quickly understanding and responding to information (i.e., slow processing speed); or lack motivation. 

Alone or in combination, these struggles may result in inadequate reading comprehension, regardless of proficiency in linguistic comprehension and decoding. A reader with adequate linguistic comprehension and adequate decoding could therefore exhibit inadequate reading comprehension for one or more of these reasons.

Additional considerations for ELLs

There are special profile considerations for English language learners, who may exhibit any one of these four profiles. It is important to ascertain these individuals’ linguistic comprehension and decoding skills in their first language as well as in English. Assuming ELLs have had sufficient instruction and experience to learn English, their learner profiles in English most likely will mirror their learner profiles in the first language.

Consequently, if ELLs have a history of linguistic comprehension or decoding difficulties in learning to read in their first language, they will experience the same difficulties in learning to read in English. Finally, students with limited exposure to English may struggle to read simply because of their lack of English language proficiency.

The key to academic success 

Reading proficiency is the key to academic success and economic opportunities, and time is of the essence when it comes to nonproficient adolescent readers. Fine-grained assessments can identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in critical reading skills and help teachers create accurate learner profiles. When exemplified by personas, these learner profiles can guide the delivery of the personalized instruction that will meet the learning needs of nonproficient readers. 


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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