Assessing reading difficulties accurately is complicated because many tests commonly used do not measure the same underlying skills. Choosing the right tests is important for ensuring that children with reading problems are not overlooked. In order to read effectively, children need to be able to decode print and to understand its meaning. Children may have trouble with either or both of these skills.
Difficulty with decoding is relatively easy to recognize in the elementary classroom–the child has difficulty “sounding out” words accurately and efficiently. However, some children who can read the words on the page have difficulty understanding what they read, yet this may not be evident from certain test results.
Research demonstrates clearly that phonological skills are necessary for decoding and that decoding is essential for reading comprehension. But there are other factors that contribute to effective reading. Listening comprehension is an important component of reading comprehension, particularly of text, but also to some extent at the level of single-word reading.
It is speculated that children’s ability to use contextual information to decode an unfamiliar word is intimately related to their comprehension skills. Although poor comprehenders read low-frequency regular words (words that follow common phonological rules) as accurately as good readers do, they are less accurate at reading low-frequency irregular words, especially abstract words.
Studies in England reveal that between 10 and 15 percent of 7- and 8-year-olds have specific reading comprehension problems. Because children with comprehension problems often demonstrate age-appropriate reading accuracy, many are not recognized in the early years as having any reading difficulties. However, their failure to understand what they read soon leads to generalized difficulty across the curriculum.
Comparing group screening tests
There are many tests that can be used to screen children in groups for reading problems. These can be used efficiently if we know what each really measures and what kind of remediation will help those scoring poorly on particular tests.
Two recent studies in England examined the nature of different tests of reading accuracy, reading comprehension and listening comprehension. In the first study, 1,847 ten-year-old students completed a listening comprehension test, three tests of reading accuracy (reading nonwords, single words and text) and two tests of reading comprehension (text comprehension and sentence comprehension).
Comparisons of students’ scores on these tests revealed some interesting relationships. Sentence comprehension was most closely related to word recognition; differences in performance on the sentence-comprehension test were comparable to individual differences in word recognition. Word recognition predicts sentence comprehension. However, text comprehension was more dependent on the quality of a student’s listening comprehension.
To further analyze students’ reading problems, a second study was carried out comparing the performance of children with specific comprehension problems to children who demonstrated normally developing reading and language skills. These groups were matched for age and nonverbal ability, including nonverbal decoding skill. The poor comprehenders had the most difficulty with those tests that depended on listening comprehension and the least difficulty on tests that measured decoding by itself. Reading tests that measure reading accuracy (decoding) vary in the extent to which they rely on comprehension ability. Nonword reading is the least dependent on comprehension ability. And tests of reading comprehension differ in the extent to which they rely on decoding skills.
Comprehension problems overlooked
It is important to consider what underlying skills each reading test is measuring, and to question carefully why a child succeeds or fails on a particular test. These researchers believe that comprehension problems are sometimes overlooked in the primary grades because some screening tests measure only decoding and comprehension of single words. They state that it is important to analyze the tests we use in order to ensure that we identify all comprehension problems and provide help before students have difficulty across the curriculum.
“Assessing Reading Difficulties: The Validity and Utility of Current Measures of Reading Skill” British Journal of Education Psychology, Volume 67, pp. 359-370.
Published in ERN March 1998 Volume 11 Number 3