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For many parents, it can be troubling to hear that their child is underperforming in reading. After all, reading underscores all areas of learning, and poor reading skills can be a huge obstacle to a student in high school, college, and beyond. However, “reading” scores cannot be taken at face value, since there are many different areas of reading skills, and a child might excel in one while struggling in another.
Testing for reading comprehension and the ability to decode words are two entirely different things, argues Alan Kamhi, Ph.D., Communications Sciences and Disorders Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“If parents hear their child is experiencing reading failure, they need to find out whether it’s difficulty decoding words or with comprehension,” Kamhi says. The problem is that even though teachers assess decoding skills and comprehension separately, a combined “reading” score is reported to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
“It’s much like only knowing your cholesterol number,” Kamhi says. “You don’t really know the breakdown from the total score. Your cholesterol score may be ‘normal’ even though you have a high LDL number—which is the bad cholesterol. There may still be reason for concern. Likewise, without knowing how a child scores separately for word recognition and comprehension, a teacher or parent won’t know where a child’s deficits lie and what areas they need to work on.”
Many speech-language and education researchers agree with Kamhi, although his recent paper in the journal of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) triggered some discussion. In fact, ASHA held a clinical forum this past spring to address the advantages and disadvantages of embracing a definition of reading that is restricted to word recognition.
“I agree that you need of think of decoding and comprehension as separate skills,” says Anne van Kleeck, Ph.D., Professor and Callier Research Scholar in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, “but I think it’s dangerous to say kids learn to decode and then after that we worry about their reading comprehension.” Van Kleeck points to a growing body of research that shows the oral language skills children develop at a young age to be critical foundations for reading.
“We are teaching comprehension when we foster oral language skills,” van Kleeck says. For example, when we read aloud to young children and encourage them to respond verbally to the reading—to make personal connections or inferences about books—we help them develop their comprehension skills. They may not be able to decode words on their own yet, but they can make predictions and generalizations and judgments, all very well known, van Kleeck says, to be critically important to comprehension and reading success.
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