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.

Van Kleeck says Kamhi is responding to the whole language approach to reading that was implemented in the 1980s. “The philosophy of whole language is that if you engage children in meaningful and interesting uses of print, this will be the critical foundation for them for learning how to read,” she explains. “The extreme version of it was, ‘Don’t worry about the decoding. It will take care of itself.’”

And that’s where the problems started to occur, according to van Kleeck. Though the approach might have worked just fine for most of the children, she says, those who didn’t have the language background or who had problems learning, weren’t getting the support the needed. “They couldn’t make the leap themselves,” she says.

By the late 1990s, there began a lot of talk about balancing comprehension instruction with instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, and this where No Child Left Behind got its start. “The NCLB law was signed, and by then the pendulum had shifted,” van Kleeck says. “NCLB had good intentions—the problem is in the implementation. There’s too much testing and not enough time for teaching.”

Kamhi’s position is that subject-specific teachers—teachers of social studies, science, and history—are the ones who should teach comprehension. “Essentially, they are teaching comprehension,” he says, “and they should know that in order to teach effectively.”

Comprehension is difficult to teach, Kamhi says. “Kids can learn to decode. It might take them a while, but it’s a highly teachable skill,” he says. “But it’s difficult to improve comprehension, because there’s no manual or program to improve comprehension. And the reason is because the best predictor of comprehension is familiarity with a topic.” Which is why Kamhi says subject-specific teachers are better positioned to teach comprehension skills.

But van Kleeck disagrees. “In some ways, it can be easier to package the decoding part of it, but I think manufacturers have been doing a great job making language-based, literacy-based products,” she says.

Kamhi points to E. D. Hirsch, who made famous the concept of “core knowledge,” a body of information across the curriculum that every child should know. “Hirsch said it takes five grade years to improve a standardized reading score,” Kamhi says. “But people who do an intervention are going to want to see immediate results.” He argues that by using the content courses—a core-knowledge-based curriculum—children’s knowledge, and therefore comprehension, will improve. But it will take time.