Is reading comprehension a hidden disability?

reading.childWhen I was in grade school, our classes were always divided into smaller groups for reading instruction. These reading groups, for reasons that were never fully explained, were named after birds, so that the high-achieving readers were known as the Bluebirds, and the kids with the most difficulty were the Cardinals. The Robins and the Sparrows fell in between. Everyone knew what bird you were.

Yes, I was a Bluebird, and my best friend Bobby was a Cardinal. Since these groups met in a corner of the regular classroom, everyone could hear the others reading—or failing to read. I can still recall how uncomfortable it was to hear Bobby struggle with the words on the page. He just couldn’t make sense of them, so he would try to sound them out, or guess, or often as not just stare. It would take him forever to get through a sentence in this painstaking way.

This is how we typically think of a reading “problem”—the inability to decode symbols and change them into spoken language. Kids with this problem are hard to miss. But there may be many other kids in the classroom who are also poor readers, but in a very different way that’s often invisible. These kids read accurately and fluently from the page—they might even be Bluebirds—but they don’t understand the meaning of all those words rolling off their tongues.

Reading comprehension may be a “hidden disability,” according to a growing body of new research. We all know what reading comprehension is, since it’s a part of many formal achievement tests later in life. But it can often go undetected in the classroom—especially early on—because no one asks fluent readers if they know the meaning of what they just read. They’re good at recognizing words and saying them out loud, but that doesn’t mean they’re accomplished readers.

At least that’s the theory of psychological scientist Charles Hulme of York University, in the UK. He and a team of colleagues have been exploring this hidden reading problem, and they’ve come to believe that it may be at its heart a spoken language problem. For example, in one study of eighth graders—some poor decoders, others poor comprehenders, and the rest regular readers—the  poor comprehenders understood fewer spoken words, had worse spoken grammar, and understood less of what they heard. By contrast, they were essentially normal when it came to sounding out words. Poor decoders were the opposite: They couldn’t sound out many of the words, but had no deficits in vocabulary, grammar or listening comprehension. That sounds like Bobby.

But unlike Bobby and the other Cardinals, poor comprehenders have less conspicuous, yet broad language difficulties that pre-date reading—and most likely cause the later difficulties. These deficits are probably very common, and not severe enough to be diagnosed as a learning disorder. But the scientists believe they add up to a subclinical language disorder—and the foundation of later reading failures.

If poor reading is fundamentally a spoken language problem, it would seem to would follow that interventions ought to target spoken language—and that is exactly what Hulme and his colleagues have been trying. In one study, for example, they identified 8- and 9-year-old children who had reading comprehension problems, and randomly assigned them to different interventions. Some got help in reading and understanding written text, and others got only help with spoken language—no reading or writing—and still others got a mix of both. They all got 90 minutes of help every week for 20 weeks, after which their skills were tested. They were also tested again almost a year later, to see if any gains persisted.

The results were very clear. As Hulme (and colleague Margaret Snowling) report on-line in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, all three groups showed improvement in comprehension immediately after the training, but those trained only in oral language showed dramatic gains into the following year—much more than the others or the controls. What’s more, the gains from the oral language training—and the lesser gains from a combined approach—appeared to come from improvement in vocabulary, including vocabulary that had not been explicitly taught in the training. In other words, the spoken language training seems to have resulted in a generalized improvement in the kids’ ability to understand language.

These preliminary findings are encouraging. They suggest that the proper kind of teaching can remedy the language weaknesses that lead to poor understanding. And indeed, another study involving 4- and 5-year-old children also showed clear—and persistent—gains in vocabulary and grammar after training in oral language. This raises the hope that such early intervention might even prevent the development of reading comprehension difficulties.

Reading comprehension is critical to success in life, more than ever in history. Reading difficulties create educational difficulties, which in turn lead to social and economic disadvantage, including joblessness. Kids with poor comprehension skills may be flying under the radar of classroom teachers, but they can’t continue to avoid detection. They won’t be asked to read out loud in the real world, but they will be expected to know what they’ve read.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, is about thinking and decision making. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and in The Huffington Post.

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.


Working on improving listening comprehension and spoken language is the hallmark of what speech pathologists have been doing for years with children and young adults who show problems with reading. We have always believed that spoken language is the foundation for reading and writing development. Also, those with reading comprehension problems often begin to show problems with academics beyond grade 4 and into high school. Therefore, we should be working together in classrooms to boost spoken language ability for all students through middle and high school!

After receiving three reading groups in my first year of teaching, I never used three groups again. The only ones with the most confidence were the top readers in the first group. Because in each group there are variations of ability all recognized by others.

I developed a program where each child had their own reading book and soon was able to choose which stories of interest to read. Good comprehension followed after also being exposed to understanding literature read to them and thinking about writing their own stories.

See my blog about this approach:

As an adult, what options are available to help us retain what we read. To be able to further my college education, without the fear of not being able to remember any of the text would be a dream come true.

Your article ties in beautifully to points I am making with my capstone project. I teach 5th grade language arts and social studies and am finishing my graduate degree in elementary education. My research was conducted based on the impact of teaching reading through use of novel studies rather than the typical basals. Most often, my lessons consist of me reading aloud to the class, while they follow along with their own copy of the book. Throughout the lessons I ask for either oral or a quick written feed back on dry erase boards to check for understanding of various appropriate skills. My concern is I have focused my study o the impact of novels but I think there is an accidental variable due to the fact I have read so much aloud. Now that I am about finished with my research and writing my paper, and especially after reading articles like yours, I think the biggest factor to my students out performing local students is because of the presentation of the text being mostly oral rather than asking students to read and respond independently. What do you think?

I can relate to this entirely. I seem to fall into the poor comprehension category but my ability to read out words is fine. What help should I get?

This was tremendously helpful and hopeful. I appreciate it completely.

I have a son who is 9 years old. He was tested for gifted and a reading disability in the same year. He is in fourth grade and is on a six and seventh grade level in math. His reading is a second and third grade level. I have bought so many self help books and yet he seems to not be consistent with his fluency and retention. He can score 140 words per min today and score 60 tomorrow. I appreciate your insight.

What kind of “help with spoken language” is recommended?

My son who is also 9 years old, follows your definition of poor comprehender. As just a Jamie has said, my son also can work for aged 10 in maths, can read text for 12 year olds, but understanding what he has read is at age 6. What strategies can used to help him. Your insight would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Leave a comment.

Comments go live after a short delay. Thank you for contributing.