Supporting Children with Reading Comprehension Difficulties

Most people have heard of dyslexia, a reading difficulty characterised by problems with single word reading.  While there has been much debate about whether the term dyslexia is outdated, it is widely accepted that a significant number of children (estimated 3-10%) suffer from difficulties in single word reading, characterised primarily with difficulties in decoding.

Children with RCI do not have difficulties with word reading, but rather the comprehension of what they read.

On the other hand, reading comprehension impairment (RCI) - a reading difficulty characterised by having problems with comprehension despite being able to decode (i.e., read words)  accurately - is far less well known, despite similar prevalence rates (estimated ~10%). Surprisingly, many teachers have never heard of RCI, although when learning about it, can usually identify a child or children in their class who shows specific difficulties with comprehension (when compared to their word reading skills).

While dyslexia and RCI are both recognised reading disorders, they require very different types of support.  Children with RCI typically have difficulties with language (e.g., listening comprehension, vocabulary, grammar), inference making, may be poor at monitoring their own comprehension of written text and may suffer from poor working memory.   

Research has been carried out to examine the effectiveness of different approaches to support children with RCI.  Research has examined the effectiveness of interventions focusing on:

Inference training

This typically involves asking children to pick out words from passages and explain how the words contribute to the overall meaning of sentences or stories. Children can also be asked to make predictions by trying to guess the content of hidden sentences using clues from the surrounding text, in addition to generating questions about the text.

Reciprocal teaching

This involves encouraging and supporting children to work in groups on a reading comprehension task, each taking on different roles within the discussion: clarifying, summarising, predicting and question generating.

Mental imagery

This involves asking children to picture stories and answers to comprehension questions in their minds, and also use drawings to represent stories.  


This involves asking children to create verbal summaries of what they have read (often used in conjunction with mental imagery).

Oral language skills

This involves working solely with spoken language (i.e., not written text).  In a recent oral language intervention, four approaches were used: 1) developing vocabulary (by teaching words in multiple, but familiar and relevant contexts), 2) reciprocal teaching (clarifying, summarising, predicting and question generating) after listening to a passage of text, rather than reading it, 3) exploring figurative language (including idioms, riddles, jokes, similes, and metaphors) and 4) spoken narrative activities.

For children to read for pleasure, they need to understand and draw meaning from what they read.

Research studies examining these approaches have found significant gains among children with reading comprehension difficulties following intervention.

In addition to cognitive difficulties, poor readers often have lower levels of motivation to read, higher levels of reading anxiety and report lower reading self-concept (i.e., positive perceptions of themselves).  Supporting poor readers in these areas is just as important.  See my previous blog post for information on how to support reading motivation and engagement.

Remember, children with RCI do not have difficulties with word reading, but rather the comprehension of what they read.  For children to read for pleasure, they need to understand and draw meaning from what they read. Indeed, it is not the functional (i.e., ability to decode) aspects of reading that children fall in love with, but rather the stories that they read and the new information they acquire from books.  Identifying children with RCI as early as possible, and providing effective support, is therefore crucial to ensure these children can also access the powerful nature of written text.


Duff, F. J., & Clarke, P. J.  (2011). Practitioner Review: Reading disorders: what are effective interventions and how should they be implement and evaluated?  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52, 3-12.

Clarke, P., Snowling, M.J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating children’s reading comprehension difficulties: A randomised controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21, 1106–1116.

Elliott, J. G., & Grigorenko, E. L.  (2014).  The Dyslexia Debate.  Cambridge University Press.

McArthur, G., & Castles, A.  (2017). Helping children with reading difficulties: Some things we have learned so far.  NPJ Science of Learning, 2-7.

McGeown, S. P., Norgate, R., & Warhurst, A.  (2012).  Exploring intrinsic and extrinsic reading motivation among very good and very poor readers.  Educational Research, 54, 309-322.

Check out Sarah's other blog posts on motivating children to read and gender differences in reading.


Top image by Valeer Vandenbosch on Freeimages.

Dr Sarah McGeown

Dr Sarah McGeown is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology in the Moray House School of Education.  Her literacy research spans a range of areas, including early reading acquisition and development (phonics), reading and spelling, sex differences in reading, reading comprehension with different text types and reading motivation and engagement.  She is committed to working with teachers, policy makers and literacy organisations to encourage greater use of research evidence to support and improve practice.  More details of her research can be found here