Struggling readers do not understand why they have difficulty comprehending. To assist these children, we need to understand why and where their difficulties are occurring.

It is important to note that learning to read written texts is not the same as learning to understand written texts. When a reader comprehends a text, the components of reading comprehension are weaved tightly together. This means that difficulty in just one component can affect overall comprehension.  

Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001), shown below provides insight into some of the complexities of reading.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope is made up of lower and upper strands. 

The lower strands include:
  • Phonological awareness
  • Decoding
  •  Sight recognition
The upper strands include:
  • Background knowledge
  • Vocabulary
  • Language structures
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Literacy knowledge

Strands of the rope work show the complexity of reading comprehension Strands weave together to enable comprehension. A breakdown in comprehension can occur if there is a 'break' in a strand. Red refers to Language, blue refers to decoding



Background Knowledge

Readers rely on background knowledge to attend to and make sense of what they are reading.  Even if you can read the words easily, it does not necessarily mean that you can understand what you are reading.  Knowing about a variety of subjects and topics makes it more likely that a child will be able to make sense of what they are reading, and more likely that they will build on their existing knowledge.


Vocabulary Knowledge involves:

  • understanding the vocabulary
  • seeing relationships among words and concepts,
  • organising ideas,
  • evaluating the context
  • making judgments

Many children who successfully learn to read in grade one or two are unable to understand books they read by grade three or four. One of the reasons for this is a lack of adequate vocabulary. Vocabulary knowledge is not all or none. There are different degrees of vocabulary knowledge.  However, there is increasing evidence that comprehension is particularly dependent on deep level vocabulary knowledge.

Young children cannot be taught word definitions. Instead, they learn to make inferences and work out the critical features in a word . When a toddler ‘labels’ all four-legged animals as ‘doggy’ they are starting to identify that a critical feature is four legs and possibly a tail. Later they will discriminate between dogs and cats because they have inferred that not all four legged animals with tails are dogs. To develop deeper levels of vocabulary, it is important to understand how unfamiliar words relate to other words, provide synonyms and antonyms, and organise the information so that it can be retrieved. 

Once children start reading, most new vocabulary is learned through reading, not from being directly taught word meanings.

Language Structure

Syntax or sentence structure refers to how words are arranged in a sentence.

For example,  The dog chased the cat; The dog was chased by the cat.

Although the words in the two sentences are almost identical, the meaning in the two sentences is different; – the ”chaser’ is different.   To understand the two sentences, one needs to understand how the word order of different types of sentence convey meaning.

Reading comprehension involves constructing meaning from written texts. Sentence construction in written texts is often more complex than in spoken language. It is therefore important to understand different kinds of sentences.

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal reasoning refers to skills such as forming inferences and understanding abstract language, such as metaphors and idioms. Inference skills are important for text comprehension and developing vocabulary knowledge (discussed above).

Inferencing skills are linked to working memory. Children need to accurately remember key parts of the text to construct a mental model. They then need to link the information and incorporate background knowledge (where possible) to make sense of information that is not explicitly stated in the text.  Even short, simple texts require inferencing skills.  For example:

Mary heard the ice cream van coming.

She remembered her pocket money.

She rushed into the house to get it.

She in the second and third sentences refers back to Mary in the first sentence and, thus, provides a link between those sentences. Similarly, ‘it’ in the final sentence refers back to Mary’s pocket money.  The reasons for Mary’s thoughts and actions are not stated in the text but, if you have some background knowledge about an ice cream van and pocket money, you could infer that Mary intended to buy an ice cream using her pocket money.

Literacy Knowledge/Text Structure

Different kinds of texts give the reader clues about the type of information to expect.


xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx                        $XX.XX

xxxxx xxxxx     xxxx  xxxx xxx xxxxx xxxx xx                                                    $XX.XX

In the above example, if you were told that the text is from a menu, you would know where to look for the name of the item on the menu and the price, based on the structure of the text.  You would understand that the X’s represented letters in the word and the groups of X’s together represented  individual words.

Children develop an awareness of Literacy before formal schooling by having stories read to them, and by watching movies and cartoons. This forms the basis of understanding different kinds of text structures.  Later on, literacy knowledge and text structure can also be  described in terms of the way the text is organised. Understanding the purpose of the text assists with comprehension.

For example:

  • Description: A topic is described by listing various characteristics, features, and examples.
  • Sequence: Items are presented in chronological order.
  • Compare and contrast: Two or more items are presented. Similar and different features are discussed.
  • Cause and effect: One or more causes and effects are detailed.
  • Problem and solution: A problem is stated and various solutions are presented.

It is well documented that a child’s knowledge of story structure  is predictive of how well the child will do in reading comprehension with stories later in school.


Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words. For example,  identifying rhyming words,  recognising alliteration,  identifying the syllables in a word, and blending and segmenting onset rimes. The most sophisticated — and last to develop — is called phonemic awareness.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. This includes blending sounds into words, segmenting words into sounds, and deleting and playing with the sounds in spoken words.

There is variation in the literature in terms of the age that the individual skills develop, However, it is clear that the skills area hierarchy.   Difficulty in lower-level skills may affect higher skills.

There is a great deal of variation in the literature in terms of age of development Ages are not rigid


Decoding  is the ability to apply one’s knowledge of letter-sound relationships. This includes  knowledge of letter patterns so that written words are pronounced correctly.   When children are able to understand letter-sound relationships, they can recognise familiar words quickly and figure out words they haven’t seen before.

Awareness of the sounds in spoken language is required to learn letter-sound correspondences; blend sounds to decode a word; and “map” words into long-term sight vocabulary (Kilpatrick, 2015).

Sight Word Recognition

The ability to identify/read a word automatically or at sight typically results from having previously decoded the word multiple times.

High- frequency words such as “the” “and “of,”  comprise the 100 most common words (Fry, Kress, & Fountoukidis, 2000). These word need to be learned automatically so that smooth, fluent word recognition and reading can take place.

Skilled readers who decode well, tend to become skilled at sight word recognition because  they are more aware of phonemes (sounds) in words. Good readers read more often and are exposed to irregularly spellt, highly frequency sight words.

Reading comprehension is a complex process in itself, but it also depends upon other important lower-level processes. It is a critical foundation for later academic learning,

It is an important skill to target, but we should not forget about the skills on which it depends. (Kirby, 2007)


Kirby, J. R. (2007). Reading comprehension: Its nature and development. Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development (pp. 1-8). London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Retrieved from

Nation, K. (2019) Children’s reading difficulties, language, and reflections on the simple view of reading, Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 24:1, 47-73, DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2019.1609272

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2019). Reading Comprehension and Reading Comprehension Difficulties. In D. A. Kilpatrick, R. M. Joshi & R. K. Wagner (Eds.), Reading Development and Difficulties: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice (pp. 83-115). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email