Reading Comprehension

“Boy, You’re in Hot Water”

Recently, 8-year-old Marty showed some signs of misbehavior when his mom exclaimed, “Boy, you’re in hot water now.”

Marty started having a meltdown, screaming and crying, “I don’t want to be in hot water!!!!!!!  I  It will hurt me!!!”

Seven-year-old Marissa became upset after her mom told her that her dad was not going to be home for dinner because he was, “tied up in traffic.”  “Why are they tying him up,” Marissa cried? “What did he do?  Who’s tying him up???”

When Walter started to get frustrated with his math assignment, his dad told him, “Oh, come on Walter, it’s a piece of cake.”  Walter looked at his father like he had lost his mind, saying his math work was a piece of cake.  What did he mean by that?

Georgette came home from school upset that children were making fun of her on the school bus.  “OK, Georgette, tell me about it.  I’m all ears.”  Horrified, Georgette started picturing her mother growing ears on her head, which then shut the conversation down.  Her mother was simply too weird to talk to her about anything.

Freely interspersed within our everyday language, we sprinkle different expressions and other figurative language such as similes and metaphors.  Such language can be quite lively and descriptive.

For many children, though, they don’t readily translate and they have no idea what’s being said leading to a form of communication breakdown.

What’s the solution? It’s not to stop using them.

One answer is that you make sure you are aware of your usage with such language. If your child’s eyes start to glaze over in confusion, then back up and ask, “Do you know what that means?”  If not, then clarify.

Takeaway Point

Make no assumptions about figurative language.  Many children will have no idea what different expressions, similes and metaphors mean.

Use the opportunity for enhancing your child’s language facility.

Don’t miss that boat!

Strike while the iron is hot!

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“Brief Tip:  Getting Clear on Remediation”

Most children referred for assessments are related to struggles with reading, spelling and writing.

Parents feel a sense of desperation and don’t know what direction to go.

Once the issues are identified, the remediation, unfortunately, can be a bit scattershot.  This is embodied in the statement a teacher recently told a mom, “Well, we do a bit of everything…a little comprehension, some decoding, and writing stories.  We’ll touch all bases.”

For the struggling children, I prefer a different mindset. Rather than a “touch-all-bases” approach approach, I go in a different direction.

To get clear on the remediation, start with the concept that there are are two fundamental types of reading problems:

  • Type I: The child has trouble with reading rate, accuracy and fluency.  The bulk of these are what largely fit the definition of dyslexia.
  • Type II: These are children who read fluently, but have difficulty understanding what they read.  Usually, they have trouble with inferences, interpretation of language and drawing conclusions.  Confusion reigns.

For either type, tutoring is a great way to go, but only if the tutor is clear on what the problem is and that they are committed to a laser-focused approach.

Scattershot may work for the children who are not in the Type I or Type II categories, but for the rest, it’s important to get clear.

Know what you are targeting.

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IIn last week’s post, I made the following statement as part of the primer on reading:

  • “Whether in the classroom or in tutoring for struggling children scattershot remediation will not be effective for either Type I or Type II categories.”

A parent contacted me who read the blog (nice to know that someone is reading them) asked what was meant by “scattershot.”

Here’s my take.

When tutoring children who show mild, moderate or severe Type I issues ( Type I or Type II ),  remediation should be laser focused.  There  would be little teaching of comprehension or engaging children with activities such as open-ended writing (e.g., “Write about your weekend.”).

When a teacher was asked by a mom  what approach was being used with her child showing significant deficits with word identification, decoding and reading fluency, the response was, “I do a little of this and a little of that – we do some comprehension with stories, some practice with reading out loud and writing imaginative stories.”

Sports analogies are helpful in countering a scattershot approach..  Let’s take tennis (although any sport would apply).

While playing a game  of  tennis is certainly more fun than working on basic skills, in the hands of a good instructor skill targeting would predominate.

If the tutor is not clear on the approach and is scattershotting, you may want to reconsider and find someone else.

Takeaway Point

Good testing data should help you get clear on what needs to be emphasized in remediation.  Be laser focused in your approach so you can hit the right target,

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Copyright, Richard Selznick, Ph.D.  2022,

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Reading Cause & Effect

One of the issues often forgotten in ADHD land is the underlying variable of social judgment and difficulty in being able to “read” cause and effect.  Difficulty with reading cause and effect impacts both social and academic functioning.

This is one of the reasons I struggle with the notion of treating ADHD as if it represents a whole pie chart with one treatment to consider, as in the  “take this pill and call me in three months” approach.

Stimulant medication stimulates.  Its purpose is to help you focus better.  That’s it.

There’s always more in the pie chart (or the soup pot) that a pill will not address, such as difficulty reading cause and effect.

For the life of me, I don’t understand how a stimulant will help someone who doesn’t read social cues or has difficulty interpreting while reading.


Let’s take Justin, a 15 year old I saw recently who has been diagnosed with “ADHD” by medical practitioners.  When I meet Justin and start to review what’s going on it is clear that there is more in the pie (there always is) than the, “He’s ADHD…that’s it.”

It was noted that Justin has a tendency to do the following:

  • Not think before doing.
  • Not realize certain actions bothers others.
  • Not notice when behavior causes negative reactions in others.

Variables of anger, oppositional tendencies and not “reading” situations well, result in all kinds of personal mayhem for Justin, not to mention Justin’s tendency to meltdown when he faces frustration without giving his behavior much thought.

In other words, in this soup pot was a good helping of a bunch of other stuff.

What does Justin need?

From my perspective, Justin needs to understand and practice the skill of cause and effect (yes, it is a skill).

For example, Justin recently mouthed off to a coach of his who ended up sitting him on the bench because of his mouthiness.  From Justin’s point of view, he was being treated unfairly and the coach “benched him for no reason.”  Even when his parents tried to explain it to him, Justin was outraged at the unfairness of it all.

This type of interaction experienced by Justin, is something that all kids may experience, but the fact of the matter is ADHD-style kids have these type of behaviors more often since they do not intuitively pick up on the cues or understand “cause and effect”  (i.e., if I say something that is rude or inappropriate, I don’t consider that there will be a cost).

Justin needs to have these interactions broken down in ways that he can have them pointed out to him in terms that he does not get overly defensive in order for him to potentially process what went wrong and where the break down occurred.

As you can imagine, since people are defensive by nature and (adolescents particularly so), this is not easy work and takes a long time with lots of back and forth over time for a kid like Justin to begin to look at himself.

Takeaway Point

If your child is “diagnosed” with ADHD and the primary (and perhaps only) recommendation is to be put on medication, you may want to ask something like, “Well, how will this address his difficulty with social cues?  What about the fact that comprehension is affected by inability to read certain aspects of the text.”

Copyright, 2019
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Poor Judgment & Reading Comprehension: What’s the Connection?

When Kids struggle with comprehension it is interesting that often there is an overlap in “real life,” that is in the way the child interacts in his personal world.  In this era of  quickly labeling and pathologizing behavior automatically  as “ADHD,” this overlap is something rarely considered, but I think it is worth reflecting on its implications.

Here’s an example.

12 year old Liam is a boy who recently got into a lot of trouble when he used inappropriate language (along with other inappropriate behaviors) on the bus.  When the bus driver tried to correct him, Liam doubled down and got mouthy and defensive.

In other words, Liam showed a lot of bad judgment.

Compounding this, when Liam’s parents attempted to discipline him, rather than become low-key and contrite, he became belligerent, melting down while punching walls.

(I know, everyone’s pulling out their, “ADHD  cards” and quickly putting him on medication, but I’m not so sure.  We need to dig a little deeper.)

Upon meeting Liam, he comes across pretty straight-forwardly and readily admits he has a problem managing anger.  Particularly noteworthy, Liam felt bad about what happened.  He regretted his behavior.

So, what’s the connection with reading comprehension?

When I evaluate Liam in different areas, something that jumps out at me is how little time he spends reflecting on questions asked of him and how weak he was at forming an inference while reading.

In other words, he jumped to conclusions based on very little data and he wasn’t oriented toward being reflective or considered in his approach to the reading process, just like he wasn’t being thoughtful on the bus or with his parents.

Liam needs to learn to “read the signals,” to slow down, to consider and evaluate.  I also understand that’s a lot easier said than done.

When reviewing the assessment with Liam and his parents in pretty direct terms (with a hint of a New York accent), this is what I said:

“Look, Liam, here’s the deal.  We need to work on your inferencing skills – that is, we need to help you pay attention to the clues or to ‘read the signals.’  Like on the school bus, you started to act out to try and get everyone thinking you were funny and you didn’t think it through.  You didn’t assess the consequences.”

(Believe it or not, Liam is actually taking it in and nodding.  He gets it, so I continue.)

“Since you didn’t think it through or consider what you were doing, you got in a lot of trouble.  You were furious with your parents even though they were 100% right.  Here’s the funny thing, when I tested your reading skills, you did the same exact thing.  Like when I asked you questions that did not have a straightforward or direct answer, you had no clue.  How come?  Because you weren’t reading the clues, just like on the school bus.  This is stuff we can work on.  You can get better in these skills.  Finally, we can work on helping you manage your anger better, since you readily admit you have problems with it.”

Liam felt good about what was said to him and his personal “battery” was recharged, since he was told these were skills he could improve.  He was determined to start “reading the clues.”

 Takeaway Point

There may be a connection as to how a kid behaves on the school business, manages emotions and reads a book.  Look for common themes.



Draining the Joy of #Reading


I’m not exactly sure when it occurred, when we collectively decided to drain the joy out of reading in early childhood, but it happened some time ago perhaps when we weren’t looking.

The expression about the frog being boiled by degrees so he won’t jump out of the pot, applies.

When it comes to reading we’ve been boiled by degrees and we weren’t aware of it.

The evidence for this comes from the dreadful worksheets brought to me by parents on a daily basis that are passed off as sham literature.

This week’s blog was prompted by parents who brought me “reading material’ on their child, young Brody, a second grader.   As I perused the packet of dreadful, there was a two page “story” that Brody was assigned.  The story had no redeeming value that authentic stories or literature would have, but what was even worse was what young Brody had to do after reading the story.  There were 20 multiple choice questions for the poor kid to slog through.  20!!!

The last time I looked, early second grade was not competing with the SAT.  Here’s one of the questions:

“If stir means “mix by moving around with a spoon” then stirred means

  1. Not mixing by moving around.
  2. Mix by moving around with a spoon
  3. Mixed by moving around with a spoon
  4. Mixing by moving around with a spoon.

Mind numbed yet?  I can just picture the author of this test congratulating himself for slipping in a way to learn about present and past tense.

Imagine 20 of these to sort out?

Keep in mind that I have not yet met or evaluated Brody, but the odds are pretty good that he has a reading problem.  Even if Brody turns out to be an adequate reader upon evaluation, the story and the 20 questions would have been stultifying to the best of students.

Somewhere along the line we got the notion that worksheets passing off as literature with their   accompanying tests were the answer, that each question somehow would bring the child to the next level of reading development.

I’m not buying it.

Twenty multiple choice questions following a faux story leads to turned-off kids, shutting them down.

Real literature ignites the imagination and gets the conversation going.  There’s meat on the bones.  Great stories motivate kids to read more great stories.


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Comprehension – Sometimes Forgotten in #Dyslexia Land

Those of you who have followed this blog or any of my stuff over the years, know the importance I place on the development of decoding skills and reading fluency.

In fact, I have viewed the mastering of decoding as a possibly the central task or hurdle for a child to get over in their early school years (see My Decoding Hurdle Obsession: ).

I’ve also been in the business long enough to see important movements in education and educational psychology fall by the wayside and be relegated to the Attic of Forgotten Educational Initiatives & Research.

I see Reading Comprehension as having been placed up in the Attic.

For years (approximately the mid 1980’s into the mid-1990s), comprehension as a research topic in cognitive psychology and as an educational initiative was red hot. A number of universities around the country were awarded millions of dollars in grant money to study the processes involved with reading comprehension and to find ways to enhance a child’s ability to understand text. There were lots of teacher training initiatives, too, designed to enhance teachers’ skills in teaching comprehension.

I thought of the research and these initiatives the other day when I evaluated a child, young Luke, a 9 year old fourth grader.

Luke’s testing did not show any of the usual “dyslexia” concerns, such as difficulty with phonemic awareness, phonics or fluency, but when it came to responding to questions Luke was genuinely puzzled. Particularly, challenging for Luke were answering questions that involved inferences, or what I call the “hmm, let me think about it” type of responses (vs. straightforward and factual).

Within the testing, Luke read a story about a treasure hunt. The story talked about how one child sent a lantern signal to another child who was out in a rowboat that it was ok to row ashore. When Luke was asked why the signal was given, he looked at me blankly and could further no guesses, stating, “It didn’t say why.”

That it didn’t say “why” explicitly was true, but one could infer it from the story.

By contrast, another kid I tested recently, gave a great answer to the same question showing full understanding, by saying, “It was to give the ‘all clear’ signal.”

Wow, what a great inference.

I refer to children who read reasonably fluently and who don’t show any great decoding difficulty as Type II Readers.

Just like Type I Readers (the ones with decoding and fluency difficulties), these kids also need direct and explicit instruction (along with a few other things in the mix.) We will be talking more about these specifically in up and coming blog posts.

Takeaway Point

The Attic of Forgotten Educational Initiatives & Research is really filled to the brim. You should go up there sometimes and blow off some of the dust and the cobwebs. You might find some things of interest.

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Hooks in the Mental Closet

Medication for ADHD in children may be less important than background knowledge and reading comprehension - add hooks to your mental closet.

As part of an assessment I recently asked 17- year-old near senior, Bethany, “Who wrote Hamlet?”  Looking bewildered, she said, “I have no idea.”

Then, when asked to define the word “tranquil,” she could not further no guess.  Bethany had no association to the word.

By the end of the assessment, it turned out that Bethany scored in the 16th percentile for word knowledge and the 9th percentile for fund of information and general knowledge.

In contrast, Bethany functioned somewhat above average on tasks that were nonverbal, like putting blocks together to make spatial patterns and while analyzing a series of visual patterns.

“I think I have ADD,” Bethany said to me.

“What tells you that,” I asked her.

“When I read my mind wanders.  I have no idea what I am reading.  In class I can’t follow what the teacher is saying and have no clue what they are discussing. It has to be ADD – I think I should be on meds. Most of my friends are on meds.”

“I should be on meds” – The Drive towards ADHD Medication for Children

I get that kind of thing a lot – kids thinking they should “be on meds.”

Even though Bethany may benefit from stimulant medication, what I do know is that one of the primary reasons Bethany does not pay attention in class or while reading is that she lacks what I call “hooks in the mental closet.”

Background Knowledge and Reading Comprehension

We used to think of reading as a fundamentally one-direction process.  In this model words would go from the page to the brain.  Researchers in the 1980s and 1990s enlightened us that  reading (and listening to class lectures) was more of a two-way, interactive process.

The fact is the more “hooks we have in our mental closet” (the researchers used different terminology, mind you), the better we comprehend what we are reading or understand what we are listening to.

These “hooks” also help us to pay attention.  While medication may help Bethany focus, she still needs to be building in background knowledge and word awareness to try and overcome her sense of feeling lost.

In short, Bethany needs to build in more hooks.

There are plenty of books on the market that may be helpful such as, “Words You Should Know In High School: 1000 Essential Words To Build Vocabulary, Improve Standardized Test Scores, And Write Successful Papers.”

Building Background Knowledge Strategies – 720 New Hooks

I can tell you with pretty good assurance that Bethany knew about 15% of the essential 1000 words.

Even if Bethany practiced two words per day for a year, she would be in much better shape with the 720 new words (365 words X 2) for the year that she could learn.

There would be 720 new hooks in her mental closet!!!

Takeaway Point

Hooks in the mental closet matter and may explain some of the reason your child is not paying attention or adequately comprehending. Try and build them in any way you can.


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Comprehension Land

This week we move a bit away from “Dyslexia Land,” and go the other side of the continuum to “Comprehension Land.”

A few observations about comprehension:

  • It’s really hard to assess properly.
  • What we accept as a “comprehension,” may well be a poorly written story or a test that the kid does not easily connect to or understand. In other words it’s the test or story construction that is the issue.  (Try reading some of the worksheets or tests that get passed off as good stories.)
  • Comprehension is not taught by worksheets.
  • It takes a lot of work to teach comprehension.

Let’s take young Jeremy, a fifth grader who shows some signs of a “comprehension problem.”

When assessed Jeremy was given three reading formats that assessed comprehension under entirely different conditions.

On a multiple choice test where he read the passage and answered the questions, he bombed out on an easy second grade level selection, but scored adequately on a much harder sixth grade story.  His struggling at the second grade level affected his overall score, but was that a comprehension problem?

With an informal reading inventory where Jeremy read the story both out loud and silently and was then asked questions of the stories, he missed many of the concepts at the third and fourth grade levels, but then was pretty capable at the sixth.

Again, that may not be a comprehension problem, but represent difficulty with certain passages.

Additionally, many children have not had sufficient practice or feedback on how to tackle reading selections.  With comprehension there needs to be a  back and forth dialogue that takes place between the teacher/tutor who acts a facilitator who can help guide kids to find answers or to respond when the information may not be all that explicit or clear.

A simple text example would be the following:

“When the people got on the train to go to work they had to make room for those carrying their coats and umbrellas.”

If a child was asked, something like “What do you think the weather was like in the story,” he might say something like, “I don’t know.  It didn’t say anything about the weather.”

That is because the child who answers like that is not tuned into to making inferences.

A child more tuned in might say, “Well, it mentioned coats and umbrellas, so I am guessing it was chilly and rainy.”

Such a response would be a perfectly plausible inference based on the text.

My guess would be that about 50% of the population of fifth graders are pretty capable of managing the processes involved with comprehending.

That leaves a hefty 50% who show what I refer to as, “Swiss cheese holes” in their understanding of what they read, especially with forming inferences.

Takeaway Point

What is called “comprehension” is complex and multifaceted.  It is very hard to make blanket statements about comprehension.

Ultimately, for kids struggling in this domain they need a lot of guided, back and forth practice conducted over  time to help them become more “tuned in.”

Reading Comprehension in the “Way Back Machine”

Let’s go once again into the “Way Back Machine.”  This time we will go to the mid 1980’s.  What was the red hot topic in the field of reading and cognitive psychology?

I will give you a hint.  It wasn’t decoding or reading fluency.

The topic of the decade, the one receiving millions of dollars of grant money across the country to major university centers (especially in the Midwest region), was not dyslexia.

The central topic was reading comprehension, with a particular emphasis on higher-order thinking, inferential reasoning and that funky term that almost no one understands –  “metacognition.”

Sadly, like most of these hot topic initiatives and movements (anyone out there remember Reading First), over time they are largely forgotten and put into the educational/psychological dust bin, sort of like an education  psychology version of Toy Story.  (“Hey, remember me, I was the toy you  played with all of the time  and now you’ve forgotten me.”)

Interactive Nature of Reading Process

Even though we are squarely in the Decade of Dyslexia (Is everyone “dyslexic” these days), there were important research findings from that era that are important to remember.   (Sadly, our version of “evidence based” practice seems to be based on about a five year window of research, so good research conducted in a time such as the 1980’s would not make the cut.)

One of the biggest take away points from that time is the interactive nature of the reading/learning process.

We used to think about reading in more one-directional terms.  That is, there was text on the page that somehow went up through the eyeballs and into the brain for comprehension.

The cognitive psychologists studying this stuff in the 1980s told us that was erroneous.  Reading was not a one-directional process. Instead, we have “schema,” (i.e.,  prior knowledge or the stuff in our head) that gets activated while reading.

The more “stuff” (schema) we have in our head, the better will be our understanding of the material on the page.

Another big takeaway that is now in the dust bin is that in order to improve comprehension we need to interact with different types of questions that stimulate a child to seek information and find justifications in the text.    In other words, just answering questions on a worksheet was not how to teach comprehension.

Inferential thinking is a skill that does not come naturally to many kids, but can be taught with good facilitated instructional practice and questions that guide this type of thought process.

Comprehension is not an easy skill to teach, but if the research findings were followed, comprehension could be improved.

Takeaway Point

Some of the toys forgotten in the toy chest may still have some value.


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