When They Read But Don’t Understand


When They Read But Don’t Understand: The Leap From Decoding To Comprehension

by Grant WigginsAuthentic Education

How well are we doing in comprehension of text as a nation? You know the answer. We are doing poorly when it comes to genuine comprehension:Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 9.16.48 AM

And look at math vs. reading:

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 5.44.24 PMAnd this, from a Christian Science Monitor article on 12th grade NAEP results in reading:

In many ways, the 2013 reading scores for 12th-graders were even more discouraging [than the lack of progress in math]. While the average score of 288 was unchanged from 2009 – and two points higher than in 2005, which represented a nadir for the reading score – it was lower than the average of 292 back in 1992. 

A full 25 percent of 12th-graders in 2013 scored below basic, compared with 20 percent in 1992, and just 37 percent scored at or above proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992. Those scoring at the proficient level could answer questions requiring them to recognize the paraphrase of an idea from a historical speech and the interpretation of a paragraph in such a speech.

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.42.06 AM

[I added the NAEP chart on 12th grade reading since my focus here is on older students, and the trend is so dismal].

What should we infer from the data?

Numerous causes and their implied solutions, as readers know, have been proposed for flat reading scores: poverty, low expectations, inadequate background knowledge, an anti-boy bias in schools (especially in terms of book selection), IQ links to reading ability, computer games, TV, etc. etc.

The utterly flat national trend line, over decades, says to me that none of these theories holds up well, no matter how plausible each may seem to its proponents. Perhaps it’s time to explore a more radical but common sense notion: maybe we don’t yet understand reading comprehension and how it develops over time.

Maybe we have jumped to solutions before understanding the problems of naïve and superficial comprehension. Maybe we still haven’t specified, in diagnostic detail, what real readers do when they supposedly read books and articles and try to comprehend – regardless of what “good readers” supposedly do.

At the very least: it is a good time to question the premise that we understand the problem.

The Black Box

Reading is the hardest thing in the world to teach and assess because the reading mind is a black box: we cannot see inside the mind to see what people are doing when they read. We can only infer what readers are doing from what they tell us, write us, and show us. But what they tell, write, or show is neither direct nor necessarily valid evidence. (Maybe they read well but write or speak poorly, for example). Self-reporting of mental states is often inaccurate; expert readers may have forgotten how they came to learn to read for understanding; young readers may lack metacognitive ability and language to describe their reading as it unfolds.

In later posts I plan to share the surprisingly thin evidence about how readers actually read when they try to comprehend text. For now, I merely ask you to keep an open mind.

My Own Trials & Tribulations With Reading

I have always been puzzled by the idea of what it means to read because I was a poor reader in school – without realizing it! For a long time I got by. My analytic skills and basic smarts hid the fact, from me as well as my teachers in school, that I could not do what we now call close reading and core comprehension acts, such as summarize an author’s point, state the “moral of the story,” or identify the key “moves” in an argument (and pose questions about those moves). There were hints: an English teacher who said I was “too literal” a reader (without telling me how to be otherwise); a teacher who said I “didn’t seem to be thinking” about what I was reading.

It wasn’t until much later – in college – that I became more aware of my failures as a reader and more self-conscious of how limited my take on “reading” really was. The “reality therapy” feedback became unavoidable: I was put on probation at the end of my sophomore year. (A sad irony in that I was attending St. John’s College, the so-called Great Books school.) Yet, I knew from seminar discussions and feedback on papers that my performance was weaker than it should have been. But I still didn’t understand exactly why or how. As in most high schools and all colleges, alas, I was not taught to read hard books, I was merely assigned them.

I didn’t realize that I wasn’t reading properly until my junior year when I serendipitously spotted a book on a friend’s shelf in his dorm room: How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren. Within a few minutes of skimming the first chapters I was bolted intellectually awake: the authors were vividly describing my bad habits as a reader and offering some clear and easy-to-follow tips on how to remedy them when faced with challenging texts. I was helped to realize that when I “read” I merely scanned words passively; I took no steps to converse with the text. Slowly but surely my reading improved by following their advice, the gist of which was to force oneself to ask and answer certain probing questions of the text, in writing, in the margins. To comprehend better is, in part, to force oneself to think more effectively.

Vital Hints In The Literature On Literacy

Thus, as my wife puts it, when is the problem of incomplete comprehension one of reading and when is it one of thinking? What is well-intentioned but ineffective reading/thinking, and how can one recognize the problem as such? This passage from Kylene Beers really resonated with me when I read it last year as part of my multi-year action research project on this topic:

I once thought that if my students could make an inference, any inference, then my teaching woes would be over… The problem with comprehension, it appeared, was that kids couldn’t make an inference.

I shared this frustration with Anne [the Principal]…. I stood leaning against her office door, complaining that that the kids she had given me that year could not make an inference. She simply replied: “Well, teach them.”

“Teach them what?”

“Inferencing. Teach them how to make an inference.”

“You can’t teach someone how to make an inference. It’s inferential. It’s just something you can or can’t do,” I said, beginning to mumble.

“Tell me you don’t really believe that,” she said….

I began to wonder just how I would teach inferencing. It took years for me to get a handle on that one.

As a teacher I, too, saw that some of my bright students could not read for meaning, although I often couldn’t figure out their problems. I could only say “Re-read it carefully and take notes” or some other advice. They, like I had, protested that they had “re-read” and “done the readings.” Yet, even after re-reading and taking notes they were often unable to draw critical inferences about the text as a whole. What, then, were they doing when “reading”?

Oscar’s desire to drop my elective answered the question for at least one student – in a shocking way. When I asked him what his troubles were as a reader, he replied: “I just cannot memorize all the pages you are assigning!”

Ouch. He really did believe “reading” was “scanning and memorizing for later recall.” But wasn’t that, in its own way, what I had done much of my academic life? He at least worked hard to memorize it all! I hadn’t even done that.

Chris Tovani offers a snippet of dialogue that underscores our need to better understand readers trying to understand:

“Luke, why don’t you try to get unstuck.”

“Nothing helps me. Re-reading is a waste of time.”

“Try another fix-up strategy, then.”

“What’s a fix-up strategy?…When I was younger I tried sounding out word out but that didn’t really help.”

“Did you learn to do anything else?”

“No, not really.”

“Does anyone else have a strategy he or she can suggest?”

“I don’t do anything,” brags Kayla.

“You don’t do anything?” I asked.

“Nope. I keep reading and hope it makes sense when I’m done.”

“And what if it doesn’t?”

“Then, oh well.”

I would venture to hypothesize that for many HS students their reading strategy is “Read on, then, oh well.” But let’s find out.

The “re-reading” strategy is a perfect example of our failure to understand the problem. Why would “re-reading” a passage, by itself, clear up what was confused in the first place? All the re-readers are doing is – re-reading. They aren’t thinking differently about what they are re-reading. As Tovani says, telling someone to “think harder” is useless advice. Yet, “Re-read!” is the same unhelpful advice if we don’t know how to re-read or whether we are re-reading “properly.” Too much of the reading-strategy literature amounts to such glib advice.

My first foray in writing about some of this was in a blog entry two years ago about the reading strategies. Boy, did I get a ton of hate mail from people who thought I had gone to the dark side and allied myself with the non-progressive camp. I had done no such thing, even if my prose was a bit dramatic. I had mostly raised these questions (and tried to clarify terms).

Indeed, a few of the more mainstream and thoughtful writers on literacy have made the very point that I was criticized for, such as Barnhouse & Vinton:

As we pondered what was happening with our strategy instruction, we came to several conclusions. The first was the discomfiting realization that while we were grounding our lessons in real literature… we were, in effect, using those books to practice strategies in isolation. As it was, most of the students’ connections stayed on the surface level. This led us to the conclusion that some of the so-called comprehension strategies – especially visualizing, predicting, connecting, and questioning – seemed aimed more at helping students develop the habits of active and engaged readers rather than to specifically help them comprehend more than they might have. We would need, in effect, to find strategies for the strategies to ensure that they were used as meaning-making tools, not as end products.

So, let’s go slowly. When you as a teacher of older students tell students to “read” and “re-read” a challenging text, what exactly are you assuming that they should be doing in their heads? What do they assume you are asking them to do when you ask them to read or re-read? And – most importantly – what do you think they will actually do when they get stuck? Is Tovani correct that, regardless of training, adolescent readers will have little or no intelligent approach? (I am not asking what they “should” do but what they will likely do.) Do they use the reading strategies or do they forget all about them or approach them randomly or revert to some other bad habit or naïve approach?

The Leap From Decoding To Comprehension

As I have long said, we give far too little feedback and too much advice. Beers, for example, has a nice chart in which she describes in general form what non-comprehenders do, but it is very brief and general, e.g. “can read all the words but consistently has difficulty asking questions, creating questions, discussing the text, doesn’t “see” anything in his mind while reading, thinking beyond literal questions…” and the book focuses on advice. I am calling for a far more intense look at what non-comprehenders do. Otherwise feedback and advice are easily too generic.

But to give feedback you have to somehow “see” what the reader is doing – which we said above is very hard. It is time, however, to pause in offering non-comprehending readers so much advice and to spend more time in trying to figure out what readers are actually doing in their heads when they supposedly “read.” We might then, like good coaches, offer highly specific feedback based upon what was working and what wasn’t in the readers’ attempts; and only offer specific advice about what to do, based on the specific attempt and the feedback. We would thus want to do far more ungraded comprehension and self-reporting quizzes than we now do.

In follow-up posts, I plan to review briefly the literature from the past 30 years on what readers do (including look at some of the eye-tracking research) and explain why I believe a core premise behind the teaching of the reading strategies is flawed: just because “good readers” do certain things, doesn’t mean we understand how to improve “weak” readers. The strategies – e.g. visualize, predict, connect, re-read, infer, etc. – may only be correlated, not causal. (And, as I will again argue, some of the so-called strategies simply do not pass muster.) So it should not surprise us that reading scores do not improve much if the strategies are taught and learned. Finally, I will have some reports from teachers who have volunteered to give the previous survey or another like it to their students to see what we can learn from just studying kids trying to understand.

If you teach English, try out some of the self-monitoring questions I proposed that you consider, above; and report back to us!

In response to some comments and emails:

PS: Yes, I actually do understand the Kant passage – after dozens of readings and multiple under-graduate and graduate classes on Kant. I didn’t really understand the passage – even after a dozen or more re-readings! – until I was helped to understand what the point of the Critique of Pure Reason was, and how Kant was arguing with Hume’s view about what we can understand. That is the paradox of reading, to me: you cannot understand the part until you understand the whole and the “great conversation”; but you cannot understand the whole unless you understand the parts through close reading.

What, then, reading and English teachers? How do we better help students understand what they do and do not understand? How can they better self-assess their degree of understanding – and use that feedback to better understand?

PPS: There are some fabulous suggestions in the comments thus far for how to address the problem of poor comprehension. But note my caution and focus: what unsuccessful readers actually do is what we need to understand better. Then, we’ll be in a far better position to weigh and propose solutions that are valid and personalized.

When Readers Don’t Understand; This article first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here; adapted image attribution flickr user guillaforysthe; Reading Comprehension: When They Read But Don’t Understand


  • I think this article makes a
    great point about how students lack he ability to comprehend certain texts.
    However, I disagree that background knowledge isn’t a substantial indicator in
    this lack of comprehension. Thus use of the NAEP as your proof for this also
    doesn’t seem very strong for two reasons. The first reason is that by the 12th
    grade, about 25% of 8th grade students have dropped out. Those that
    stay in school disproportionately show the students that end up being more successful.
    This is a concern because it shows a lack of representation of those who really
    are struggling with reading comprehension. The second reason is that the NAEP
    has no repercussions if a students does poorly and as 12th graders,
    many don’t have the motivation to put in the effort to do well. However,
    looking back at other results for the NAEP, 4th and 8th
    graders show to be on track. This shows that the problem is at the high school
    level, when “adult” reading begins.

    I will agree with you that a
    crucial factor in reading comprehension is feedback and I do like your idea of
    more ungraded comprehension quizzes (testing effect is shown to be a good mode
    of getting information into memory.) I would also like to add that the number
    of reading/ writing classes is very important. Getting back to my earlier
    point, however, is that background knowledge is also crucial to getting past
    the reading of words for the sake of reading and being able to instead make inferences
    about the meaning of the text and furthering comprehension. Part of this
    background knowledge also includes exposure to more difficult texts in order to
    have knowledge of different sentence structures and, if reading older texts,
    having a deeper understanding of the language used in that time period.
    Building on this prior knowledge through exposure to harder material and
    receiving more feedback can help a student to have a better understanding as
    long as the student is being guided to a deeper understanding. As I stated
    previously, I agree with more ungraded comprehension but I think it is also
    important to note that this comprehension must be guided with deeper questions.
    (Not how, why, where, who, when but how is X like Y, why is X important, what
    conclusions can you draw about Y?) There is strong evidence to show that helping
    students to ask deep questions in order to build explanations is beneficial to
    student learning. As you stated, getting a deep understanding of a text can be
    difficult if you don’t know how meaning that guidance through example is the obvious
    way of showcasing these learned skills. Students who construct more
    explanations also tend to have a better memory and reasoning for material and
    thus can apply these skills to other texts.

    To bring it all together,
    background knowledge and practice with more difficult texts can help to get
    past the initial difficulty a student may have with reading to find out who,
    what, where, why, how and may allow them to start grasping a deeper understanding;
    this deep questioning to gain understanding can only be fostered through guided
    practice and testing but requires practice (or background knowledge of how to
    approach these topics.)

  • Reading is such a hard matter to teach as you mentioned,
    because there is no way to see what actually is going on. I agree with you on
    how re-reading does not help reading comprehension at all. If students aren’t
    able to comprehend the vocabulary or words used in the material reading it a
    second time wont make it any better. However, I do believe that some reading
    strategies have helped students comprehend the text. For example the testing
    effect is a good technique to memorize material. Questioning the text is also a
    great way to really be aware of what you do not understand. Lastly, predicting
    and connecting ideas has helped student comprehend the material by
    understanding in their own means.

    There is
    a huge problem in our education system and how educators are teaching reading
    to children. There are three major
    challenges when teaching kids how to read. First, they need to understand
    visual symbols, then learn the sounding of words, and lastly be able to map
    letters to sound. For kids to really be able to comprehend and read properly,
    appropriate instruction should be given starting at preschool. I think there
    are three major ways of achieving this. To begin with children need to learn
    the sounding of words; their phonological awareness. Children should be asked
    to rhyme words to understand their sound. Teachers should also ask students if
    the words start or end with the same sound. This would really help students get
    familiar with the sound of words and will later on help them know letters.
    Secondly, children need to learn letters. Some letters are easy to understand
    in the alphabet while others might be very confusing; this is where
    pre-literacy experiences are might be very important. Background knowledge that
    children gather either from story telling, singing a song or listening to a
    conversation can be very helpful in further promoting reading comprehension.
    Lastly, children should learn literacy conventions. Some examples of this would
    be reading from left to right, as well as the titles and labels on a book.

  • Wiggins’ argues that educators can improve reading comprehension by understanding the strategies that unsuccessful readers employ and by generating personalized strategies based on that information. According to Willingham and Lovette (2014), text comprehension is all about connecting sentences and content. Reading comprehension strategies (RCS) are simply a “bag of tricks” that although are useful to teach because they are quick and easy to learn, do not provide specific guidelines on how to connect sentences. As a result, Wiggins’ proposed solution of using RCS does not directly result in improved understanding of text.

    Wiggins also suggests that teachers should administer more ungraded self-reporting and comprehension assessments in order to provide the students with more useful and applicable feedback. A prominent weakness in Wiggins’ suggestion is that student introspection, especially in the lower grades, can be highly inaccurate, and many students experience difficulty in articulating
    the challenges of reading. Younger students also have limited metacognition and often incorrectly assess their understanding.

    While Wiggins’ suggestions on reading comprehension improvements are tenuous and unlikely to result in much progress, researchers Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) have generated more concrete techniques that can be employed in the classroom. In the Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) study, the researchers investigated the validity of two possible hypotheses regarding reading comprehension. The lexical quality hypothesis states that vocabulary knowledge and word decoding largely determine reading comprehension, while the simple reading view states that word decoding and listening comprehension are the determinants of understanding text. Word decoding is the
    retrieval of the phonological code, while listening comprehension is defined as the linguistic processes that allow individuals to form connections between sentences. Vocabulary decoding is the knowledge of word meanings, and studies have reliably demonstrated that there is a positive correlation between vocabulary skill and reading comprehension.

    In the experiment, the researchers tested 2384 elementary school children on word decoding, listening comprehension, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) found that the results supported both the lexical quality hypothesis and the simple reading view. The former hypothesis was supported by the data because limited knowledge on word meanings restricted the student’s ability to understand the text. The researchers also found that there
    was a two-way relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension because increased reading results in improved word meaning deduction, and greater vocabulary knowledge improves understanding of text. Moreover, while listening comprehension predicted reading comprehension in the lower grades, in higher grades, the two factors were reciprocal, such that the
    improvement in one leads to the progress of the other.

    Due to the reciprocal relationships between vocabulary knowledge/listening comprehension and reading comprehension, respectively, Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) suggest that teachers should be aware that some children do not share equal knowledge about the content of the text, and should account for this disparity by enhancing the students’ understanding of the topic-specific
    vocabulary. Educators should use pre-reading activities to provide background information and discuss the topic of study. Additionally, educators and administrators should begin vocabulary training early in education. The researchers also advise teachers to select texts that are well organized to facilitate the students’ understanding of the reading.

    Rather than employing self-assessments and comprehension tests to generate strategies for reading comprehension, educators should not only engage the students in generative word exercises to enhance vocabulary knowledge, but teachers should also employ activities that allows students to make inferences by integrating information from different sentences.


    Verhoeven, Ludo, and Jan Van Leeuwe. “Prediction of the Development of Reading Comprehension: A Longitudinal Study.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 22.3 (2008): 407-23. Web.

    Willingham, Daniel T., and Gail Lovette. “Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?” Teachers College Record, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

  • Thank you…these points you make about struggling readers and questions you ask are the ones I struggle with daily.

    I absolutely agree that taking away the stress of grades by giving formative assessments helps students get on board. I’ve explained what “formative” is to my sixth graders, and I try to get them involved in the process… Generally, anecdotally, they see the logic of it (as far as that goes with sixth graders!).

    We also need to ask questions and really listen. Last week, I assigned an article on different species of penguins to my sixth graders, and their assignment was to write a response comparing/contrasting Antarctic penguins with penguins that live in temperate regions. I pre-taught the vocabulary; I gave them a “tophat” graphic organizer and showed them how to use it; and then I set them loose to read, take notes, and write a response. On day 2 (they ran out of time on day 1), we reviewed what we were doing in order to continue, and I elicited questions. One student raised her hand and said, “I can’t find anything on ‘Antarctic’ penguins, only on ‘penguins who live in the Antarctic.'” I took a deep breath and kept my expression under control and asked whether anyone else had the same problem. Four out of fifteen hands went up… I had not the remotest idea that that would be a stumbling block to them. How many more misconceptions are swirling around in kids’ brains and we have no idea? Without a climate of trust, freedom from fear of grades, and inquiry on the part of teachers, we won’t get at the problems, I fear. Incidentally, this particular class is pass/fail, so on day 1 I tell them, “You all pass. Now, let’s get down to work.” I like to think that makes a difference.

    The first question I asked when I started my reading masters degree was, “How to people learn to read?” I have never gotten an answer…and as your post shows, we still all do not know. I am grateful for the work you–and all reading teachers–are doing.

    Hopefully, we will learn how to help our struggling readers.

  • What is particularly helpful is that you went through the experience,
    which puts you in an excellent spot to provide strategies. I try to
    encourage my learners (teachers in my online course) to peer review
    someone’s work who is NOT in their area of strength. Someone whose
    discipline is English, but struggled with Math, can often provide solid
    strategies for Math teachers that they’d never consider. Good stuff, Mr.
    Wiggins! : >

  • I am actually one of these people. I can read most things and after reading I have a 1 min or 30sec window before I forget what I just read. A lot of the time I find that even if it is reading,typing,watching tv, or talking to people. I tend to pickup the noise around me vs what I am trying to take in. This issue is very real, and when you get older it leads to depression, or the feeling of just being mentally challenged. I am an IT which is great and all but the only reason I can actually preform the work I have been doing for the last almost 3 years is because I have done the steps over and over. but this is just like memorizing and not really understanding why I am doing these actions. Now as I am trying to study to get a Microsoft certification I have watched and listened to all the instruction videos, when I take the practice tests I have a hard time either paying attention or even understanding the questions they are asking. The truth with me is, My mind is always going, I am always thinking, so it is hard to take in more information when you are over loading your brain with your thoughts. I am willing to bet that the reason most of us can not comprehend what we are reading is because we are always thinking, the true question is, how do we clear our minds so we can take in only the information we are reading or listening to? once we can figure out how to blank out our busy minds then I am sure we can boost comprehension in most of us that struggle with it. I know for a fact that when I read and read and read the same thing over and over, and still not understand? I get so angry that I want to act out in violence. I need to really figure out how to comprehend what I am reading, or I will end up in a bad place in the future.

    • Four things I’d recommend to start with:

      1. Try some kind of white or background noise, ideally with noise-isolating earbuds or studio headphones. This is one of my favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzjWIxXBs_s , but there are a lot of free apps out there that work. Just stay away from sounds that loop.

      2. Write things down while you’re reading–don’t think of it as “taking notes,” but writing words or phrases that seem meaningful, and drawing quick doodles or sketches of certain ideas.

      3. Use SSQ–Stop intermittently, Summarize what you read, and form some kind of Question. This could be a clarifying question you’re confused about, something you’re curious about, a kind of prediction about what you might read next, and so on.

      4. Try a mix of reading out loud and quietly, going back and forth.

    • I am suffering from the exact problem.I am too slow at everything I do and possess very low comprehension power. This all time thinking has even affected my sleeping pattern. I don’t feel fresh when I woke up and its like I am bogged down and feeling drowsy even when i just wake up. This has adversely affect my concentration and spontaneity. If you have practiced something that has benefited you, please share with me, it would be very helpful.Thanks.

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