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When Children Read Well, Yet Lack Comprehension

A common reading disorder goes undiagnosed until it becomes problematic, according to the results of a five-year study published online in the journal Brain Connectivity.

Dyslexia, a reading disorder in which a child confuses letters and struggles with sounding out words, has been the focus of much research into reading. That is not the case, however, with the lesser known disorder Specific Reading Comprehension Deficits or S-RCD, in which a child reads successfully but does not sufficiently comprehend the meaning of the words.

According to lead investigator Laurie Cutting at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human development, a person with S-RCD will explain it like this: “I can read Spanish, because I know what sounds the letters make and how the words are pronounced, but I couldn’t tell you what the words actually mean.”

“When a child is a good reader, it’s assumed their comprehension is on track. But three to ten percent of those children don’t understand most of what they’re reading. By the time the problem is recognised, often closer to third or fourth grade, the disorder is disrupting their learning process,” Cutting said.

Researchers have been able to pinpoint brain activity and understand its role in dyslexia, but no functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI studies, until now, have examined the neurobiological profile of those who exhibit poor reading comprehension despite intact word-level abilities.

Neuro-imaging of children showed that, while reading, the brain function of those with S-RCD is quite different and distinct from those with dyslexia. Those with dyslexia exhibited abnormalities in a specific region in the occipital-temporal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with successfully recognising words on a page. Those with S-RCD, on the other hand, did not show abnormalities in this region, instead showing specific abnormalities in regions typically associated with memory.

“That there will be defects in the brain areas concerned with memory makes sense,” says Susan du Plessis, director of educational programs at Edublox Reading and Learning Clinic. “Several studies have confirmed that reading comprehension relies heavily upon both working memory and long-term memory.

“Short-term memory holds information in the mind for only a few seconds while it is being processed. Long-term memory is where such processed information is permanently stored. Working memory is an intermediary and active memory system in the information processing area of the brain. It is an important memory system and one that most of us use every day,” explains Susan.

Sentence comprehension depends heavily upon adequate working memory. For example, working memory is required to comprehend sentences that are complex in structure such as, “The clown that is hugging the boy is kissing the girl.” It helps us interpret sentences that are lengthy, “Do every other problem on page fifteen and all of the problems on page sixteen before checking your answers in the back of the book.” We use working memory when preservation of word order (syntax) is important to correctly understand a sentence like; “It was the boy’s ball and not the girl’s that was dirty.”

“The good news is that weaknesses in cognitive skills can be attacked head-on,” says Susan. “The key is to identify the specific weaknesses, such as a poor working memory, and to strengthen these mental skills through training and practice.”

If you suspect that your child has a cognitive deficiency, Susan suggests that you get appropriate help as soon as possible. “The gap between children with and those without cognitive deficits gets wider and wider and may become more difficult, and later impossible to close,” she says.