Understanding between the lines

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University of Alberta researchers test students for ‘specific reading comprehension deficit’

Piper Whelan
The Gateway (University of Alberta)

EDMONTON (CUP) — Have you ever read a chapter from your textbook and been unable to remember a single thing? A University of Alberta researcher may be able to tell you why.

George Georgiou, director of the U of A’s Reading Research Lab, has identified cognitive development issues that cause some students to struggle with reading comprehension — though their ability to read may be perfectly fine.

By studying a sample of roughly 500 U of A students, Georgiou found that a small percentage had an undetected reading difficulty known as a specific reading comprehension deficit. This deficit occurs when working memory doesn’t allow for full comprehension of a text, even if a student can easily read it.

“These students do not have a problem reading accurately and fluently. The problem is how to understand what they are reading,” Georgiou said.

Georgiou began the study in 2011 to see if the estimated rate of three to five per cent who deal with this reading comprehension deficit could be found in a sample of university students.

The other goal of the study was to identify the causes of this reading difficulty. Georgiou noted that, when it comes to research on reading difficulties, experts tend to focus on the early years of education.

“We know much more about reading difficulties in younger children, and not as much about reading difficulties in older students,” he said.

After receiving a Cornerstone Grant from the Killam Research Fund, which supports innovations that advance scholarship, Georgiou and colleague J.P. Das tested students in large classes on two adult-appropriate reading comprehension tasks.

They contacted the students who showed signs of a reading comprehension difficulty to come in to the Reading Research Lab for further testing on other areas of reading ability, before focusing on comprehension.

About three to five per cent of the total sample of students showed signs of this specific reading comprehension deficit, matching up with the rate going into the study.

The cause of this deficit, Georgiou said, lies in cognitive development. These students lack the working memory to process, store, and understand what they read, particularly if the text is long and contains complex ideas.

“We administered measures of working memory, simultaneous and successive processing, planning and attention,” Georgiou explained. “Out of all these measures, working memory stands out as a very important factor.”

The reason this deficit often goes undetected is that strategies to identify reading difficulties prior to post-secondary education deal mostly with areas of reading ability rather than comprehension.

The study is ongoing, and the next step is to help the students in the study deal with their reading comprehension difficulty through a number of simple strategies.

“There are no easy solutions, but there are some steps we can take to help them improve their reading comprehension,” Georgiou said.

“You will see that when some of these students were completing these comprehension tasks, they would highlight the whole text, which is a very poor strategy.”

Georgiou suggests tackling the text paragraph by paragraph, finding the main ideas before moving on to the next, and making connections between paragraphs.

Creating a concept map of the text’s main themes and making summarizing notes in the margins are also useful strategies for working to understand what you’re reading.

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