• Question: I am interested in the factors which affect the development of comprehension skills. Do you think poor comprehension skills are mainly due to environmental factors (home environment, being read to etc) or can children grow up in a literacy-rich environment and still be a 'poor comprehender'?

    Asked by aglover to Sarah, Lorna, Kathryn, Jo, Jessie, Jacob, Emma, Courtenay, Camilla on 21 Mar 2018.
    • Photo: Jo Taylor

      Jo Taylor answered on 21 Mar 2018:

      Hi there,
      Great question! Broadly, reading comprehension skills are influenced by both your ability to read words accurately and fluently (decoding skills), and your oral language ability (vocabulary knowledge, understanding of sentences etc.) This is known as the Simple View of Reading.

      Here are two blog posts from Kate Nation’s Read Oxford website that say some more about this.

      Both decoding and oral language skill can be influenced by both environment and genes, so someone could definitely grow up in a literacy rich environment and yet struggle with reading comprehension. And to make things even more complicated, someone’s home literacy environment will be influenced by their parents’ own language skills. This means that determining the direct role of the home literacy environment, as opposed to the parents’ language skills, and the child’s genes, is quite difficult.
      These ideas are explained in this research paper:

      The good news is though that interventions that focus on language understanding can improve reading comprehension. An good example of this can be found here:

      Hope that’s helpful!

    • Photo: Courtenay Norbury

      Courtenay Norbury answered on 21 Mar 2018:

      A great question. An important thing to remember is that both genes and environments (and the way they interact) are important for children’s language and reading development. What look like environmental factors can in part be genetically influenced. Imagine that a struggling reader grows up to be a dyslexic adult. This adult may find that reading to his/her children does not come easily, and it may be more difficult to talk about the story in a way that facilitates comprehension. This person may have a child with poor comprehension, but it can be difficult to tease apart the genetic risks from the reduced input.

      So the two are intimately linked!

    • Photo: Lorna Hamilton

      Lorna Hamilton answered on 22 Mar 2018:

      Yes, indeed – great question and great answers above! Reading comprehension is highly complex, underpinned by decoding and oral language skills as Jo says. Children also have to integrate information across sentences, and sometimes draw on their general knowledge to fill in details that might not be explicit in the text. So there are lots of factors that can influence how successfully children can build a full ‘mental model’ of a text.
      Picking apart the relative influences of genetic and environmental factors here is really challenging, and the two are likely to be highly related, as the others have said. A child growing up in a literacy-poor environment might have limited vocabulary and general knowledge to draw upon when extracting meaning from text. (Bearing in mind that a “literacy-poor” environment is very likely to be influenced by genetic factors shared by parents and children.) Conversely, a child growing up in a literacy-rich environment might have difficulty with a component skill that could constrain reading comprehension – examples might be an autistic child who struggles with non-literal use of language, or a dyslexic child whose difficulties with decoding could have a knock-on effect on comprehension, despite having plenty of literacy experience in the home.
      So, in conclusion, I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to this one!