3.3.4 Comprehension

Because children with dyslexia have difficulties identifying words rapidly and accurately, it is also difficult for them to extract meaning from texts. As a consequence, there is a risk that the child with dyslexia will read less although their peers read more and more.

This is commonly referred to as the ‘Matthew effect’, initially described by Keith Stanovitch, which is that ‘those who have will get more and those who have less will get even less’.

As reading is a major factor in increasing vocabulary, children must be encouraged to appreciate books by all means possible, for example by:

  • introducing books that are well-illustrated and that will allow them to follow the meaning when they cannot always read the words
  • asking them to choose two books, one at their own level and the other to be read by a parent or sibling, to encourage oral discussion
  • giving books which are a little less difficult than for their level to ensure that they can use their reading skills
  • giving books on tape
  • reading every alternate paragraph yourself
  • reading at first with them at their rhythm and then slowly lowering your voice whilst their confidence increases and they can continue by themselves
  • reading books which they know by heart and love, allowing them to follow the words with their finger and encouraging them to take part in reading
  • telling them that ‘to be able to read stories is to be able to sail a spaceship amongst the stars and visit wonderful planets full of all kinds of adventures’ (Rick Lavoie, International consultant, USA)
General comments on presentation:

If you hand out texts which you have written yourself, take care to make the layout as clear and uncluttered as possible. Use a font which is easily readable (Comic sans MS, Lucida Casual or Arial, avoiding Times New Roman) of a size between 12 and 14, double-spaced, and clearly marking the different parts or paragraphs.

Note that for some children with dyslexia the contrast of black on white can impede their reading. In this case use a coloured transparent plastic cover sheet which they can place over the text to decrease the contrast. Try different colours and ask them which suits them best.

This applies equally to answer sheets.

The specific techniques which you use to help comprehension will vary depending on the age of the pupils, their specific interests and the nature of the texts selected to match their interests. Hence, the suggestions which follow are quite general.

Giving enough background information

It is important to introduce the texts which the children are going to read by classroom discussion on the topic concerned.

Leslie and Caldwell showed that comprehension is enhanced by the ability to relate the text to the child’s existing background knowledge of the topic. For some children with dyslexia, this relationship has to be made explicitly. For example, you may give the title of the passage and set up a ‘brain-storming’ session on the subject and draw out what each child knows about it.

Also, it is important to lead children to anticipate what could come next. This encourages them to interact with the text: to make predictions, to check whether these are fulfilled and then revise them if necessary.

Promoting interaction between the child and the text

Rather than just reading passively, children should be encouraged to interact with the text.

In the 1980’s, Lunzer and Gardner developed a series of activities to improve comprehension. Collectively, these are known as DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Texts).

These are based on the principles of reconstructing or analysing the text. Examples of reconstructing are:

  • completion: adding missing words
  • sequencing: putting the paragraphs of a passage in the right order
  • grouping: putting parts of the texts into categories
  • table-filling: for example, frames for headings or questions coming from the passage
  • completing an illustration or naming it
  • prediction: suggesting what happens next.

Here as some examples of analysis:

  • marking up: finding and underlining the parts containing specific information
  • segmentation and labelling: dividing up the passage and finding a heading for each part
  • making a table: deciding on the number of lines and columns suitable for the text, then filling the cells
  • making diagrams: sketching a diagram which explains the text
  • questioning: answering the teacher’s questions or inventing questions
  • summing up: if the text is suitable you can ask the children to pause and ask questions after each part, for example, ‘What have I learnt?’ and ‘What question would this part answer?’

Providing structured frames to analyse texts

Some children will benefit from structured frames which will allow them to find the salient points of the text. An example of a structured frame is a series of questions starting with ‘Who, What, Where, Why, How, etc.?’

This will help them to find an overall shape for the text and therefore will help them to understand it.

Using visualisation techniques

Flecker and Cogan suggest a visualisation technique in order to stimulate associations, in which there are four stages:

  • reading the text once to get the general idea
  • rereading the text and choosing the events or images to picture
  • drawing pictures for the chosen sequence
  • deciding which is the main event to depict

Visualization helps comprehension of material as well as recall, at least if what must be remembered is reflected in the pictures drawn by the pupils.

Using mind maps

An earAn eyethe throata hand

The linear way in which most of us have generally learnt to structure and remember information, with headings and sub-headings,


a. First part
i. First section

is not always suitable for children with dyslexia who do not think linearly.

With this in mind, another multisensory technique for comprehension is mind-mapping. There are schematic layouts with keywords and arrows between them with other hints like colour.

This technique was developed by Tony Buzan and has been increasingly recognized in numerous areas, education included, as a useful tool for thinking and learning. For children with dyslexia the technique is even more appropriate because of its multisensory aspects calling on several processes: visualization, association of ideas, use of colours and pictures, and key-words.

For free trials simply Google ‘Mind map’ or ‘Tony Buzan’.