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Reading Comprehension and the SLP: Contributions of Language

Reading Comprehension and the SLP: Contributions of Language
Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP
March 19, 2024

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Editor's Note: This text is a transcript of the course Reading Comprehension and the SLP: Contributions of Language, presented by Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to: 

  • State the overlap of vocabulary with phonology and morphology
  • Explain the impact of morphosyntax on reading comprehension
  • Discuss how impaired social communication can negatively impact reading comprehension

Introduction and Review

This course, compared to Part 1 (Course 10886), will take a deep dive into the specific areas of language to illustrate the connections between semantics, background knowledge, phonology, morphology, and syntax, as well as other areas of language that are critical to comprehension. Those critical areas are narrative and pragmatics.

As a quick review, in Part 1, I discussed the SLP's role in reading comprehension.  I discussed the National Reading Panel and the federal law that guides comprehensive literacy instruction in general education.  I also provided a few assessment considerations, including running records and benchmark assessments that may be equated with alphabetic reading levels such as "level A," "level Z," etc. 

I also talked about our current understanding of language, that it's no longer "receptive expressive." Rather, it is the sound of words and its discourse level with contributions of memory. I discussed the importance of considering, when working with school psychologists, they may be working from an outdated model of language, specifically the reference to oral expression and listening comprehension. I also reviewed comprehension processes versus comprehension products, as well as some of the important considerations related to reading comprehension that aren't language. That includes comprehension monitoring, fluency, reading fluency, motivation, visual-spatial-perceptual situational model, and mental imagery. Again, we talked about how it's referred to in many different ways, but it's really that visual imagery in your mind's eye. And most importantly, the impact of executive function.

It’s Not About A Test or THE Test

I want to start by saying it's never about a test or THE test.  We need to think about what we're looking for, which would include word-level reading, vocabulary, syntax, morphology, considerations for background knowledge, and executive function, as I've mentioned. We also have to consider data from what's going on in school, data specific to motivation, data specific to the student's previous instruction, and then any other outside-of-school factors.

Assessment Considerations

That being said, here are some assessments. These are not exclusive. It's not an all-encompassing list, it is just a brief look at some of the assessments. The list does not include the test's psychometric properties., so you will need to refer to the manual to determine if it's a valid, reliable assessment with appropriate sensitivity and specificity.

  • GORT-5: Gray Oral Reading Test Fifth Edition (WR)
  • GSRT: Gray Silent Reading Test
  • TORC-5: Test of Reading Comprehension Fifth Edition
  • TILLS: Test of Integrated Language and Literacy Skills
  • TNL: Test of Narrative Language
  • EasyCBM (often administered as part of general education)

Some of the test items may be typically administered by a school psychologist or a special education teacher, but it could be a test that you add to your own battery as well. That said, here are some other tests that are part of the school psychologist's battery.

  • WIAT-4: Wechsler Individual Achievement Test Fourth Edition
  • WJ-IV ACH: Woodcock-Johnson Test of Achievement Fourth Edition
  • PIAT-R/NU: Peabody Individual Achievement Test (WR)
  • WRAT-4: Wide Range Achievement Test-Fourth Edition (WR)
  • WRMT R/NU: Woodcock Reading Mastery Test (WR)
  • KTEA-3: Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement

When you're considering reading comprehension and looking at the school psychologist's assessment results, these are some of the areas that you want to look at. 

Also, consider the type of task the student is expected to complete on the reading comprehension test. There might be comprehension tasks of only one or two sentences, which are actually aligned more with word reading and not comprehension.  This can actually underestimate the reading comprehension ability of a student who is dyslexic or a compensator.  Alternatively, this type of task might overestimate skills for a student who is hyperlexic or from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. 

A question-and-answer type task and a story-retell task align more closely with language skills. 

When looking at a comprehension assessment, look at the types of responses that are being asked of the student or how they are asking them to read and respond. First, consider the difference between reading aloud versus silent reading and how each of those may or may not impact comprehension.  Also, consider the difference between giving a verbal response, a written response, answering a short answer question, or providing a one-word answer versus a closed-type task or multiple choice answer.  All of these tasks are assessing different skills in different ways. 

Other task considerations include, does the student have the passage available to refer back to when answering the questions versus the passage being removed. What is the impact of reading the passage digitally versus on paper?

So, how the test is constructed and the expectations for how the student responds determine which skills are specifically assessed or targeted.  Keep in mind those TEXT factors and task-related factors, and what they may or may not reveal.   

Oral passage reading and verbal responses are more likely influenced by listening comprehension than word reading.  Multiple choice or sentence completion tasks are more influenced by word reading than listening comprehension. Silent reading and question answering with the text present are more influenced by word reading as well.  Oral passage reading with responses without the text is influenced by language. Oral passage reading with responses with the text present is also influenced by language.

SLPs and Reading Comprehension

Let's begin by discussing the SLP's role in reading comprehension, particularly within the framework of IDEA, especially relevant for our school-based clinicians. The fundamental aim of specially designed instruction, as defined under IDEA, entails instruction provided by an expert in language through an IEP, ensuring it is delivered in the least restrictive environment, ideally within the general education setting. The primary goal here is to cater to the individualized needs of students—not generic needs, but those specific to the student due to their disability and the requirements stemming from the disability that hinder access to the general education curriculum. Again, this instruction is delivered within the regular education classroom, with a key focus on meeting educational standards, particularly ELA standards applicable to all students, without exception.

It's important to know the ELA standards of your state because most state standards reference phonological awareness, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and comprehension. All of those have a foundation of language. 

I want to continue by highlighting that what I'm about to share with you is something I've previously discussed with teachers. The reason for this is that teachers have found this information immensely valuable and pertinent, not just in elementary settings, but across all grade levels, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. They've emphasized to me the importance of all grade levels being exposed to this information. Now, I'm passing it on to you as a means of fostering collaboration, serving as a critical bridge. Additionally, it's essential to recognize that teachers may not have received comprehensive training in language and the foundational aspects of reading during their teacher preparation programs. 

What Does It Mean to Know a Word?

When we discuss knowing a word, it's crucial to understand that pronunciation plays a significant role. Essentially, in order to comprehend a word, one must be capable of pronouncing it. This aspect is often overlooked, but when we encounter unfamiliar words while reading, our ability to decode and pronounce them directly influences our understanding of their meaning.

Moving forward, it's important to recognize how words can be appropriately used and, conversely, how they cannot. This awareness is highlighted by humorous yet embarrassing examples known as malapropisms. For instance, former Vice President Dan Quayle once stated, "Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child," mistakenly substituting "bondage" for "bond." Similarly, a basketball player once quipped, "I can dribble and shoot with both hands. I must be amphibious," confusing "amphibious" with "ambidextrous." These instances are great illustrations of the concept.

It's essential to possess the ability to spell words and phrases correctly. For instance, distinguishing between "for all intensive purposes" and "for all intents and purposes" highlights the importance of spelling accuracy. Similarly, encountering various spellings of "there," "their," and "they're" underscores the significance of understanding their distinct meanings.

Comprehension of a word involves identifying its part of speech. While it's not always necessary to label words strictly as adjectives, pronouns, or prepositions, it's more beneficial to comprehend how words function within a sentence, similar to assembling a puzzle. For example, in English, adjectives typically precede nouns, whereas in Spanish, they follow them. The understanding of parts of speech and how words interact within a sentence is also critical.

Furthermore, it's important to recognize how the addition of morphemes to a root word alters both its meaning and its part of speech. Additionally, applying words in various contexts contributes to the richness and complexity of vocabulary. The diversity of definitions for a single word, such as "set," exemplifies this phenomenon. With approximately 67 different definitions, depending on its usage as a transitive verb, intransitive verb, noun, or adjective, "set" serves as a prime example of understanding different parts of speech.

Understanding how the meaning of a word changes when combined with another word is essential. Consider "set" as an example: "set apart," "set aside," "set foot in," "set sail," and "set upon" each conveys distinct meanings. These nuances significantly impact comprehension. Additionally, we must be familiar with synonyms and antonyms.

The National Reading Panel and Every Student Succeeds Act
(ESSA) (20 U.S.C. § 6301, 2015))

When discussing vocabulary, it's essential to understand the requirements set forth by federal law regarding general education instruction. As mentioned in Part 1, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the federal legislation that outlines comprehensive literacy instruction for general education. ESSA mandates age-appropriate, explicit, systematic, and intentional instruction in various aspects of literacy, with a particular emphasis on vocabulary development.

In our state of South Carolina, the new ELA standards effectively outline what students are expected to learn and what teachers are expected to teach. However, it's equally important to address the "how" of instruction. This entails delivering developmentally appropriate, contextually explicit, and systematic instruction. Explicit instruction emphasizes direct communication from the teacher to the student, avoiding merely distributing word lists with instructions to look them up in a dictionary. Instead, systematic instruction involves building from simple to complex concepts. For instance, we shouldn't introduce complex terms like "oviparous" in kindergarten. Research literature suggests that in the primary grades, explicit and systematic instruction should focus on three to five words per reading selection, or approximately 10 to 12 words per week. These words should primarily be tier two and tier three words, which I will explain shortly. Additionally, it's recommended to read texts multiple times, selecting different sets of 3-5 words for each reading. I'll provide guidance on selecting these words shortly, as the manner in which instruction is delivered plays a critical role.

Words should be taught as they relate to the content being studied rather than presenting them as isolated lists. Distributing word lists without any context can lead to difficulties in understanding the intended meaning, particularly for words like "set" with multiple definitions. The research underscores the ineffectiveness of instruction without context, highlighting the importance of integrating vocabulary instruction within meaningful content.

Understanding a word involves recognizing that words and vocabulary do not exist in a vacuum. It is interconnected with various linguistic aspects. By incorporating phonological awareness, morphology, syntax, and phonics into vocabulary instruction, we improve our comprehension and maximize the effectiveness of our instruction, both as SLPs and classroom teachers.

Additionally, it's important to acknowledge that ESSA requires systematic and explicit instruction not only in vocabulary but also in phonemic awareness, phonics, language structure, fluency, and comprehension. This emphasis is grounded in extensive educational research demonstrating the strong correlation between reading comprehension and vocabulary development.

To illustrate this point, consider the example of a speech-language pathologist, like myself, and an engineer, like my husband, receiving professional magazines. While I could technically read the engineering magazine, the reality is that I likely wouldn't understand 90 to 95% of the words on the page. This lack of comprehension can significantly impact motivation to engage with the material. I often use this example to emphasize to teachers and adults the challenge of reading material when a large percentage of the vocabulary is unfamiliar. While context may help infer the meaning of some words, this isn't always the case, especially with technical subjects like science, social studies, and math.

This point is particularly fascinating: individual word knowledge, simply knowing the meaning of individual words, accounts for 50 to 60% of the variance in reading comprehension. Let's take a moment to reflect on that—individual words alone comprise half or more, 50 to 60%, of reading comprehension.

Consider this alongside the data suggesting that knowing 90 to 95% of the words in a text is crucial for comprehension. What this tells us is that understanding individual words is foundational, but it's not solely about knowing isolated words. As I mentioned earlier, when words are combined or when morphemes are applied, the meaning of individual words can change significantly.

This brings us to a common question: what should we teach? Many seek a definitive list of words to teach, but I've conducted extensive research, and the truth is, there isn't a one-size-fits-all list of words that children need to know at a specific age or grade level. And there's a very good reason for this. Every student, every school, every class, every grade level, and every year brings with them a unique set of vocabulary and varying levels of background knowledge.

Another critical aspect to acknowledge is that the pathway to learning something new begins with knowing something already. Some students may require explicit instruction in order to grasp more complex words or concepts. This underscores the importance of systematically building students' vocabulary from a foundation of existing knowledge.

Background Knowledge

Now, let's look at the concept of background knowledge. Having a wealth of background knowledge and real-world experience equips individuals with access to a broader vocabulary.  These are words that are outside of the here-and-now or everyday routines.  The vocabulary children are exposed to at a young age directly impacts their reading comprehension, extending into the third grade. As mentioned earlier, "You have to know something to learn something."

Have you ever wondered why reading to children at a young age is so incredibly important? Let's use the example of the hungry caterpillar. Consider the sentence, "In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on the leaf." The structure in books differs from everyday conversation. For that sentence, we'd most likely say, "There was a little egg on the leaf, and I saw it at night." We wouldn't say, "In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on the leaf."

When reading aloud to children, we expose them to that secret language of a story, that unique story syntax. The more exposure to it, the more familiar they become. Then when reading books themselves, they can better comprehend it.

Thinking about the vocabulary, too - it differs from everyday conversation. Again with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, words like "tiny" versus "little," "nibbled" instead of "chew" or "eat", and "cocoon" are unfamiliar to most kids. Appreciate that picture books have around 70% more unique words than daily conversation. And they provide a simulated experience with simulated background knowledge. For example, though my children are now 20 and 22 years old, they have never visited a jungle, but from books like "Giraffes Can't Dance," they know a bit about jungles.

I'm from South Carolina, and as you probably can tell, we don't get much snow. But reading "A Snowy Day" introduces that background knowledge - about snowy days, snowsuits, and things we don't have experience with here. That's something else to consider with picture books. They provide that simulated knowledge of unfamiliar contexts through the story and illustrations.

However the 1995 Hart & Risley study found children from low socioeconomic status homes heard 30 million fewer words prior to school entry than kids from middle and high SES. However, this isn't always consistent. You can now find low SES children who have a grandparent, uncle, or sibling constantly reading to them, talking to them, taking them exploring nature, and discussing everything they see - essentially providing a very language-rich environment despite low SES.

On the flip side, you can have middle or high-SES children in a language-poor environment. What do I mean by that? There is very little conversation happening at home for various reasons. When I ask teachers about car duty, the number one answer is kids get on their tablets as soon as they get in. That's not a language-rich setting. It's the back-and-forth conversation that makes the real difference.

Conversations between children and parents are the most influential contributors to vocabulary before starting school. Conversation is that language-rich environment, while play is the language-rich experience where we apply and practice with the words we're gaining.

Children who engage in at least 40 conversational turns before age two (i.e., between 18-24 months), even when they don't have much language yet, have IQ scores roughly 35% higher than those who didn't engage in that many conversational turns ten years later.  Again, we're talking about building that critical foundation of background knowledge and vocabulary.

The Matthew Effect

And this leads us to the Matthew effect - the idea that the rich get richer, essentially. So, students who start out with large vocabularies get more exposure to new vocabulary through conversation and reading experiences. Because with that strong initial vocabulary base, they're able to quickly pick up and continue growing their vocabulary.

You see this play out where young children at the end of Pre-K who start with bigger vocabularies gain 2.4 new root words per day. But those who started Pre-K with impoverished vocabularies only gain 1.6 root words per day. That's already a 1,000-word gap by the end of Pre-K. Then by the end of 2nd grade, it's a 2,000-word difference. And it just continues compounding from there. What does this vocabulary gap likely look like by middle and high school if they don't get that systematic, explicit vocabulary instruction? Not any better - the divide keeps widening unless directly addressed through intentional teaching of vocabulary.

How Many Words? Which Words?

Let's talk about which words. Again, I mentioned there's no set list of vocabulary words, not by age or grade. We have to appreciate that each student comes to any text with highly varied vocabulary knowledge. There's no agreed-upon master list.

Instead, we need to focus on the tiers of vocabulary. Tier one is the biggest tier. These are words we all use in everyday conversation. Dog, car, train, milk, chicken nuggets, book, people, hair.

Tier two words are the sweet spot. These are words frequently found in texts but not used much in conversation. We wouldn't often say in conversation, "I'm going to devour my dinner" or "I detest car duty." Authors use tier-two words to create a clearer, richer picture in the reader's mind. Like using "devour" instead of just "eat" to vividly convey wolfing food down. Tier two is really where you want the focus. However, children with developmental language disorders may also need support on tier-one basic words. Remember, you have to know something to learn something new.

Then tier three words are the very content-specific ones we typically think of for "vocabulary" - like isthmus, isosceles, and hemisphere. Words tied to a particular subject area.

As for tier-two vocabulary specifically, it was long thought teachers needed to simplify and water down language. But that's no longer the case. Current research, even as of 2023, tells us that when teachers use tier two vocabulary words, it results in a 15 standard score point difference in vocabulary achievement for their students. 15 standard score points - that's enough to move a student from below average to average or from average to above average vocabulary levels.

So this is one of the big takeaways - when we use these "fancy Nancy" tier two words consistently, it has a huge impact. Instead of saying, "I think we'll probably have indoor recess today because it's going to rain," flip it to, "I anticipate we'll have indoor recess because it's probably going to precipitate." Rather than "write your name on your paper," say, "inscribe your name." Instead of "Your pencil is sharp enough," say, "Your pencil is tapered enough." Exposing them to this rich tier-two vocabulary and using it naturally in instruction is so important for their vocabulary development.

Vocabulary and Phonology

The reason it's so important for students to hear these tier-two words is that we put written words into our long-term memory by anchoring them to their sound first, not their meaning. Here's what I mean:

Look at the word 'suspicious'. The student likely goes to pronounce it like this - because when decoding, you're actually sounding it out. It might go "sus-pect, oh yes, sus-pic-us, sus-pic-us...oh, suspicious! Suspicious - I've heard that word before." Now it kicks over to accessing the meaning. Like "My mom says I look suspicious when I'm by the pantry before dinner." They recognize the familiar sound first and then connect it to the meaning. So having teachers use these tier-two words helps anchor both the decoding and the comprehension of the words.

Four Stages of Word Knowledge

Here's something else I do. There's an ideal way for teachers and SLPs to figure out which words to explicitly teach. With whatever text you're using, make an estimation of words you think students may not know. But then give them a list or go through words having them rate on a scale of 1 to 4.

1 - I've never seen or heard this word before
2 - I think I've heard it, but I'm not really sure what it means
3 - I think it has something to do with 'X'
4 - I know this word

Then pre-teach those words at levels 1 and 2. Pre-teaching is often seen as an accommodation, but it doesn't have to be. Everyone benefits from pre-teaching vocabulary before reading it. I'll say it again - pre-teaching vocabulary is good instructional practice, not just an accommodation.

When we pre-teach words and when they've heard them already, it clears up working memory. So they've heard it before and can think about the overall meaning of the passage without getting bogged down by unfamiliar words. Consider, too, that we need to move them from levels 1 and 2 to levels 3 and 4 - because that's when comprehension is positively impacted by vocabulary knowledge.

Vocabulary and Phonology Examples

I want you to think about the differences in the sound of these words, not the meaning. SLPs are awesome at focusing on sounds. First, 'habit' versus 'habitat.' What's the sound difference? It's the syllables. I instruct teachers: "Say 'habit' after me. Habit." Then "Let's break it by syllables - ha-bit." They repeat, "ha-bit." Then I will say, "Now say habitat. Ha-bi-tat." They say: "Ha-bi-tat." And it's important to note that I use my fingers to track the syllables, not clapping for syllables. Why? Because in every class, there's that one student whose clapping is off because they have no idea about syllables, and it interrupts the sound for everyone else. Segmenting with fingers avoids adding the cognitive load of having to remember how many times I clapped. I can just look at how many fingers I have up. 

Next is 'people' versus 'pupa.' Both are CVCV words, and the consonants are the same, but what's different? The vowels. This matters because 'people' is tier one, but for a butterfly unit, they may not know 'pupa.' If they miss the vowel sound difference, they'll struggle with the meaning difference.

Now 'specific' versus 'pacific' is easier, right? We hear the initial consonant blend differs. I include this example because many languages/dialects don't have consonant clusters. Like the fourth grader studying the gold rush - he heard "goal rush" being a Spanish speaker whose phonology lacks final clusters, impacting comprehension.

What about advice versus advise? Many say it's the consonants differing, and they do. But the key is appreciating one has a voiced, one an unvoiced consonant - that's the sound awareness needed. 

Finally, affect and effect. The vowels look different but could be pronounced the same using the schwa. With affect/effect, it's the syllable stress that is differing.

So that's why that phonological awareness is so crucially important. Without an awareness of how words sound different, they're going to really struggle to grasp the differences in meaning. Phonological awareness has a direct impact on vocabulary acquisition because it allows us to compare the sounds of known words to unknown words.

Vocabulary Instructional Routine

A tremendous tip for vocabulary instruction is to pronounce the word and have students repeat it after you. Even better, write it out on the board so they can see it and really anchor it. Here's a basic vocabulary instructional routine:

  1. You say the word and have them repeat it after you.
  2. Segment the syllables (do NOT clap)
  3. Identify specific parts (first sound, last syllable)
  4. Discuss the meaning
  5. Give an example of how it can be used
  6. Teach the meaningful units (and spelling)
  7. Talk about how the word can and cannot be used

Let's take the word pareidolia.  I'll say it, you repeat: pareidolia. Now let me break it down by syllables: par-ei-do-lia, your turn. How many syllables was that? What was the first sound in pareidolia? What was the last syllable?

What is pareidolia? It's that phenomenon where you perceive images or patterns where they don't actually exist. Like seeing a face in the clouds or bunnies in a cloud formation - those kinds of things. I might use it in a sentence like: "Alex was sure he saw a rabbit in the clouds, but it was just pareidolia."

Let's break it apart into meaningful word parts. This word is full of Greek roots. "Para" means alongside, "eidolon" means image, and the "-ia" suffix refers to conditions or experiences.  So can I cook a pareidolia? No. Is pareidolia a fear, like arachnophobia? No. Is pareidolia when I think I see something in clouds or sand or flocks of birds, but it's really not actually there? Yes!

You most likely won't forget pareidolia and its meaning now because we've made those deep connections with the phonology, the phonological encoding into long-term memory, and solidified the meaning - all through those simple analysis steps.

Vocabulary and Morphology

Let's delve deeper into morphology and its implications for vocabulary and comprehension. English, as we know, is a morphophonemic language. While this might be common knowledge for us, it may not be for teachers. Essentially, this means that English is structured based on both units of meaning and units of sound. For instance, take the word "frog," which consists of four sounds: f-r-o-g. When blended together, these sounds create the word "frog," which holds a single meaning. However, by adding the plural -s or the suffix -y, we transform the word into the plural noun "frogs" or the adjective "froggy." 

Now, let's contrast this with sign language and Chinese, which are represented primarily by syllables rather than individual sounds. In sign language, unless fingerspelling is utilized.  

Morphology and Reading Comprehension

Morphological awareness has been shown to have a direct influence on reading ability. It's definitely an underlying cause of reading difficulties when morphological awareness is lacking. It's widely understood that word recognition and language comprehension create overall reading comprehension.

Morphological awareness counters the notion that we can develop reading comprehension simply by working on word decoding skills or even just oral language. Because we must be aware of the morphology within the written texts themselves.

Here's a good example: Morphological awareness is what allows a reader to understand that the words "magic" and "magician" are meaningfully related, despite differences in their pronunciations. Now, is morphological awareness explicitly listed as a component in the Simple View of Reading model? Not yet. However research does provide substantial support for morphological awareness having a direct impact on reading.

Inflectional and Derivational Morphemes

Let's consider inflectional and derivational morphemes. Inflectional relates to inflect, meaning to vary the form of a word. So inflectional suffixes change the word's form, but not its part of speech.

Whereas a derivational morpheme, from the word derive meaning to descend from, creates an entirely new word. Derivational suffixes are related to the root word, but adding that morpheme does change the part of speech - like from a verb to a noun. For example, encourage becomes encouragement when adding the derivational -ment suffix.  Some other examples include: select becomes selective when adding -ive (verb to adjective), general becomes generalize with -ize (noun to verb), and beautiful becomes beautifully with -ly (adjective to adverb). Adding those various derivational suffixes changes the part of speech.

Greek and Latin Roots

Let's look at Greek and Latin roots. You might not have considered teaching these before, but incorporating Greek and Latin roots into instruction serves as a powerful tool for teaching meaning and comprehension and introducing students to unfamiliar words. Greek and Latin roots enable students to make connections between new and unfamiliar words and those they already know and understand.

Consider the Greek root "mal," spelled M-A-L, which means "bad." How many words can you think of that incorporate "mal"? Take a moment to ponder. Knowing that "mal" signifies "bad" helps to figure out the meaning of words like "malformed," "maltreatment," "malice," "malfunction," "malnourished," "malignant," "Maleficent," "Malfoy," "dismal," "malaria," and "malpractice.


When we teach the origins of words, we're essentially teaching the stories behind them. This aids in understanding their meaning and spelling. Consider this interesting example: why does the letter combination "ch" sometimes sound like "sh" instead of "ch"? Take a moment to reflect on how many words you can think of where "ch" makes the "sh" sound. 

Here are a few examples: "chef," "chardonnay," "champagne," "Charlotte," "charcuterie," "quiche," "machine," "parachute," "chandelier," "chalet," "mustache," and "charades." Now, consider the origins of these words. Take "chardonnay," for instance. All these words share a French derivation, which explains why the letter combination "ch" makes a different sound.

Vocabulary, Syntax, and Mental Imagery

Vocabulary extends beyond mere knowledge of individual words; it encompasses understanding the relationships between words and how they combine to evoke mental images. In fact, beyond word knowledge, syntactical understanding stands as one of the most significant factors influencing listening and reading comprehension. Syntax isn't merely about putting words in order; it's about how certain phrases create imagery.

Consider the following examples: "green" denotes a color, but "green thumb" implies expertise in gardening, not the literal color of the thumb. Similarly, while "raining" signifies precipitation, "raining cats and dogs" indicates heavy rainfall. "Weather" pertains to atmospheric conditions, yet "under the weather" signifies feeling unwell. "Skeleton" refers to the structure of bones, whereas "skeleton in the closet" implies hiding a secret.

Each of these phrases has a story behind it that adds depth to its meaning. For instance, "under the weather" originated as a sailing term, referring to sailors going below deck when sick. As for "skeleton in the closet," it traces back to a time when studying the human body was illegal, prompting grave robbers to hide stolen bodies in closets for medical study. Understanding the origins of such phrases helps explain their meanings and provides context for their usage.

Another aspect to consider is visual imagery. When we read, we shouldn't be processing each word individually; rather, we should be reading in meaningful units and phrases. These phrases should create mental images similar to creating a movie in our minds.

Consider the following example from a well-known book featuring a main character named Fern: "Fern pushed the chair out of the way." Initially, this might conjure a simple image of moving a chair. However, when we scoop and add the following phrase, "and ran outdoors," the image transforms to Fern forcefully pushing the chair aside as she rushes outside. This excerpt, of course, is from "Charlotte's Web."

Additionally, reflecting on the phrase "and ran outdoors" prompts us to envision various types of doors: a standard door, a school door, a front door, or even a screen door. Each detail contributes to the development of visual imagery, which plays a vital role in comprehension.

Narratives and Reading Comprehension

Oral narratives serve as the link between spoken and written language, so it's essential to bear that in mind. Narrative skills, such as story grammar, rely on various language abilities vital for reading comprehension. Therefore, it's critical to focus on teaching and highlighting story elements like characters, settings, and kickoff events. 

While typically developing children may not require explicit instruction in these areas, it's invaluable for our students with developmental language disorders. A longitudinal study involving young children around three years old revealed that both language comprehension and narrative skills directly influenced reading comprehension at ages eight and nine.

This groundbreaking study revealed evidence demonstrating the long-term impact of narrative skills. Remarkably, narrative skills at age five were found to independently contribute to comprehension a decade later, as well as academic achievement at age 14. This influence was significant even after accounting for factors such as linguistic and listening comprehension, cognitive ability, verbal memory, and maternal education level. These findings underscore the critical importance of focusing on and addressing narrative skills to enhance reading comprehension effectively.

Pragmatics and Reading Comprehension

Let's discuss Theory of Mind. This concept revolves around social reasoning, specifically the ability to understand and consider other people's mental states, including their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. This skill is crucial for making inferences about text because not every detail is explicitly stated.

Theory of Mind develops throughout childhood and underpins the ability to make inferences about others' actions in everyday life. For instance, children grasp that when their mother searches under the couch for missing keys, she believes they're there, even if the child knows they're on the table. This ability to make social inferences based on Theory of Mind directly contributes to reading comprehension.

It's imperative to ensure that Theory of Mind is taught and emphasized in instruction, as it significantly enhances reading comprehension. Despite its importance, Theory of Mind is often overlooked because it's not explicitly included in models like the Simple View of Reading or Scarborough's Reading Rope. Therefore, it's crucial to recognize its significance and integrate it into literacy instruction effectively.

Putting It All Together

Let's synthesize all the elements we've discussed. Consider a fourth-grade social studies standard in South Carolina, which entails examining the economic and political motivations prompting colonists to declare independence from Great Britain. To understand this, students must engage with primary sources like the Declaration of Independence. Take, for instance, a pivotal sentence from the Declaration: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such Government and to provide new guards for their future security."

Let's analyze the vocabulary within this sentence more closely. First, let's identify which words could be considered tier-two vocabulary. These are words that the authors use to create a vivid and precise picture but might not be commonly used in everyday language. Some examples of tier-two words in this sentence could include:

  • Pursuing: Instead of saying "go after," the author chooses "pursuing" to convey a sense of purposeful action.
  • Evinces: Rather than "shows," the author uses "evinces" to indicate a clear demonstration of something.
  • Design: This word is used to denote a plan or intention in a specific context.
  • Invariably: Instead of "always" or "constantly," the author employs "invariably" to emphasize consistency.
  • Reduce: This word is used figuratively to convey the idea of diminishing or subjecting to a lower status.
  • Absolute: The term "absolute" is employed to convey the idea of complete or total.

Which words might be classified as tier-three vocabulary? These are words that are highly specific to the context of the subject matter and may not be commonly encountered outside of this context. In this sentence, examples of tier-three vocabulary could include:

  • Long train of abuses: This phrase refers to the series of unjust actions perpetrated by the British government, leading to the American Revolution.
  • Usurpations: This term refers to the unauthorized seizure or exercise of power, particularly in the context of violating citizens' rights.
  • Despotism: This word denotes the abuse of power by a ruler, specifically referring to King George's oppressive rule in this historical context.

Now, let's consider the background knowledge required to fully comprehend this passage. To grasp the syntactically complex sentence with its impressive vocabulary, students would need prior knowledge about historical events such as Christopher Columbus's voyages and the motivations behind European colonization. Understanding why people left England in the first place, as well as the circumstances leading up to significant events like the Boston Tea Party, would also be critical.

How does understanding the perspective of the writer enhance comprehension? By employing Theory of Mind, students can better grasp the context in which the Declaration of Independence was written. Despite knowing that the Revolutionary War began in 1775, they might not realize that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 and the war didn't conclude until 1783.

Reflecting on this timeline provides valuable insight into the context surrounding the Declaration of Independence. While the Revolutionary War started in 1775 and concluded in 1783, the Declaration was written and adopted in 1776, just one year into a conflict that spanned seven years—a detail often overlooked.  Understanding this historical backdrop allows students to appreciate the perspective of the colonists. It suggests that they had reached a breaking point, weary of enduring King George's oppressive actions outlined in the Declaration. By declaring independence, they signaled their resolve to forge their own destiny with support from allies like the French.

Understanding the narrative of the American Revolution requires proficiency in story narrative skills. Students need to comprehend the characters, settings, and events that unfolded during this pivotal period in history.

Moving on, let's dissect parts of the passage. Why might a "long train of abuses" be difficult to understand? Primarily, it is figurative language. When students encounter a "long train," they might visualize a literal train with numerous cars, which is not the intended meaning. Figurative language involves words conveying meanings beyond their literal interpretation.

Next, consider "usurpations." Why might this word be challenging to pronounce? Firstly, it consists of four syllables, which increases the difficulty. Additionally, if students attempt to break the word into familiar parts, they might mispronounce it as "us-par-ations," deviating from the correct pronunciation, "yoo-ser-pey-shuhns." Thus, auditory exposure is critical to ensure accurate pronunciation. Furthermore, for students struggling with the letter "r," additional challenges may arise, complicating their pronunciation attempts.

Let's examine "invariably." What makes this word challenging? Let's break it down into its individual units of meaning. Firstly, we have "in," which signifies "not." Then, we have "vary," meaning "differing." Next, we encounter "able," indicating "able to" or "can." Finally, we have "ly," denoting "having qualities of." So, in total, "invariably" comprises four morphemes.

Essentially, it signifies "having qualities of not being able to differ." When students grasp this breakdown, they're not only understanding the meaning of "invariably" but also understanding any word containing these morphemes.

Looking at "evinces," why might students confuse it with "convinces"? Both words share similarities—they're both three syllables, and the middle and end syllables align. However, the critical distinction is the initial syllable.

Now, consider "despotism." How might visual imagery aid understanding? Picture a despot as a king, reminiscent of scenes from "Hamilton." Recall the song, ♪ You'll be back. ♪ This visual connection helps solidify the concept of a despot. Visual imagery enhances comprehension by providing mental pictures that reinforce understanding.

Next, let's look at how we can scoop these phrases into meaningful units and foster visual imagery. Take the phrase, "But when a long train of abuses..." Encourage students to scoop this into smaller, digestible chunks. Then, prompt them to visualize the various forms of ongoing mistreatment endured by the Colonists. That is the first scoop. 

The next scoop is "usurpations." Encourage students to envision what a usurpation or abuse of power might look like. Encourage them to think of images of unjust acts or infringements upon rights.

Next is "pursuing invariably." What does this mean? It suggests a relentless pursuit without deviation. Prompt students to envision this pursuit, emphasizing the unwavering determination. They're pursuing a singular Object (notice "Object" is capitalized for a reason)—freedom, independence, et cetera.

This example illustrates how scooping phrases, deciphering vocabulary, and understanding syntax fit together. Whether assessing or teaching reading comprehension, these elements are integral. Remember, whether spoken or written, it's still all language.

Questions and Answers

Is there evidence that a lisp significantly impacts learning vocabulary?

I can't say a lisp in particular, but there is a lot of research supporting the impact of speech sound production on reading and reading comprehension, and phonological awareness. There are a lot of references to those areas. 

I really like your steps in vocabulary instruction, could you please give an IEP example goal for elementary tracking progress while using these strategies?

When I'm thinking about teaching the vocabulary, I'm not thinking about the words as much as I'm thinking about what I'm trying to get out of them related to words. So, I might have a goal related to categories and functions so that they'll be able to state the category and function of whatever the vocabulary is related to the context. Because again, if you are a school-based SLP, you really need a copy of whatever the social studies curriculum is, or so science curriculum, or their ELA books. You want to make sure you match the vocabulary they need to know in class. This is why I always ask for a copy of the social study curriculum for every single grade level.

So I might have a goal that targets category and function. I might have a goal maybe later on that talks about describing words based on size, shape, color, or even visual characteristics. Because, again, what I'm trying to get is that mental imagery. Most of the students with a developmental language disorder, in my experience, struggle with this piece. They are not creating those mental images. I can show them a document that's got pictures of all kinds of things on it. And I can say, "Show me a dog, show me a giraffe, show me a statue."  But then, when I ask them, "What does the dog look like that lives in your house, that you pet and play with every single day? Nothing. So that, again, is a huge part of what we can do to really help contribute to comprehension. 

References: See handout for a complete list. 


Neal, A. (2024). Reading comprehension and the SLP: contributions of language. SpeechPathology.com. Article 20654. Available at www.speechpathology.com



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angie neal

Angie Neal, MS, CCC-SLP

Angie Neal is the SLP Contact and Program Analyst for Academics at the South Carolina State Department of Education, Office of Special Education Services. She stays busy as LETRS Facilitator, a board member with the State Education Agency Communication Disability Council, and a member of the ASHA School Issues Advisory Board. Angie is the recipient of the Rolland Van Hattum Award for contributions to schools and the Nancy McKinley Award for leadership in Speech-Language Pathology. She is a published author of two books and presents on a wide variety of topics all across the United States using her animated presentation style to keep audiences engaged and leaving with information that they can apply the next day!


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