Reading Comprehension Instruction for Students With LD

Background and Purpose

Research conducted in the 1980s and more recently has suggested that children with learning disabilities (LD) have difficulties with reading comprehension that are the result of broadly based language problems and not limited to simple difficulties with word recognition. Since reading comprehension is crucial to school success, it is essential to understand the difficulties children with LD face as they encounter new text and to identify instructional approaches that focus on learning and using the many skills that are needed for successful reading.
This research synthesis was conducted to critically review recent contributions to the body of research on reading comprehension in students with LD with the goal of enhancing current classroom practices and identifying avenues for future research. These points serve as background information for the following discussion:
  • Successful reading comprehension is correlated with oral reading fluency and vocabulary knowledge. However, interventions that focus on improving fluency or vocabulary do not necessarily increase reading comprehension, especially of long passages.
  • Students with LD often show signs of giving up too quickly when faced with a difficult passage. This so-called task persistence, a skill that must be acquired by all readers, is especially important for successful reading of expository text, such as history and science textbooks, newspapers, and voter pamphlets.
  • Children with LD, who have a history of academic difficulties, have documented gaps in grade-appropriate knowledge of history, geography, and other subjects. These knowledge gaps interfere with their understanding of material they encounter in new texts and compound their reading comprehension problems.


An analysis of three recent research reviews brings the following issues and findings to the forefront of reading comprehension research.

What is the role of self-monitoring in reading comprehension?

So-called active readers learn to monitor how well they understand what they are reading, as they read. When reading difficult material, these students engage in beneficial self-monitoring strategies such as rereading portions of the text and trying to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words central to understanding it. In contrast, students with LD often fail to realize that they must pay attention to how well they understand a text as they read so that they can go back and reread as necessary. Typically, students with LD must learn several self-monitoring techniques, such as asking themselves questions after reading a passage or summarizing in their own words the material they've read. While reading a story (a narrative text), they might try to predict what will happen next. Learning to make predictions helps reading comprehension.
The ability to reflect on how well a reading task is progressing is a critical component of reading comprehension. Students who are taught a number of strategies to use as they read, such as asking themselves questions as they read and summarizing what they read, generally experience more improvements in comprehension than students who are taught a single, specific comprehension skill. It is essential for students to learn "repair strategies" to use when they find themselves not understanding the text they are reading.
Repeated readings of a passage make it significantly easier for students to recall its important content. Repeated readings of the same passage is an easy strategy to implement in real classroom situations.
Although students with LD can be taught to use self-monitoring techniques, it is considerably more difficult for these students to generalize these skills, or apply them to other reading situations. Students frequently do not continue the comprehension strategies that they are taught after completion of the study unless they are asked to. It appears that intense, long-term interventions utilizing multiple self-monitoring interventions may be the most effective approach.
Students with LD process information inactively, and they have difficulty differentiating relevant and irrelevant associations. Possible solutions include techniques that force students to focus attention on the material being read and help them more readily identify the theme of a narrative.

What are the contributions of text structures to reading comprehension?

Skills in discerning and using text structures (the way reading material is organized) are important to understanding texts. Students with LD have trouble learning about the structures of stories. In addition, they typically recall less about stories they've read and cannot easily identify the important information in stories. The most useful text structure is referred to as story grammar, which is the way narrative texts are organized. That is, there are characters, a setting, problems, solutions to the problems, etc. Students with LD know less about narrative text structure than other students. This lack of knowledge interferes with comprehension. Fortunately, narrative text structure can be taught, and when it is, comprehension improves.
Expository writing, the kind of texts found in newspapers and history books, for example, presents LD students with even greater challenges. Expository writing typically contains a variety of organizational or text structures that are more difficult to identify. Thus, the tactics that may help when reading stories, such as identifying the main story elements and processing them, are often less effective with expository texts.
Peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS) improve comprehension and oral reading skills. In addition to having students reread text, PALS also has children work directly on comprehension by summarizing what they've read, identifying the most important information, and predicting what may happen next.
Although peer-assisted learning has shown strong benefits, additional research is necessary to determine whether peers have the skills to explain to another student how they handle the difficulties they encounter while reading. It's clear that students can help with practice and that practice is essential for internalizing strategies, but it's not clear to what extent proficient readers can actually teach less proficient readers.


Reading comprehension interventions are among the most effective interventions among children with LD.
Students with LD need to learn an array of strategies to enhance their understanding of the narrative and expository material they read.
With regard to expository text, more emphasis should be placed on a fluid approach to self-monitoring skills. Too few studies have looked at ways to improve comprehension of expository text. New areas of research are emphasizing that comprehension of expository text should focus on helping students use an array of strategies flexibly rather than having them adhere rigidly to text structure approach, as they might while reading a narrative text or story.
It appears that more successful interventions teach kids multiple strategies with the goal of having them internalize the strategies. Limited evidence suggests that internalization occurs with more intense interventions-usually longer and more frequent instructional times.
Socially mediated instruction, of which peer-assisted learning strategies (PALS) is one example, seems to hold considerable promise. In these situations, students learn to process verbally with a peer or group of peers what they've read verbally. After reading a passage, for example, students or a student and a teacher discuss the content of the passage, ask each other questions about it, and in narrative texts, predict what may happen next.
Frequent, ongoing discussions about the meaning of the text, in which the teacher models the array of strategies and tools that good readers use to make sense of text, is a promising approach to reading comprehension instruction.
Finding ways to help students generalize their newly acquired reading comprehension skills is essential. It's important to learn how these skills can be transferred to other academic areas and what needs to be done to make sure that students either continue using the specific strategies they've learned after the instructional intervention ends or internalize the essential parts of the strategy so that improvements in reading comprehension continue.
To date, student learning occurs on measures aligned to the focus of the intervention. So, if students learn to make predictions, for example, they tend to do quite well on tasks that ask them to make predictions. These types of closely aligned measures are called experimenter developed measures. When measures are not closely aligned to the specific focus of the intervention, as is typically the case with standardized measures, the learning outcomes are less impressive. One goal of reading comprehension research is to develop intervention approaches that have a larger impact on standardized measures, which suggest a more generalized or broad-based effect of the intervention.

This document was prepared for the Keys to Successful Learning Summit held in May 1999 in Washington, D.C. Keys to Successful Learning is an ongoing collaboration sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities in partnership with the Office of Special Education Programs (US Department of Education) and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (National Institutes of Health).
The purpose of this initiative is to translate research and policy on learning disabilities into high standards for learning and achievement in the classroom, and to take action at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that all students, including those with learning disabilities, are afforded the highest quality education.
Keys to Successful Learning is supported by a coalition of national and regional funders as well as a broad range of participating education organizations.