7 Signs of Poor Reading Comprehension (Explained) | Iris Reading
7 Signs of Poor Reading Comprehension

7 Signs of Poor Reading Comprehension (Explained)

7 Signs of Poor Reading Comprehension

There’s a big problem if you read and do not understand what you’ve read. The purpose of reading any text or book is to extract value. 

For example, you need to comprehend an exam question before answering it. You also need to understand a report and statistics to draw actionable insights. 

Even without the pressure of exams or work, reading any book or text is useless if you cannot comprehend them. To gain wisdom, retain information to pass an exam, or do your job well, reading comprehension is a must-have skill for life-long learning. 

However, no matter how much some people try, they cannot comprehend texts or only partially understand them. 

They are unaware or consciously avoid the fact that they may have a learning disability psychologists call poor reading comprehension. 

The signs of reading comprehension difficulties include the inability to decode words, lack of concentration during reading, difficulty following instructions, expression and poor writing skills, listening or language comprehension, and difficulty sounding out or recognizing words.

In this article, we delve deeper into the signs of comprehension problems. Before that, we would establish what reading comprehension is and the factors that affect it. 

What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is the ability to extract value from written text. It has two major components, decoding and language comprehension. Decoding is recognizing words and their sound, while language comprehension encompasses multiple factors such as background knowledge and broad vocabulary.

To have good reading comprehension, you must be good or adequate in both language comprehension and decoding. There are also three layers to reading comprehension: literal comprehension, evaluative comprehension, and inferential comprehension. 

Literal comprehension defines the reader’s ability to pick out simple facts from the text. Evaluative comprehension encapsulates the reader’s ability to make independent judgments about the text. 

Inferential comprehension refers to the reader’s ability to connect what they’ve read to other written texts, what they already know, or other situations. 

Factors that affect reading comprehension

We’ve established that reading comprehension is multi-dimensional. To be great at reading comprehension, you must excel across multiple concurrent processes. 

The factors that affect reading comprehension include the person’s vocabulary, relevant background information on the text’s subject, working memory, phonological awareness, verbal reasoning, sight recognition, language structures, and ability to decode words. 


A broad vocabulary aids reading comprehension. It allows you to make inferences and also extract the author’s intended meaning from the text. 

More than having a broad vocabulary is also understanding that a word may have multiple contexts, tones, and moods. 

Relevant background information

The more exposed you are to a subject, the easier it is to understand texts about the subject. 

If you have never read or been involved with nuclear fission, it’ll probably feel alien to you if you picked a book on it. Prior knowledge difficulty of a text can make it easier or harder to read, understand and retain the information. 

Particularly, relevant background knowledge is important to understand the context of the text. For example, “operation” would immediately have different meanings to a doctor and a mathematician. 

Working memory

Great working memory enables you to store information while simultaneously processing the information you’re reading. Working memory is a good predictor of reading comprehension variations in adults and children. 

A person with efficient working memory will likely have more capacity and processing time to commit to consolidating information extracted from written text. 

A reader with poor working memory would struggle with this, especially as they grow and interact with more difficult reading material. 

You can use working memory capacity to determine how long the fact extracted from written text remains in the working memory. You can also use working memory capacity to determine if the fact would be committed to long-term memory. 

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is a reader’s ability to recognize speech sounds from letters and letter combinations. This ability is necessary to go from the written word to the spoken word and to decode a word.

Readers with poor phonological awareness have reading difficulties such as Dyslexia.

Verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning is vital for making inferences not explicitly stated in and outside the text. Simply put, it is the ability to connect ideas. 

This skill is also necessary to understand figurative language, such as idioms and metaphors, which have meanings that are not literal. 

Sight recognition

Words like “said, light, eye, were, thought, their, and people” are referred to as sight words because readers can’t decode them using phonological awareness. 

As such, readers immediately know these words and their meanings. When a reader must figure out multiple sight words in a written text, they can easily lose focus and concentration while reading. This lack of concentration is even more pronounced during lengthy readings. 

Language structures

Broad vocabulary enables readers to pick out the meaning and context of words. Language structure allows them to tie all those words together to extract meaning at the sentence level. Language structure refers to syntax, grammar, and semantics. 

Syntax refers to the underlying system that informs how words are arranged. The syntax varies from language to language. 

Grammar involves the rules governing how words can be used, including tenses and verb-subject relationships. 

Semantics encompasses the tone and mood of the sentence based on the words used. 

Decoding words

When you look at printed words and can say them accurately, you have successfully decoded that word. It is the next step after phonological awareness. You can only tell if you’re great at decoding when reading aloud. 

7 Signs of reading comprehension difficulties

If you’re unsure if you have reading comprehension difficulties, you can use the list below as a checklist. You’re likely to suffer from comprehension difficulties if you are poor or inadequate in one or more factors that affect reading comprehension.

1. Difficulty following instructions

You may be unable to follow instructions or follow them completely because your brain cannot fully process the information you received.

You may understand “go to the supermarket” but find it hard to follow all the instructions if told to “go to the supermarket, buy me bread and cheddar cheese.”

Most of the time, people who have difficulty following instructions also have memory and attention deficiencies. 

2. Inability to decode words and a lack of fluency when reading

If you stutter a lot when reading word by word aloud – without speech issues like stammering – you may be struggling to decode the words you read. You can’t simply recognize words fast enough, even struggling to pronounce common words that should be easy for third grade pupils. 

You can trace the inability to decode words to health conditions like dyslexia and other learning disabilities. 

A person who finds it difficult to decode words, probably experienced one of the following: educational gaps, limited access to literacy experiences, language deficits, attention problems, visual processing issues, a lack of preschool, etc. 

If any of these situations describes you, you may likely have poor reading comprehension. 

3. Issues understanding what was read without a learning disability

With great language comprehension, verbal reasoning, and decoding, a reader should naturally understand what they’re reading. 

But a person with poor comprehension will have trouble understanding and drawing conclusions from the same text. Sometimes, it will take more time than necessary to understand written text, no matter how simple the ideas of the text are. 

Struggling readers will also struggle to connect the ideas in the text to prior knowledge. For example, you’ll likely have issues reading a recipe book and following the instructions if you’ve never cooked before. 

For these people, reading is just a recitation, no matter how simple the text is. 

4. Poor writing and expression skills

Writing and expressing yourself require similar skills to those needed for reading comprehension. For example, to write effectively, you must have literacy knowledge and be well-versed in the language rules you’re writing in. 

You also need robust verbal reasoning and planning skills to construct your independent thoughts on a subject from multiple sources, including your feelings and experiences. 

It is, therefore, evident that reading and writing are skills that complement each other. Being inadequate in one means you’re likely lacking in the other. 

5. Lack of concentration during reading

The lack of concentration during reading may be linked to a learning disability like ADHD. However, for cases that are not medical, a lack of concentration can be a pointer to having a reading disability.

Some of the signs you may observe include becoming tired during lengthy readings and showing no motivation to complete writing assignments because of the amount of reading required. 

6. Issues with remembering and missing details

Not being able to retell recent instructions you were given – via text or spoken words – is another sign you may be struggling with reading comprehension. 

Another way this sign may manifest is not being able to answer questions about a story you just read or a movie you just watched. These are tell-tale signs that your working memory capacity is below par. 

Additionally, missing key details that provide contexts makes written text comprehension harder. For example, you cannot empathize with the characters in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist without seeing that they were dealt a hard hand from birth. 

You can improve your ability to remember and comprehend details from what you read with the Maximizing Memory course from Iris Reading.

7. Little to no variance in tone when reading aloud

When reading a story aloud, a reader who comprehends the text will alter their tone intermittently to match the mood or tempo of the story. 

It can be as simple as knowing when to pause, voice inflection, or how to communicate interjections to the listening audience. A reader who runs through the story or text without regard for pace and tone may be suffering from reading comprehension difficulties. 

You can trace this issue to a deficiency in language structures, particularly semantics, and grammar. 

Takeaway: Overcome signs of reading comprehension

Signs like being unable to read fluently, missing out on key details from written text, or remembering core information can be frustrating and sometimes embarrassing among your peers. 

The first step is acknowledging there’s a problem and identifying which of the signs affect you. There are numerous strategies and approaches you can adopt to improve reading comprehension, depending on the signs you observe. 

For instance, reading more books in different categories can help to broaden your vocabulary and improve your background knowledge. This strategy will immediately help you comprehend more topics better. 

You can also improve your working memory and comprehension capacity by enrolling in Iris Reading’s Advanced Comprehension & Memory course. 

This video course is loaded with practical strategies and knowledge to help students, professionals, and anyone to comprehend what they read and recall the details later. 

5 Benefits of Silent Reading (Explained!)
Does Everyone Have Subvocalization?