Common Causes of Comprehension Difficulties

photo of the dog by the bushes

The Culprit

While spending time with my family this Memorial Day weekend, a conversation about reading came up. My husband shared his great dislike for reading and told us how he had a very difficult time responding successfully to the teacher’s question, “So, what was this book about?” This is a synopsis of our conversation that followed:

Michael: I would read all the words, but it just didn’t make any sense.

Me: My guess is that you weren’t TWRCing while you read. You expected meaning to come just by reading the words. Many struggling readers do the same thing. I know you know how to TWRC. Why just this morning you realized that my sister’s bushes weren’t growing because the dog was eating them. You knew she wondered why they weren’t growing and you kept thinking about it until you found a reason, didn’t you? When you saw the dog eat them, you connected the two actions and came up with a reason. You are a true nature TWRCr–you see things, wonder about them and think about all you know about the situation until you come up with something that makes sense. That is exactly what good readers do while they read.

Michael: But, I am a good reader when it comes to fixing a car. If I have a problem I can’t fix, I will read and read until I find my answer.

Me: Ah! So, you do TWRC when you read, as long as you know the purpose. While reading about fixing cars, you begin with a wonder (What do I need to do to fix this car) and you read (and think) until you find something that answers your wonder. Having a purpose engages your brain and keeps you focused on what you are reading until you find your answer. Good readers set purposes for reading. In other words, good readers do the same thing you do in nature and what you do when you read about fixing cars–they wonder something and then gather facts until they can come up with a plausible explanation. A purpose in narrative reading might be to determine why characters do what they do, how they got into situations, how they can get out of them, what they will do next, etc.

Michael: Hmmmm….

This conversation reminds me of three things. The first connection is to the phrase, “the pursuit of coherence,” or in literacy layman’s terms, continuing to read until you understand. I cannot remember where I read this, but it was a real aha moment for me. Basically, it was saying that not all readers read with the same pursuit of coherence. This is so simple, but so important to keep in mind. Many struggling readers are so used to reading not making sense that they do not actively do anything to try to make it make sense. Readers who have a strong pursuit of coherence understand that writing usually makes sense, so they actively try many different things when it doesn’t. They also realize that some writing is just not clear and that unless you are able to talk with the author, making it make sense is impossible.

If you think about my conversation with Michael above, it seems clear that Michael’s pursuit of coherence changed dramatically from the first scenario to the second. This is not the first time the concept of “pursuit of coherence” came up in my personal life.

After designing some higher order thinking questions about a short story, I had my sister read the story and try to answer my questions. She quickly became frustrated and said, “Well, I did not put that much into it.”

This conversation and my new understanding of “the pursuit of coherence” was the root of the acronym “TWRC.” I wanted my struggling readers to know that good readers put a lot into it, so I had them chant this daily during my first year as a reading specialist:

The more I put into reading, the more I will get out of it. Good readers think, wonder, reflect, and make connections while they read.

My students loved this. I was surprised that “repeating this mantra” was an answer that came up several times in response to, “Out of all we have done this year, what helped you the most?” I found it very interesting, but wanted to make it even easier to remember.

Once I created the acronym, “TWRC,” I did not think the mantra was necessary anymore because I used “TWRC” so often in natural conversation. Students did the same. My favorite was that they would often enter the classroom saying, “I am here to work hard and TWRC hard!” I loved that they were using it on their own. More importantly, I think they really understood that comprehension is not a given; it requires active pursuit.

The second connection I made was to a book by Cris Tovani, I Read It, but I Don’t Get It. You can read the first chapter, “Fake Reading” by clicking on the book title above. I got a lot out of reading this chapter because I had never considered talking to struggling readers this way. Since reading this chapter, I began talking to students like this more often. I really believe students get a lot out of hearing not just what good readers do, but what struggling readers do, too. I imagine I will love the rest of the book once I get around to finishing it.

I also love the way Tovani talks to students in these videos. I have only had the opportunity to hear her speak in person once–she was phenomenal! I really look forward to hearing her again. If you click on Tovani’s name above, you can hear her part in a fantastic hour-long podcast. She shares some great insight. Cris Tovani is also on Twitter.

My final connection was to Taffy Raphael’s work. I remember reading her reflections on classroom observations with children. These reflections are what caused her to develop the Question-Answer-Relationship Approach (QAR). She said she realized either struggling students seemed to think answers came from the book, or they came from your head. Unfortunately, it was an either or situation for many of them. It is unfortunate because many comprehension questions require readers to combine textual information with their own background knowledge.

I observed the same thing with many struggling readers and found that using the QAR approach helped them tremendously. Teaching QAR took some practice and I plan to write more about it in the future. Until then, this article from FOR-PD helped me tremendously. If you Google “Question-Answer-Relationship,” you will find a plethora of resources. I purchased the book, QAR Now: Question Answer Relationship: A Powerful and Practical Framework That Develops Comprehension and Higher-Level Thinking in All Students (Raphael, Highfield & Au, 2006), and it is in my “To Be Read” pile that I look forward to reading (along with Tovani’s).

On the plane to the last IRA convention, I started reading an article from Essential Readings on Comprehension titled, QAR: Enhancing Comprehension and Test Taking Across Grades and Content Areas (Raphael & Au). I was blown away with all the TWRCing opportunities this article provided. I cannot wait to finish reading it. This book is one of many in an International Reading Association series of books that all begin with “Essential Readings.” I hope to read them all someday. Here is a list of the ones that are already published.

Struggling readers do not understand why they have difficulty comprehending. Unless we share possible reasons with them, I think it is difficult for them to figure it out on their own. By starting sentences with, “Struggling readers often….,” we are letting them hear what struggling readers do without insulting them. After hearing the rest of the sentence, I imagine many struggling readers think, “Hey! That’s what I do/don’t do!” We cannot leave it at that, though. We must make sure they can do what good readers do. They must TWRC while they read to set purposes, and they need to understand question-answer-relationships in order to answer comprehension questions successfully.

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  • Michelle Breum

    I enjoyed the story of the origin of TWRC. I read the first chapter of I Read, but I Don't Get It. I was a fake reader like the author. Comprehension doesn't happen unless a reader puts in some mental energy along with a purpose for reading. This is something I did not know before attending college. I remember spacing out and needing to reread many times. This type of frustration made me avoid reading as a child and teenager. The author, Cris Tovani, did a wonderful job in the first chapter connecting to readers and introducing an important topic. Her recollection of asking for help from a teacher and the teacher saying to pay more attention is sad and is likely the same answer most teachers would give today. I must have figured out how to think while reading on my own. I now love to read. I'm glad you addressed this important topic. It made me remember my struggles. Reading is so much more than phonics. I'm going to have to put in some TWRC time into this topic and find a way to share some helpful advice with parents to improve a child's reading comprehension on my blog.

  • Michelle Breum

    Here's link to a post from a blog I follow addressing comprehension for preschoolers.

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    Hi Michelle,

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal story and for taking the time to write such a great comment. I think many teachers are probably good readers who falsely assume that everyone knows they need to TWRC while they read in order to understand, but as you and I know, that is not true. I think I probably assumed the same thing until I read about the pursuit for coherence and repeatedly heard this quote, “Reading Is Thinking” which I'm sure stems from Thorndike's article, “Reading as Reasoning.” (If you haven't read the article, you can scroll down the sidebars and find it under, “Comprehension.” It's a great read.)

    I look forward to reading about your TWRCs on your blog! :)

    P.S. I had difficulty with comprehending informational text until college. I hope to write about what helped me do so in a future post. (It involves highlighting and understanding the importance of text organization–especially headings and subheadings.)

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    Thanks for the link, Michelle. I just subscribed to her posts via GoogleReader.

  • The Book Maven

    Hi Julie! I have nominated your blog for the Versatile Blogger Award. Here is the link!
    Thanks for sharing your amazing thinking with all of us!

  • Julie Niles Petersen

    The Book Maven,

    Thank you so much for the award nomination and for being part of my PLN! You really made my day!!! :D

    In Gratitude,


    P.S. I posted a comment on your link. Congratulations to you, too!!!