Why We Need to Watch out for Reading Without Comprehension

Reading without comprehension is a recurring issue raised by parents at Hummingbird Learning Centre®. Many children struggle with comprehension but when I ask them to read, usually their reading is okay. Some may be slower than others or they may rush into reading & skip or misread words but over all their reading is okay. Yet when I ask them to tell me in their own words what they have just read, they stare up blankly at me. They genuinely do not know what they have just read.

Why do we read?

The goal of reading is understanding, but we have to take a step back from that and ask what is the purpose of reading?

I explain reading, to our Hummingbirds, as a way to  understand what another person was thinking when that person is not there to tell us. Reading allows us to know what a person wanted to say, even though that person may have died centuries before we read what they had written.

Language constantly changes – 25 years ago google was not a verb!  We no longer speak as they did in Elizabethan times, yet we can still understand Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. The words may have changed over the years but the meaning has stayed exactly the same.

I have noticed that people who struggle to remember what they have read, usually have put an awful lot of energy into reading every. single.word. They. read. very. deliberately. sometimes. running. sentences. into. each. other.

They can sound out words, but have no idea as to what the word actually means. They are doing exactly as they were asked to do. They are simply reading the words without attaching any meaning to what they have read.  As adults, teachers and parents, we often make the mistake of assuming that because someone can read a word, then they automatically understand what it means. Usually for struggling readers, the opposite is true.

Phonics can hinder comprehension

Phonics allows a person to sound out what a word is but it makes no allowance for attaching meaning to the word. The reality is that the reader probably has heard the word before and therefore recognises the sound of it and so reads the word, but the reader may not actually understand what it means.  Sounding out words may not allow for the various difference meanings the same word may have.

Reading without comprehension is a complete waste of time. It is the reason why lots of children hate reading. They are just reading words – instead of understanding what they mean.  Reading is a way to travel both in time and space, without ever leaving where you are!  We can travel back into the past and imagine many different futures. We can understand what is happening in our world right now.  We can transfer knowledge and wisdom from one person to the next but only when we read for meaning rather than just reading the words.

Earlier I mentioned blank faces staring up at me uncomprehending. Blank is the best word to describe what is happening. The person has no images of what they read. That is why when a child starts to read, we use picture books. Pictures help them to begin to understand what they are reading. As they progress, the emphasis moves away from pictures onto sounds and some people find that their comprehension suffers.


Without good comprehension, people begin to believe that they cannot read, that they are slow or stupid or that they cannot process language when all they cannot do yet is control their images. Once they learn how to control their images, reading comprehensive becomes easy. They start to read more fluently because they are focused on what the words mean rather than the stop / start of reading each individual word. Sometimes, they become so fast at reading that they may skip small words when reading aloud.  Some teachers see this as a mortal sin and stop the child reading and make them re-read it. I never worry about that. We rarely read aloud outside of school

I never worry about that. We rarely read aloud outside of school. I have the child read silently, creating images of what they have read. They are always able to tell me what they have read because they are reading for meaning.

And that, after all, is the goal of reading!


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