Ask Tara–My son can read the words but he can’t understand them


comprehension problem
What do you do when the words have no meaning?

Recently a reader wrote in to ask about her 9-year-old son. She shared:

“He is very bright and his fluency and decoding skills are fantastic and he can basically read anything and at a very fast pace (the speed in which he reads could also be part of the problem). He struggles with comprehension and inferring the text. Any advice on how to work with this?”

My reply…

So your son can read the words with ease, but he doesn’t get any meaning from those words, correct? This is definitely a less common reading challenge–many kids struggle at the word level. But it is not uncommon.

In fact, it is possible that his skill in “reading” the actual words has created the comprehension problem. By that, I mean that kids who show strong skills early on get praise for being “good readers.” And sometimes those kids come to think that reading is only about saying the words. Therefore, they take a very passive approach to reading. Of course, this is a problem because reading requires very active strategies.

So you can check to see if he is lacking “active” reading strategies. One essential strategy is “visualization.” You can easily model this strategy and see how he responds. I have a link to a VISUALIZATION activity for parents on my resources page. You can access that page here:

It’s possible that when you model visualization for him, the light bulb will go off and he will be on his way! I have definitely seen that happen, and I have my fingers crossed for you.

However, if you see no positive response, then it would make sense to do a little detective work with a professional to see what is interfering with his comprehension.

The one thing I would urge you to consider is his response relative to his age. As a nine-year-old, the text demands will be increasing, so working to secure his comprehension is time sensitive.


Has anyone experienced this with a child? What did you do? How did it turn out?


2 Replies to “Ask Tara–My son can read the words but he can’t understand them”

  1. I have had many students with this issue. The reading ‘sounds’great, but they are coasting through quickly and not ‘listening’ to themselves read. They are not attending to what is happening in the story and later unable to retell the story or answer questions pertaining to events or sequencing. I have often advised parents to have their child stop after each paragraph or page to have them retell – “What happened so far in the story?” This is a starting point to get them to attend to what they are reading. It is meant to form a new habit. When it is all said and done, ask the child to sequence, “What happened in the beginning, middle, and end?” Better habits during reading will increase comprehension skills.

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