Reading comprehension in children with specific language impairment: an examination of two subgroups


Language, Speech & Learning Services, PO Box 813, Subiaco 6904, Western Australia,


Background: In reading research, children with specific language impairment (SLI) have tended to be included in groups of children expected to have difficulties with both decoding and reading comprehension (generally poor readers). This is because generally children with specific language impairment display difficulties with phonology as well as syntax and/or semantics. However, children with specific language impairment are a heterogeneous group. Many children with specific language impairment have oral comprehension difficulties that are likely to limit reading comprehension. A subgroup of these children may exhibit intact phonological and decoding skills. If so, they would resemble the children with specific reading comprehension difficulties (poor comprehenders) reported in the literature.

Aims: This study sought to identify a group of children with a poor comprehender reading profile amongst children with specific language impairment. It then compared the phonological and oral comprehension skills of the group of 15 poor comprehenders with a group of 15 generally poor readers with specific language impairment, to identify any differences in language skills. Secondarily, the study wanted to determine which of the language tasks best predicted group membership.

Methods & Procedures: The study was carried out in two phases. In Phase 1, children with specific language impairment were assessed on the Woodcock Word Attack to identify a group with adequate decoding skills. These children had poor reading comprehension on the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability. From the poor decoders on the Word Attack, a second group of children, matched for age and gender, was selected to form the generally poor reader group. In Phase 2, the participants were assessed on a battery of phonological and oral comprehension tasks.

Outcomes & Results: A group of children exhibiting a poor comprehender reading profile was found to exist amongst children with specific language impairment. As expected, the poor comprehenders performed significantly better than the generally poor readers on phonological awareness tasks. On the oral comprehension tasks, the two groups did not differ at the word and sentence level; however, the poor comprehenders had significantly weaker oral comprehension skills at the paragraph level.

Conclusions: This study found that children with specific language impairment, who have equally poor reading comprehension but which differ in their decoding ability, differ not only in their performance on phonological tasks, but also on oral comprehension at the paragraph level. This indicates a need for paragraph-level oral comprehension to be included in assessment. In addition, educational and clinical intervention programmes for children with specific language impairment should ensure that they are meeting individual needs.