Study suggests poor reading comprehension impacts oral and written narrative abilities including understanding of narrative text structure, effective use of connectives, and strategies for communicating relevant information.

Oral and Written Expression Skills and Poor Reading Comprehension

Past studies have found a relationship between understanding written texts (i.e., reading comprehension) and writing narrative texts.

In this study, the students, ages 8–10 years, were asked to construct both an oral and written narrative by telling a story about a cartoon strip. Responses were evaluated quantitatively for spelling and number of words; and qualitatively on measures of text cohesion (i.e., use of connectives such as and, later, but, because), understanding of the cartoon strips, working memory, and vocabulary.

Results found that there were no differences in the groups on spelling, the length of the narratives they produced, or in their ability to correctly complete the task, suggesting that the poor comprehenders' challenges were not due to a difference in basic writing skills or their understandings of the task. The researchers did find that the poor comprehenders performed poorly on both modalities—oral and written—and significantly worse than the good comprehenders. Additionally, a particular challenge for the poor comprehenders was in their use of connectives—they used more additive connectives (e.g., "and") and fewer causal connectives (e.g., "because"). As a result, their narratives were less like a story and more like a list of events. The authors also found that working memory played a role relative to the poor comprehenders' abilities to inhibit providing information that was not relevant. The authors also noted the importance of understanding text structure in one's ability to construct narratives.

This study has implications for both assessment and intervention of students with reading and writing disorders. During the assessment phase, we want to ensure that we look at both the oral and written narrative abilities of children who evidence poor reading comprehension skills. Relative to intervention, this study suggests that it is important to teach understanding of narrative text structure (i.e., setting, characters, problem, events, solution), effective use of connectives (i.e., decrease the dependency of and while increasing use of connectives/conjunctions that show causal relationships—because, therefore, as a result), and strategies to monitor communication of relevant information.

In my clinical practice, we advocate targeting oral expression in the context of reading and writing (and vice versa). The benefit of written text is that, unlike spoken language, the words and the message stay on the page to be studied, reflected upon, and improved. We also recommend targeting different text structures, both narrative and expository (e.g., descriptive, procedural, informational, persuasive, compare/contrast), as this knowledge will benefit both reading comprehension and written expression. Given that both oral and written narratives were less developed in the poor comprehenders, creating contexts that meld spoken and written language activities has the potential to improve both modalities for these children with reading comprehension difficulties.

I thank my colleague Dr. Lauren Katz for her cogent review of and comments on this piece.