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Comprehension Weakness or Poor Listening? 5 Signs to Know
  • Classroom Teaching

This blog is from one of COBIS' Supporting Associates.

Written by Brilliana Rawlins, Manager of International Endeavors for Schools, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes

Around the globe (and in your school) there are pupils struggling to comprehend what they read and hear. While pupils with decoding issues can be easy to spot through miscalling words, their oral reading is slow and “choppy,” and spelling is tough to master - pupils with a comprehension weakness may be mislabelled as poor listeners or attention-challenged, especially if their vocabulary and decoding skills are sufficient. 

The underlying cause in problems with comprehension may be due to weak concept imagery - the ability to create an imaged gestalt (whole) from oral and written language. This weakness causes individuals to get only “parts'' of information they read or hear, but not the whole, and can often undermine the reading and thinking process.

Poor answers to critical thinking questions on exams may be the most obvious symptom of a weakness in comprehension. What follows are 5 additional signs that a pupil is struggling with comprehension. Which of your pupils come to mind as you read?

1. Re-asking the Same Question 

As educators, we often give two or more oral directions at a time, whether online or face-to-face. Example: “As we’re waiting for everyone else to log in, please open your maths text to page 25, find your notes from Tuesday's lesson, and be prepared to share what you learnt.”  

Pupils with a comprehension weakness may get confused with more than one or two directions at a time. While these pupils are actively listening, the information may appear to go in one ear and out the other, due to their weakness in concept imagery. They may ask multiple times, “What page do we need to be on? What do I need to prepare?” leading teachers to the conclusion that they aren’t listening. Alternatively, they may not ask follow-up questions for fear that the answer has just been stated and don’t wish to appear inattentive, but when called upon they look confused or unsure. 

2.  Difficulties During Oral Lessons

When a pupil is reading articles, novels, textbooks, or assignment directions, they have the luxury of rereading the text as many times as needed to gain a greater understanding of the material and fill in the gaps that they missed during the first read. 

However, during oral lessons, information needs to be comprehended at a much faster rate to keep up with the discussion or lecture. Pupils with weak concept imagery may miss the point of the lecture/discussion or appear to process irrelevant or incidental parts of what they heard, perhaps only remembering a name or a date. 

3.    Wandering Focus and Inattentiveness

Imagine you are reading or listening to content in a language you don’t know. How long would it take for your thoughts to wander or for your attention to be drawn away from active listening?

Pupils with an underlying weakness in concept imagery may tire or appear to lose interest in a topic easily. This propensity for distractibility has only been exacerbated by recent lessons on digital learning platforms, as they’re exposed to a gallery view of backgrounds. 

4.    Writing Assignment Struggles

Without the “big picture” idea for their topic, a student will have a hard time coming up with a strong paragraph and may continue to stare blankly at the page or produce writing that fails to connect thoughts sequentially, leaving their text unorganized, disjointed, and rambling. 

5.    Social Struggles 

Pupils with a comprehension weakness may only grasp parts of a social situation or have difficulty following a conversational thread. Non-verbal cues and body language that communicate so much more than what’s being said can be missed or misinterpreted. They may interject unrelated or inappropriate comments, alienating their peers.

As pupils get older and their social lives become more complex, they may find social interactions even more confusing and may begin to isolate themselves, preferring their own company and their own solo interests.  

Conclusions and Next Steps

As you can see, a weakness in comprehension has many symptoms beyond poor exam results. As educators, we need to do better when it comes to identifying pupils with this distinct learning challenge. It is possible to teach concept imagery so that students develop comprehension and critical thinking and experience academic and social success.


Learn more about Lindamood-Bell’s evidence-based continuing professional development (CPD) solutions being successfully implemented in schools around the world here. Access a curated collection of tips, lessons, and downloadable resources to improve learning in our complimentary Toolkit for Educators.