Research Bites: Why is reading so difficult?

Most people recognize reading as a crucial skill for learning and academic success. Yet, beyond the most simple texts, reading in a second language is a difficult skill to master. Why is this? Davoudi and Youseffi (2015) pore over a wide body of L1 and L2 research to discover some of the reasons that making reading so hard.

Davoudi, M., & Yousefi, D. (2015). Comprehension breakdown: A review of research on EFL learners’ reading difficulty and problems. International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics, (1). [link]

Before I summarize their findings, it’s important to keep in mind this line from their conclusion:

“…difficulties of reading comprehension originate from multiple sources which have to be clearly diagnosed prior to any attempt to make adjustments and planning in this regard” (p. 66).

No one factor is usually the culprit when it comes to reading difficulties. Therefore, we need to find ways to address multiple factors simultaneously in our instruction. The authors’ article presents numerous factors that may lead to reading difficulty. Unfortunatley, no solutions are offered. It is my hope that readers help out here and discuss some ways to address these factors in the comments.

The authors create a framework for understanding reading issues and posit three main sources of reading “failure”: the learner, the teacher, and the text. A majority of their discussion takes place at the level of the learner, with little devoted to the other two levels. I present below the key points of their literature research. Afterwards, I provide some brief commentary and a more succinct and practical version of their framework.

  • Learner variables
    • lack of vocabulary knowledge
      • vocabulary size
        • minimum needed: 5,000-10,000 words
        • need to know 90-97% of vocabulary
      • slow or inaccurate reading
        • creates a higher cognitive load, taking resources away from other reading skills
      • word decoding and recognition problems
        • efficient decoding leads to more free resources for other reading skills
    • grammar knowledge problems
      • word order
      • complex syntax (such as text “pre-posed before the main verb” [p. 60])
      • adverbial phrases
      • anaphora (determiners and backreferencing such as this, that, such, one, they)
    • background and schema problems
      • formal schemata: lack of awareness of text structure and genres
      • content schemata: not being able to “make rapid connections between new and previously learned materials” (p. 61)
      • cultural schemata: cultural knowledge
    • lack of print exposure and reading experiences
      • slow reading speed
      • lack of frequent reading
      • lack of experience with L2
    • inferencing problems
      • required for adequate comprehension
      • may be due to poor memory, poor content schemata
    • lack of metacognitive awareness
      • may not be employing important strategies such as looking “forward and backward in the passage, and check[ing] their own understanding as they read” (p. 62)
      • monitoring strategies are very important
    • working memory problems
      • working memory important for storing and processing information, sentence-level comprehension, inferencing
    • affective factors:
      • lack of motivation
      • lack of reading interest
      • reading anxiety
    • lack of or unclear reading goals
      • “the reason you are reading a text will influence the way you read it, the skills you require or use, and the ultimate understanding and recall you have of that text” (p. 63).
    • poor textual processing
      • reading only superficially
      • lack of engagement with text
      • poor interpretation of text despite lexical understanding
      • lack of top-down processing skills for “getting an overall view of the text” (p. 63)
    • lack of reading strategies
      • too much local focus on grammar, pronunciation, lexis and other bottom-up skills
      • good readers are more global and employ cognitive, metacognitive, and compensation strategies
    • slow reading
    • overall poor language ability
    • poor phonological awareness
      • very important for reading comprehension, especially in the L1
      • linked to reading disabilities
    • age
      • older readers have more problems with anaphora, complex syntax, numerous prepositions, cognitive resources for deeper processing
  • Teacher variables
    • comprehension is expected but hardly taught (based on research from 1987)
    • lack of explicit instruction
  • Textual variables
    • abstract texts are more difficult and more difficult to recall
    • L1 studies show narratives are easier, expository texts are more difficult
      • this is clearly related to formal schemata issues mentioned above


Davoudi and Youseffi (2015) present an almost unwieldy framework for understanding reading difficulties. It is based on both L1 and L2 research, some of it quite dated (late 70s and early 80s) and some of it not differentiated enough to know which is being referred to. Furthermore, many of the variables they discuss seem either redundant or interrelated with other variables. This framework needs to be paired down to variables that teacher can actually deal with in class and shed of superfluous (e.g. age) or obvious (e.g. poor language skills) findings. Once we identify key variables, we can then begin to address them in the classroom. My attempt at reconstructing their framework combines and collapses several of their factors while reorganizing it in a way that increasingly moves outward from the text:

Key factors leading to reading difficulty in the L2 classroom

  • Linguistic Level Factors
    • vocabulary, grammar, syntax
  • Text-Level Level Factors
    • deep vs superficial processing
    • inferencing
    • genre and structure
  • Cognitive Level Factors
    • phonological awareness
    • formal, content, and cultural schema
  • Metacognitive Level Factors
    • strategy usage including monitoring and goal-setting
  • Affective Factors Factors
  • Educational Level Factors
    • reading experiences
    • direct instruction

So, given these levels factors, what can be done to address reading difficulties either proactively or reactively? What techniques, activities, etc. can you recommend?

2 thoughts on “Research Bites: Why is reading so difficult?

  1. Reading this on Feedly, I missed out on the opportunities for direct engagement. Now that I have clicked “Go to article on site”, I’m surprised that this part isn’t awash with comments. Teaching the “receptive skills” well is something that still eludes me, twenty years into my teaching career.

    Reading is a challenge. I find it fascinating and have invested in such weighty tomes as The Psychology of Reading, but ironically, they go unread. I work with a particular demographic who stereotypically find reading a huge challenge and it is the one kill that often goes unimproved in the regular testing schedule that they submit themselves to.

    One strategy I employ involve embarking upon a programme of extended reading with them. Three times a week, we devote 20 minutes of the lesson to sitting in silence and reading. Students select books (readers) from the library and sit there reading them. The time up, we put the books away and begin the lesson.

    Another strategy is to direct students’ attention to their reading speed. I use the books Reading Power and More Reading Power to provide students with texts of a similar length and around a similar theme. Students time themselves reading them and record the times and the accuracy of their comprehension. I’m not sure if it reflects anything real (after all, if you’re reading your nith text about a particular subject, you’re increased understanding of the background should speed up your reading), but it’s the idea that there are metrics that can define reading improvement that appeals!

    Discussion of textual structure is another strategy I use. In more predictable texts (such as essays etc), we map out a structure of the text before we see it.

    Creating a reason to read is yet another approach. In longer texts (many of my students are pseudo-EAP students), I emphasise the need to go mining the text for answers to questions. This often involves creating a need to ask questions and then discussing the strategies for finding the information.

    With such a battery of strategies, you might be forgiven for thinking that I feel confident about how to teach reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. And it is for this reason that I am sooooooooo grateful for articles like this. And while I am tossing out compliments, just an observation that this series of articles is inspired and ALWAYS gets bookmarked for more considered deliberation.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Thanks for the comment and sorry for my late reply. I too wish my posts received more discussion. Alas…

      Anyway, I was happy to see that I employ many of the same techniques that you mention. We will hopefully be introducing an extensive reading program next term. I also like to focus on timing readings, working on comprehension and vocabulary, and re-reading the same text with hopefully improved time. We try to do this for every text.

      I also have become a big fan of preteaching vocabulary in order to reduce cognitive load while reading. Quizlet is a big help here. Vocabulary, in my experience and in my students responses, is always the biggest hindrance to reading comprehension. Grammar plays a role, but not so much. I also find students ability to connect ideas in a text are lacking. So, I always try to focus on these areas. I especially like using this chart for question making: It’s come in very handy.

      Thanks for the comments and compliments. I am glad you enjoy my series and I hope to keep it up!

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