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Academic Support for College Students ❘ How to Identify and Improve Comprehension Issues

Jan 10, 2020

When Students Need Help with Reading Comprehension

Lauren, a college freshman, takes another sip of coffee as she looks at the clock: it’s well past midnight, but she still has more homework to do. She sighs and pulls her history textbook into her lap. “Is it this hard for everyone?” she wonders aloud as she looks down at the heavily-highlighted chapter on the Civil War. She tells herself that she has to read it “just one more time” and she’ll finally be able to remember the dates and places and army generals that are swirling in her mind.


Throughout high school, Lauren had to read everything two or three times if she wanted to remember it. Despite her reading problems, she was motivated to keep working, but it was exhausting. She was continually poring over her notes and didn’t understand how her friends could take tests without studying or could write papers the night before they were due. Lauren felt lucky that her school had such a great Writing Center, but she was a little bit embarrassed that she had to bring every assignment there for review. But, she knew she needed the support.


Troubles with reading can have a widespread effect on student performance and can impact beyond early childhood into years of higher education. Problems with reading and comprehension can lead to low self-esteem and difficulty succeeding in school, despite the student’s efforts and motivation.
But reading comprehension skills can be improved with consistent practice and the right instructional strategies for reading. Addressing the root cause of language comprehension problems can build the foundation for success in learning and in school.


What Causes Reading Comprehension Problems

People—even educators—often assume that being able to read and spell guarantees strong reading comprehension, but for students like Walt and Lauren, reading and comprehension don’t go hand in hand. A primary cause of language comprehension problems is difficulty creating mental images for language. This is called weak concept imagery. Weakness in concept imagery causes individuals to get only “parts” of the information that they read or hear, but not the whole.

Symptoms of weak concept imagery often include:

  • – Weak reading comprehension

  • – Weak listening comprehension

  • – Difficulty with critical thinking and problem solving

  • – Difficulty with following directions

  • – Poor memory

  • – Difficulty with oral language expression

  • – Weak written language expression

  • – Difficulty grasping humor

  • – Difficulty interpreting social situations

  • – Difficulty understanding cause and effect

Students like Lauren struggle with written expression, reading comprehension, and poor memory, but these issues are symptoms stemming from weak concept imagery. A weakness in concept imagery can undermine the reading and thinking process. But how can students improve concept imagery, to help with reading comprehension?


How to Improve Reading Comprehension

Concept imagery is part of how we comprehend what we read. To improve comprehension, we need to develop the sensory-cognitive process that underlies reading and comprehension: the imagery-language foundation. To address reading comprehension weaknesses and improve reading skills, students like Walt and Lauren can work to develop and strengthen their mental imagery.


Activities and specialized instruction can prompt students to create pictures in their minds to represent what they are reading, stimulating their concept imagery and improving comprehension. Strategies to improve comprehension can include:

1. Reading Comprehension

When studying or reading, pause and create an image in your mind for the text you just read. Create mental representations for the characters or activities involved and try to add details like action, color, or sound to solidify the image. For example, when studying a historical event, pause and picture the main individuals or the flags of the countries involved. Create a scene of the event in your mind, and as each action of the historical event unfolds, revisit and build on your mental image. If there are words in the text you do not understand, look up the definitions and create mental representations of these words to solidify the meanings.

2. Following Directions

Whether directions are written or given orally as your professor explains a class assignment, create a picture in your mind for each piece of the task and the steps needed to complete them. Create an image for all materials or resources needed for the assignment. As you complete the tasks, revisit your images and picture what the following steps will be.

3. Problem Solving

Whether it’s an academic problem or one in life, imagery can help assess the problem and evaluate the outcome. Create specific images in your mind that represent each component of the problem. Ask yourself, “If I do this, what might happen? What does that look like?” Use your mental images to play out the possible outcomes of the problem and evaluate the actions.


Reading Comprehension Interventions

To create a solid imagery-language foundation for improved comprehension, students can seek support through specialized instruction. The Visualizing and Verbalizing® (V/V®) program develops concept imagery—the ability to create an imagined or imaged gestalt from language—as a basis for comprehension and higher-order thinking. The development of concept imagery improves reading and listening comprehension, memory, oral vocabulary, critical thinking, and writing.


Good comprehenders make “a movie in their minds” when they’re reading or listening to a story. Watch the video below to hear how developing Sydney’s concept imagery allowed her to improve her comprehension and find success in her rigorous classes — without needing a tutor to stay afloat. Sydney’s mom explains, “This is the best thing that has happened to her and to our family in that they brought our Sydney back and she’s happy. She’s going to succeed. She knows how smart she is.”



Lindamood-Bell offers online instruction, which allows students to receive the same quality sensory-cognitive instruction from their dorm rooms or on campus that they’d receive in a Learning Center. Our Learning Ability Evaluation, which offers a comprehensive insight into your student’s strengths and weaknesses, can also be completed online. Watch Online Instruction in Action!
Contact us to schedule your student or to discuss specific concerns about his or her academic path: 800-300-1818. Find a learning center location near you: Locations.


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