Reading Comprehension and written composition

Individual Differences in Reading Comprehension and Written Composition

Parent and Teacher Report 2011

The researchers of the Cognitive Development Lab (now the Child Language and Literacy Research Lab) at Carleton University conducted, in the spring of 2010, a study on reading and writing with grade 4 students in which you child or children in your class may have participated.  We would like to share the results of the study with you.

What was the goal of our study?

The goal of this project was to understand better individual differences in the children’s reading and writing. We tested the amount of overlap in the skills that help children write good stories and understand what they read.

Who did we test?

We tested 103 grade 4 students in four different schools. All children tested had received parental permission to participate in the study.

What did we measure?

We measured the children’s reading comprehension by asking them to read passages that contained missing words, and then provide us with what those missing words should be. We measured written composition by observing children’s behaviours while writing a story based on pictures, and then scoring their stories on a measure of story quality. Story quality in this case refers to how well the stories were structured, the number of ideas that were present within the story, and the grammatical complexity.

As well, we measured complex and basic skills that can help comprehend and compose. The complex skills included: (1) how well the children make links between ideas; (2) how well they monitor their own understanding of a text; (3) how well they planned their written stories; and, (4) how well they revised what they wrote. We also included basic skills such children’s ability to read and spell individual words. Finally, to make sure our findings were not due to other factors, we measured children’s oral vocabulary knowledge, their memory skills, and their intelligence.

What did we find?

Children who wrote good stories tended to comprehend stories well. At the same time, we found that different skills were associated with comprehension and composition. To examine th, we controlled statistically for their vocabulary, memory, and intelligence.

Reading comprehension: Not surprisingly, children who comprehend better also read individual words more efficiently. There were two important complex skills that also explained differences across children. Children who were better at making links and better at monitoring whether the information made sense also tended to have better reading comprehension skills.

Composition: Children who composed better stories also tended to be better spellers. Moreover, children’s planning and revising of their written stories explained the differences in their composition quality.

The diagram below that captures which skills explain individual differences in reading comprehension and written composition.



What can we conclude?

We found that grade 4 children vary in their ability to read and write well. Moreover, there seems to be specific basic and complex skills that relate to these abilities. Although our findings cannot speak to the cause of reading comprehension difficulties or trouble with composing written text, they offer possible targets for intervention research. Intervention research could help us determine, as our findings suggest, whether we need to target different basic and complex cognitive skills in order to help children write well structured texts and read with comprehension.


Dr. Monique Sénéchal, Director, Cognitive Development Lab, Carleton University. Dr. Sénéchal studies how young children learn language and literacy from natural evens in their lives.

Ph.D. Student Researchers:
Stephanie Pagan and Rosemary Lever

M.A. Student Researcher: Kate Jubenville

Undergraduate Student Researchers:
Allison McCann, Coriander Muise

WHO FUNDED THIS RESEARCH?The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is one of three federal academic granting agencies that promotes and supports Canadian research and innovation towards the advancement of knowledge in the natural sciences and engineering.

We sincerely thank the principals, teachers, parents, and children for their support and participation in our study. Without you, this study would not have been possible.