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Blast from the Past: This entry was first published on November 30, 2014, and was re-issued September 4, 2020. This blog entry has new relevance with so many teachers and students engaged in distance teaching/learning. Some schools are doing the right thing — making sure that schoolbooks are in the home so that students can engage in reading within their Zoom-based lessons. Others have prohibited sending books home. This has encouraged many teachers to replace reading comprehension with listening comprehension under the pretense that these are really the same thing.

But learning to decode while thinking about the ideas in a text are not the same as listening comprehension (as this blog entry explains). Schools need to come up with plans for putting instructional texts in kids’ hands (reading what the teacher can project on the screen is better than relying on listening comprehension, but it severely limits the amount of accountable reading kids are engaged in). Please read this blog and make sure your school has a plan for signing textbooks out to students. This blog explains why listening comprehension is not sufficient.

Teacher question: In a recent workshop I attended, the following comment was made:

“A child cannot read and comprehend at a level higher than they can listen and comprehend. A deficit in listening comprehension predicts a deficit in reading comprehension.” Could you explain this correlation further or refer me to professional reading material that would expound on this topic?

Shanahan’s response:

This long-standing claim is true, or sort of true. Or, to be perfectly correct, it’s true whenever it isn’t false. (And you thought those kinds of “perfectly clear” claims were gone just because the election season is over.)

When I was becoming a teacher we learned that listening comprehension was a terrific diagnostic tool because listening would reveal a student’s cognitive capacity to understand. Thus, if you questioned a student about a 4th grade passage that you had read to him and he could answer the questions successfully, then it was clear that his intellect was sufficient to make sense of texts of that level of difficulty. If his reading level was lower than this, then further reading growth should allow him to eventually read 4th grade texts with understanding.

This idea makes sense … as far as it goes. The problem is that the relationship between listening comprehension and reading comprehension is complex and developmental (that is, it changes with growth).

Young children definitely understand more by ear than by eye. Decoding skills create a bottleneck that limits the level of text they can understand. Such incomprehension or miscomprehension is due to their limited ability to decode. If they can understand a text when it is read to them, but not when left to their own devices, then decoding is the likely culprit.

Of course, decoding isn’t the only possible difference between reading and listening. For example, oral language carries lots of meaning clues in the prosody (in the rises and falls of the voice, the pausing patterns, and so on). Some of that is marked in the text, with punctuation points or bolded words, but much of it has to be provided by the reader. Listening can be easier than reading is because the listener doesn’t have to figure out where the sounding emphasis lies.

But what is true for young readers is not necessarily so for older ones. At some point, silent reading outdistances oral reading and reading becomes easier than listening. The point this happens varies across studies, and there is a lot of variation even within studies, but usually it takes place by the time a student can read about an eighth grade level.

What changes? Many readers reach peak levels of decoding and fluency performance about that time. Once decoding becomes truly automatic it is no longer a differentiator between reading and listening.

If I can decode well and without using many cognitive resources to do it, then I should be able to understand a read text as well as one that I listened to. The same thing must occur with prosody interpretation; if I can insert the meaning sounds myself then listening carries little advantage.

Reading comprehension and listening comprehension don’t actually become equals, however. From the point where they become equals, reading comprehension begins to elbow its way ahead. Most literate adults can understand complex texts better by eye than by ear. This is because as texts become increasingly complicated, they place greater demands on memory and analytic skills. Rate of presentation during listening isn’t up to you. Readers can reread knotty sentences, skim through repetitive parts, pause and ponder what seems most important, and even sort out homonyms with more information than is available to the ear.

This means that what you were told about the superiority of listening to reading is true, but it is only true until students become adept enough with reading that it matches and even surpasses listening. Using listening as a way of determining how well younger students or lower readers might be expected to read is reasonable, but not so with older students.

There are lots of studies on the relationship of listening comprehension and reading comprehension. One classic that is available to you free online is Tom Sticht’s important book, Auding and Listening (opens in a new window).

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 4, 2020