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Compensating: When It Looks Like Reading, But It’s Not

Posted by | Jun 26, 2019

Many students appear to be reading when they are actually only sight-reading, and not understanding what they read. They make up for their lack of skill by guessing the meaning of the text in a sentence and identifying the words they have memorized. This is referred to as compensating.

Compensators will continue to have difficulty accessing texts because they do not understand the letter-sound correspondence that leads to reading fluency and comprehension. They struggle to recognize and pronounce words efficiently and are unable to recognize a large number of words quickly and accurately without effort.

When students sight-read, it strains their working memory, which further reduces their ability to comprehend. On the surface, it may look like reading is fluent, but it is actually challenging. There is very little working memory and attention available to understand what is being read.

Is your student decoding or sight-reading?

One indication may be the presence of strong intellectual skills in contrast with middling reading skills. Intelligent students who have taught themselves an alternative strategy often convince themselves (and everyone else) that they are reading.

Students who become confused by the name of a letter and the sound it makes are demonstrating weak recognition of letter-sound correspondence (phonemic awareness). A student who is guessing at what they are reading based on their understanding of the context is also compensating.

A student who forgets words that they were previously taught may also be struggling. Strong readers map words into permanent memory and don’t need clues or tricks to remember them.

Weak spelling is another sign that a student is not decoding.

Students who can communicate well verbally but have a hard time expressing themselves in writing may also be compensating.

Such students may have a difficult time recognizing words that do not follow phonic or spelling rules.

A hidden disability

Many students with weak phonemic and phonological awareness skills go unnoticed and don’t even know they are not decoding. This approach to reading eventually catches up with them, as readers add 2,000 to 3,000 words to their vocabulary at each grade level.

Compensating is common for students who have average to above average intelligence; they can memorize words and appear to be reading. The higher the student’s vocabulary, the greater the chance that they can compensate. In the early reading years, these students can perform in an average range with some effort; however, as curricular demands increase, they begin to fall behind.

Compensators have strong language abilities but have a weakness in one or more of the skills needed for reading (usually phonemic proficiency). This situation can prevent students from attaining reading comprehension skills consistent with their language comprehension abilities. Such students are rarely flagged because they appear to be reading.

For many compensators, reading becomes a chore that requires sustained effort and prevents them from reaching their potential. It may lead to underachievement in school, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviour. When word recognition is difficult, all school subjects suffer, and so does motivation. When they are compensating, the student’s mental energy is focused on the words instead of the meaning. No matter how hard a student might try, nothing changes. Unfortunately, we do not get better at reading by reading, unless we have the underlining skills required to achieve fluency and comprehension.

Good news: This issue is correctable at any age

Students who are not decoding will benefit from Evoke’s reading remediation programming and expertise on the science of reading. Reading is not innate, it is a skill that must be taught, and some students require direct instruction to be successful readers.

Contact Evoke to learn more about our reading programs.