Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16: 505–539, 2003.
© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Listening comprehension and reading comprehension in poor
decoders: Evidence for the importance of syntactic and semantic
skills as well as phonological skills
BENTE E. HAGTVET
Institute of Special Needs Education, University of Oslo, Blindern, Norway
Abstract. The relation between decoding and comprehension in the oral and written modali-
ties was studied in a randomly selected group of nine-year-olds, subdivided into good, average
and poor decoders. Performances on two types of comprehension tasks (story retelling and
cloze tasks) were compared and related to phonological, syntactic and semantic abilities.
(Story retelling demanded the ability to retell the gist of a story, while the cloze tasks
demanded precise skills in drawing anaphoric reference across sentence boundaries.) A two-
way analysis of variance using IQ as covariate showed that poor decoders scored lower
than average and good decoders on all comprehension tasks. This suggests a high degree
of interdependence between listening comprehension, reading comprehension and decoding.
The associated pattern of oral correlates furthermore varied with task demands and to some
extent, independent of modality. Vocabu lary was related to the ability to retell a story. Syntax
and, in particular phonemic awareness, were on the other hand more strongly related to the
ability to draw anaphoric reference. The results were interpreted in favor of “the phonological
deﬁcit hypothesis”, but the interaction between linguistic sub-skills and task demands was also
Key words: Decoding and comprehension, Oral language abilities, Prediction, Reading
The nature of the language problems associated with impaired reading ability
is at the core of a number of controversial issues that have dominated the ﬁeld
of reading research over the last 20 years – issues of deﬁnition (of dyslexia
vs. backward readers), subtypes, etiology, prognosis, educational policies and
remediation. The present study focuses on the relationship between decoding,
reading comprehension and oral language competencies, but with no inten-
tion to address the uncertainties associated with the primary cause(s) of
reading difﬁculties. Rather, we want to draw the attention to some issues that
have been less often addressed, but that are nonetheless of great theoretical
as well as educational importance. These are issues related to compre-
hension and degrees of decoding abilities, and to variations in manifested
oral language abilities across tasks of different demand characteristics in a
randomly selected sample of nine-year-olds.