Does a Listening Deficit Predict a Reading Deficit?

  • auding listening comprehension
  • 30 November, 2014

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 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 fourth-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 fourth-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 text that I read 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. The 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 at 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


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Mar 27, 2017 09:42 PM

I appreciate your thorough discussion, but I viewed this through a slightly different lens. Decoding isn't always the culprit.

A deficit in listening comprehension predicts a deficit in reading comprehension.

If this sentence refers to young kids, I'd say it's accurate. When very young kids have difficulty understanding what they hear it is a good indication that they will have difficulty learning to read. On the other hand, sometimes kids with language deficits improve their grammar and sentence structure when they learn to read.

December 1, 2014

DAbel Mar 27, 2017 09:42 PM

I enjoyed reading this post, and wondered what research shows in terms how this plays out in terms of English Language Learners acquiring English vua? Very complex and layered question, I realize....

December 4, 2014

Timothy Shanahan Mar 27, 2017 09:43 PM

What a cool question, and I'm not sure we know the answer to that. Hasn't been studied to my knowledge. The relationship between listening and reading comprehension could be different in a second language. For example, I can read French with understanding, but have almost no listening capacity in that language at all. Because I don't speak French (beyond bonjour, au revoir, merci), my reading capacity has from the beginning outpaced my listening ability in that language; very different than in my native language, where listening would have outpaced
reading for a long time.

My French experience is odd, however, since I taught myself to read without any oral input or tapes, Rosetta stone, etc. But it does show what is odd about more usual second language learning.

Usually when someone learns language, they develop strengths in listening/speaking and then add reading/writing to the repertoire, building on the oral/aural strengths. For L2s, they usually learn oral and written language all about the same time--so the pattern of their relationship is likely to be different than what I described in this blog. Great catch, DAbel.

Timothy Shanahan
December 7, 2014

Michelle Sep 09, 2020 06:57 AM

Hello Timothy,

This repost was very timely for a few of the ELL students I tutor. In particular, I have a fifth-grader who speaks Arabic in the home, is rather quiet by nature, is an avid gamer, and who does not enjoy reading (decoding is a chore for him and he is well below grade-level benchmarks). There are so many literacy issues I need to attack with him (phonics, grammar, syntax, spelling), but comprehension and writing skills are the most immediate concerns as his subject matter is increasing in complexity and he is falling further and further behind. He is now needing to learn various essay writing structures in school and his mom wants me to work with him on these skills, but comprehension is clearly also a priority.

Speaking to your comment that, "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," this seems to be exactly what he is facing. To make things worse, he attends a private school in an Arab country, with a British English system and his teacher has a strong British accent. I asked him what he does at school when he doesn't understand and if he gets support to explain things further. He said, "No! My teacher talks so fast and I can't understand anything! And her accent makes it even harder!" He shared that during the online schooling from March through June, he feels he learned absolutely nothing, and that he did not read at all during the summer. Unsurprisingly, the grade 5 fluency assessment I administered last week reflected a backslide in his fluency and comprehension.

He has trouble decoding text, but prosody is also a big challenge. He spends so much time decoding text that prosody is not even possible for him at this point. We are still working on pausing according to punctuation (commas and full stops are ignored). You can imagine how this all affects his comprehension. Currently, I am splitting his lesson hours with 1/2 an hour on comprehension work and 1/2 on writing, attacking parts of an essay in each lesson. The comprehension lessons are short passages that focus on specific skills (inference, cause and effect, character analysis, etc.). He needs a lot of scaffolding to answer the questions after the reading (decoding issues).

What approach would you suggest for an ELL student at this critical age where core subject area demands are increasing in complexity? He knows that daily reading will help him gain background knowledge and a higher vocabulary, which will both improve his comprehension, yet he prefers humorous books that include comic-style text (Dav Pilkey and David Walliams style) and hates to read informational text. All of my students are ELL learners, but the ones who live in homes where English is not spoken fluently struggle the most in their comprehension.

Jonice C Oct 09, 2020 08:10 AM

Hello Timothy

I enjoyed this post and I think weather a Listening Deficit Predict a Reading Deficit depends on the age of individual. For younger kids, this statement may be true. How can a child listen and comprehend what the are listening to, if they can not read and comprehend what they are reading?

On the other hand for adults i think this statement would not apply. An adult might have trouble listening but can very much comprehend what they are reading.

In conclusion, I don't believe it is a right or wrong answer to this text. I think the answer varies depending on the age.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Does a Listening Deficit Predict a Reading Deficit?


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