As parents, we are all aware of the early building blocks when children learn to blend sounds together to read. They then start to build a vocabulary of sight words -those words that are tricky of cannot be worked out by blending – and soon our children are off and reading. They come home with books from reading schemes and race through different levels to become independent readers. We regularly listen to them read, but how often do we check that they actually understand what they are reading?
Reading comprehension is all about checking our children understand what they have read. They may be able to decode the text – to sound out the words and work out what they say – but that does not mean that they understand what they mean. Take Spanish words, for example. I could most likely work out what most words say, because, with my limited understanding of how the language works, I know that certain letters always make certain sounds. I could probably make a passable attempt at reading a page from a Spanish book. But that does not mean I understand what I have read. It is the same for our kids when they learn to read. Just because they can read the words on the page, it does not mean they necessarily understand what they mean or what the passage is trying to tell them.
There are many skills that children use in reading comprehension, and these become more and more sophisticated as they grow older and become more proficient at reading. Here are a few that you can practice with your child when it is time to read:
Using Background Knowledge
When children look at a text for the first time. They may already have some idea about it. If the passage is about skeletons and they have an interest in biology and how they body works, they might bring some previous understanding to the reading. They would already have met technical words specific to this topic and could possibly recognise them and explain what they mean. However, if your child had never read anything to do with how the body works and had very limited technical vocabulary associated with this type of text, they would struggle with the mechanics of reading the words, which would also have a negative affect on their understanding of what they have just read. It is a bit like asking an adult to read a journal article in a specialist area and know what everything means. I can understand educational jargon in specialist journal articles, but I know I would lack comprehension skills in reading a medical journal article or a text associated with physics. So background knowledge and understanding is an important aspect of comprehension. How can you activate this when working with your child? Before beginning to read, ask them what the passage or book might be about. What do they think they will find out? Perhaps they can tell you what they already know about this topic. Another way id to get them to look at the contents page of a book before reading and devise their own questions from there. Make the personal connection with the text BEFORE reading it.
When listening to your child read, don’t leave talking about the book to the end. Ask questions as you go. This is easy with fiction texts, as we can ask questions about what characters did, what they were like, how we know this information and also ask why they think characters might behave in a certain way Also asking children to think what they would do if they were that certain character is a great way for them to dive into using comprehension skills . When reading a non-fiction text, you might ask what specific words mean, now something works or ask them to describe a process mentioned in their reading.
Sometimes questions in comprehension exercises are straightforward – all the child needs to do is go to the text and find the answer. Other times they need to use the strategy of inference. The author does not always tell the reader every piece of information. Sometimes you have to piece together what information you have and make your own conclusions from what you know. This could be in the way characters behave, or how they are described. We need to teach kids to ‘read between the lines’ to see the hidden information. This is a trickier skill for children to grasp, so it is well worth the extra practice. For example, if a character has a briefcase in his hand and he is boarding a plane, you can infer that he is a businessperson going to a meeting. Or if a back door of a house is left wide open and, when entering, the items from shelves are scattered haphazardly around the room, some smashed, you can infer that there has been a burglary.
This is an important strategy, showing that the reader can make connections to what they have already read and what might be about to happen in a story. Prediction can also be applied to non-fiction texts. By reading the title of the book, what do you think it is about? What might we find out for this book?
This is a skill often drawn upon in comprehension exercises. Children need to be able to pull together all of the important events in a story, or important parts of a description and concisely describe in their own words what it is about. Being able to condense great chunks of a text is a real skill that can only improve with practice.
At the heart of comprehension is an ability to understand – to comprehends – what you have read. If a child does not know what a word means, why not have a special notebook in which they can write the word and use it in a sentence to help them remember it. Not only does this aid future comprehension, but it also builds vocabulary.
Good readers naturally synthesise all these skills. By using them all in harmony when reading, a good comprehension of what they have read is evident. Why don’t you try some of these ideas out next time you sit down with the school reading book?
Emerald Education Centre offers online tuition and in-person lessons at our centre in Bundoran, Donegal. For more information about how we can help YOUR child, please do get in touch with Elaine Lingard at email@example.com, call or message on (00353) 083 8550210, check out our Facebook page or visit our website.