Reading comprehension can be a problem for many children and adults, not just those with specific learning disabilities. The process of reading written words and making meaning out of them is not something that just comes easily for everybody. However, there are things that you as a parent or teacher can do to help your child, your student, or even yourself be a better comprehending reader.
The study of reading comprehension is complex and involves many areas of expertise. There are beginning strategies and advanced strategies depending on the type of reading one is doing. So for this post, which I’d like to keep simple, I’m just going to share some basic ideas and use the terms “your child” which you can substitute as your student or yourself as fits.
- Model reading comprehension to your child: Regardless of what age your child is, read aloud something together. As you read, stop to show your child your cognitive processes while reading.
You read: “Johnny ran down to the beach to retrieve the towel he left there. On his way, he stumbled over a large rock and fell in the sand. His wet body felt scratchy covered with the harsh sand.”
You stop and say aloud: “Oh poor Johnny. That must have hurt. Do you remember when we went to the beach and you fell in the sand?” Allow for a small discussion if necessary, but not too long that you lose focus on the story. The purpose of this dialogue is to show your child how you have pictured yourself in that situation and empathized with Johnny. You asked the child to recall an instance from his/her past to help your child empathize with the character. This is all you want and then direct the child back to reading the story by saying something like, “I wonder what Johnny is going to do now” and start reading again.
You read: “The thirty children were divided into three equal teams and told to work together on their scavenger hunt. Maya found it difficult to concentrate on what her team speaker was saying to find as the other children were being too noisy. She wished she could have been on a smaller team.”
You stop and say aloud: “Hmm, if there were thirty children divided into three teams, that meant Maya’s team had ten children on it. Wow! That is a lot of children on one team. What do you think? Would you like to be on a scavenger hunt team with nine other children?” Then you can briefly discuss what some of the problems of being on such a large team might be. This way you are showing how you are processing what you read, asking questions to yourself about what it means and what it would feel like, and predicting what might happen next by thinking about Maya’s dilemma. Again, keep it brief and move back to the reading as soon as possible so as not to lose focus on the reading itself. You could segue back by saying something like, “Let’s see if Maya has some of those problems with her big team.”
(As you can see, it helps if you have read the book ahead of time too so you can better help your child focus on the issues of that particular book, but it is okay if you don’t and you make mistakes such as focusing on something – like maybe Maya’s big team problem – and then finding out that really wasn’t that important in the story. This just shows your child how these things happen and it is okay; you model how you refocus as the story shifts.)
Make mistakes and show your child how you correct them. Read something too fast and then stop saying something like, “Wait a minute. I just read that so fast that I don’t know what I read. Let me slow down and read that again.”
Read something and then stop and say, “I’m confused. I thought Margaret and Dinah didn’t like each other but here they are being friends. What just happened?” If your child knows the answer, let him/her tell you. If not, suggest that you go back and reread the last paragraph or sentence or as much as you think you need to find the answer. Show your child how you do this.
Model a distraction and how to deal with it. While reading if some noise is made nearby or the dog comes and jumps in your lap, or anything that might be a distraction happens, keep reading and then stop and say, “You know, I was reading the words but I really wasn’t paying attention. When Fido came and jumped up in my lap, my brain started to think about Fido and even though I was reading, I didn’t really pay attention to what I was reading. Does that ever happen to you?” Then you show how you go back and reread what you didn’t pay attention to.
- Show your child how to use visualizing techniques while reading. This can be picturing in your head the scene or event you are reading. It can be drawing the scene or event. It can be acting out the scene or event.
You read a story about a little brown dog who got lost and then saw his family across the street but had to get across the street safely to get to them. You and your child draw a picture of the street with the little brown dog on one side and his family on the other side.
You read the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf who blows their houses down. You and your child take turns pretending to be the pig or the wolf and act out the drama.
You are reading a history textbook about a civil war battle. You tell your child to stop and imagine what that might have been like. You tell your child to close his/her eyes and you describe the scene: “Imagine you are in a field with your friends beside you. There is so much smoke in the air from the guns firing that it is hard to see in front of you. You hear someone crying, but you don’t know who it is. What would that be like? Tell me what you see? What you feel? What you hear?” Try to get your child to imagine and describe a scene to you.
If you are reading a story that has a movie to go with it, watch the movie first. Most teachers do it the opposite way and watch the movie only after reading the story (which has its own value as the student can use more of his/her own imagination in picturing the events if she/he hasn’t watched the movie first) but for a child with comprehension issues, watching the story first can help give a frame of reference to the reading and make it more comprehensible. Then while reading, have your child recall back to the movie what they remember seeing during that event.
- Show your child how to summarize and put into his/her own words what has been read. This can be either oral or written, depending on the needs or style of your child. If memory recall is an issue, writing or recording the summary is important to have it to return to later when the recall is needed.
Your child is reading a chapter book. Your child can comprehend a paragraph pretty well, but has trouble synthesizing the paragraphs in a chapter to form a complete summary or cannot recall the information gleaned from the earlier paragraphs by the time she/he has reached the end of the chapter.
After each paragraph read in the chapter, have your child say, dictate, or write one sentence summarizing what the paragraph is about: Was a new character introduced? Did something happen to a character? Did it describe the scene? Was a solution to a problem found? Was a new problem introduced? Etc.
Then after the child has gotten to the end of the chapter, the child can look back over the sentences he/she has created for each of the paragraphs to remember what was important about each paragraph. This should give a general outline of the important events of that chapter and the child can use that to write a short paragraph to summarize that entire chapter.
After each chapter read, the child can look back at the previous summaries of each chapter she/he has created before reading the next chapter to remember what has happened so far, recall important events and facts, make predictions of what might happen in the upcoming chapter, etc.
(If your child cannot summarize a paragraph, then go back to the sentence level. Read one sentence and have the child put into his/her own words what that sentence was about. I wouldn’t have the child write for each sentence as that will get frustrating, so just paraphrase it orally and write a sentence at the end of the paragraph.)
(If your child finds every paragraph to be too much writing and doesn’t need that for recall, just paraphrase and write at the end of each chapter. If your child needs that for memory recall but can’t handle the writing, then let him/her dictate to you or record it.)
So as I look back over what I wrote here and how really long this post has become, I at the same time realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of strategies for reading comprehension. There are so many more and some that are very good and specific to different genres of writing such as the structure of poems, the form of an argumentative article, the plot of a fictional story. Still, they are a start and hopefully offer some help to others struggling with reading comprehension.
Also, one very important thing I want to add is that these strategies can be used for comprehending movies too. This can be especially helpful for a child who really has anxiety about reading, as the comprehension of the movie can be a start to using those same strategies with reading too.
Oh and the big, number one, best thing to do ever is: Make it fun to read! Enjoy reading with your child and spread that enthusiasm to your child. (And from my own personal experience with my kids, I've found that my oldest son prefers non-fiction or creepy stories and my youngest son prefers fiction - especially involving animals. My daughter likes graphic novels best, and then anything with romance and happy endings. So find what your child enjoys to read.)
If you are really interested in learning more about reading comprehension, here are some books you might be interested in: