Reading Comprehension: Helping Your Child Understand What They Read

I'm a middle school special education teacher (English) who faces the same challenge every year: students who are great decoders - they can sound out words and read aloud like champions - but who, after reading, can't answer even basic questions about what they've read.  Sound familiar?

There are several explanations for this.  Some of the more common include cognitive overload (so much effort is expended on decoding, student doesn't have sufficient cognition "left over" to interpret meaning), attention deficits (students struggle to sustain focus during reading tasks), and a variety of learning deficits.  But another explanation is that some children can't/won't intuitively figure out the strategies that good readers use to create meaning from text.  For these children, one of the most powerful things you can do is to explicitely teach them these tricks.

Following are some of my "go to" strategies for improving reading comprehension.  I use them because they work - for both both "neurologically typical" students as well as students with a variety of learning, emotional, cognitive, and attention deficits.  These strategies are relevant for all grade levels and can be practiced at home (no boring worksheets required!). 

Hope these help parents out there who want to give their students a reading comprehension boost!
  1. Strategy #1.  Preview the text.  Good readers never initiate reading tasks without previewing the text!  "Previewing" means studying all the external text features - the title, subtitles, pictures, subheaders, "blurbs", charts, etc. - and using them as clues to make educated guesses about the content of the text.  Why is this step so important? 
    1. Activates background knowledge - what the reader already knows (or guesses) about the subject.
    2. Facilitates storage of new info in short-term (working) memory, because the reader has already identified "hooks" to link the new information to.
    3. Invests the reader in the text - they want to find out if their ideas/predictions are right
  2. Strategy #2.  Turn on your inner voice.  Good readers interact with (mentally talk back to) text as they read it.  They talk back to mysteries ("I think the butler did it!"), romances ("How can she be so clueless? He's clearly in love with her!") ... even tax returns. ("I can't subtract line 58 from line 57 because line 57 is smaller!  Who writes these $#%?! instructions, anyway?!")  How do you teach children to develop and deploy their "inner voice"?  Pick a television show, movie, or even video game.  As you watch it together, practice talking back to the characters.  Ask them questions.  Make predictions about what will happen next.  Insult their clothes.  Whatever!  The idea is to model how inner voice works, and to help your child understand that they need to interact with literature in the same way  - asking questions, expressing reactions and opinions, and making connections with information they already possess.  If they need further support to transfer the idea into practice, pick a book and have them read it. At random intervals, prompt them to "write down what their inner voice is thinking" on a post-it note and attach it to the page.   
  3. Strategy #3.  Read with inflection.  If your child reads in a monotone, skipping or misinterpreting punctuation, then this is a sure sign they're not interpreting the meaning of the words they are reading.  Reading with inflection (emotion) forces them to do so.  So, how do you teach your child to read with inflection?  The easiest strategy is to model the technique yourself.  Pick a highly interesting text and read it aloud to your child - really exaggerating the emotions being expressed - using word choice, word connotation (the emotional meaning of words), and punctuation as your clues.  Don't be afraid to get goofy - the more relaxed you appear, the more willing your child will be to mimic your example. Another great way to practice reading with inflection is to borrow a book of "readers theater" plays* from your school or local library and take turns "acting" out the parts. (*Plays that are meant to be read aloud rather than acted.)
  4. Strategy #4.  Visualize.  Neurologists believe that about 50% of the world's population is able to think in pictures.  (The others think in words.)  For these individuals, visualization - the process of creating a picture in your head from clues in the text - is a powerful comprehension strategy.  To practice, find a book WITHOUT pictures.  Pick a random page and sketch/draw what is happening on the page, using clues from the text (sensory language, imagery) as a guide.  If your child needs further support to transfer the idea into practice, have them turn a few pages/chapters into a comic strip.  The goal is to teach struggling readers to use automatically visualize difficult text.
  5. Strategy #5.  Use context clues.  Good readers accept that there will be words, idioms, maybe whole passages that they don't understand.  How do they cope with this frustration?  Do they throw down the book in disgust because it's "too hard".  Of course not!  Do they reread the text over again until they've figured it out?  Often, though rarely more than once or twice more. Do they look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary? Heck no - way too much effort!  What good readers do do is use "context clues" (information surrounding the confusing extracts) to make a logical guess about what the words/idioms/passages probably mean, and then they move on.  If they've guessed correctly, the following paragraphs will make sense.  If they've guessed incorrectly, the following paragraphs will almost always provide enough extra information to make sense of the bewildering bits.  Children who allow vocabulary and idiomatical language to frustrate them will have a hard time ever viewing reading as fun or worthwhile.
  6. Strategy #6.  Trust the author.  The "author's compact" is an implied rather than actual agreement between the reader and the author to the effect that the author will NOT include unimportant information.  Adults understand that published texts have gone through countless cycles of revision to ensure that no words or ideas are wasted.  (More or less!)  Children, however, often lack this insight and need to be explicitely taught that if they've just read text that they think is "not important," they've probably missed something.  So, how do you model this for your child?  Once again, I recommend you start with a movie - something highly familiar to both of you.  (Disney movies work well for this, and appeal to a range of ages.)  As you watch the movie together, point out the ways in which scenes that seem unimportant ARE important - perhaps because they create a mood, establish the personality of a character, or foreshadow events to come.  After you've viewed a few movies together through this lens, your child will start to "trust" authors, which, in turn, will prompt them to pay more attention to detail and to analyze what they are reading as they go along.
This is by no means a comprehensive list.  I may well come back and add a few more strategies as they occur to me.  But I can vouch for the effectiveness of the strategies I've included so far; and if that's not enough, I can provide dozens of students equally enthusiastic about these techniques.  There's nothing as rewarding as the looks on their faces when, after spending the school year practicing these strategies over and over again, they receive the results of their state reading comprehension test and realize that they've passed, often for the first time in their lives.  :-)

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