Comprehension is THE ultimate goal of reading! Everything we teach our kids in reading is so that they will end up having comprehension, or an understanding of what they read. We spend so much time learning how to read just to get to the point where we can read to learn. Comprehension = knowledge. But just because comprehension is our ultimate goal doesn’t mean that you need to wait till your kids are older or have “mastered” everything else in reading before you teach it.

Some people tend to think that comprehension is something that’s focused on only in later grades – not so! You can start teaching comprehension as soon as your child is able to talk about what you read to him/her. Having said that, I’d like to clear something up before we dive into the how-to’s of comprehension. It’s very common to pick up a piece of reading curriculum that has questions written at the end of the text/selection and get excited because it “covers comprehension”. Asking questions during and/or after a reading is fine and very useful in gauging comprehension, but it is NOT the same as teaching it. Teaching comprehension is a process that involves more than just asking questions about the characters, plot, or main idea of a book or story. I’m going to break down the basics of teaching comprehesion for you in the following sections – you can get specific lessons in the Comprehension section of Lesson Ideas.

Pre-, During, and Post Reading Activities:

  • Prior Knowledge: Take a minute to think about the books that you read as an adult. You probably tend to pick out books that are about things you like or that have been recommended to you by a friend. Combine that with about 20, 30, or more years of prior knowledge that living life has offered you and you probably go into a book already knowing a fair amount about the content that may be found inside its pages. Our kids oftentimes don’t have this luxury, so we have to help them out by providing them with knowledge about a topic before reading about it. This is known as “building background knowledge”. For example you wouldn’t want to read Anne Frank’s Diary to your child without first going over some facts about the The Holocaust (discussing it, watching a video, visiting a museum, etc.). This isn’t to say that you will cover everything about the given topic – you definitely want to leave much of the learning about something for the reading of the selection/book. You just want to make sure that you give them a starting point so they’re not totally lost when reading about it.
  • Asking Questions: This is an obvious one that most people know to do during and after a reading. But many don’t know about the usefulness of asking questions before you read a book. This can really help them maintain a focus as it sets a purpose for them to read. For example: before reading The True Story About The Three Little Pigs, you may ask your child “I wonder how this is different than the regular book? What do you think we’ll learn is true in this story? (let them make some guesses) Let’s see if you can find out what the truth is.” Taking a couple of minutes to do this pre -read questioning will go a long way because your child will have a goal in their head and they have to “hunt” for the answers. This works especially well when you give them the chance to choose the book they want to read – the motivation will be there from the beginning!
  • Picture Preview (if applicable): Kids love to look at the pictures in a book before they read. It’s their version of how we check out the back cover of a book before reading to see if it catches our interest. It’s also another way to get them thinking about what they will read about and/or get some pre-reading questions in. Here’s a simple rule for picture previews: Fictional books … let them explore the pictures and pages (without reading the text) up to a certain point so they won’t spoil a possible surprise ending. For non-fiction … let them see all of it.
  • Discussions: Have you ever seen a movie and not quite gotten it or felt like you missed something important? But then while talking about it with a friend, they point out something someone said or did and you suddenly “got it”. And then maybe when you watched it again you picked up on stuff you missed the first time. That’s what discussions after a reading do for our kids. Now by discussion, I don’t mean for you to ask them a bunch of questions, I mean talk about it – what happened and why, what the characters were like, what would you have done in their position(s), did you like the ending, etc.. That’s not to say you can’t ask questions, just try to use them to lead into a discussion rather than having a question/answer session. Not only can this be really fun (they come up with the wildest things), but you can really use it to gauge your child’s progress and to let you know what you should focus on during the next reading to help them “get it” better.

Skill and Strategy Instruction These make up the “meat and potatoes” part of teaching comprehension. It’s important to know that skills and strategies are not the same and that they are both important to teach so that your child can maximize their comprehension of a story, article or book. There are 11 skills and 7 seven strategies that have been shown by research to be very effective in improving children’s comprehension. You want to focus your attention of skill and strategy instruction both during and after a reading, but you don’t want to do too much at once. So here’s an example of how you can break them up into different readings per story/book : First Read: Might include reading it together and taking turns, or you reading aloud to them as they follow along – Choose 2-3 strategies to focus on and model them throughout the reading. Second Read: Choose 1 skill to focus on. Introduce/review the skill before the read. Have them try reading the selection aloud to you pausing to practice the skill when the opportunity is right. Discuss and practice the skill after the read. Third Read: For extra fluency practice – If they can, have them read it independently or you can try a new way of reading like I discussed in the Fluency article. (Note: this suggestion works best with stories, articles and short books – if reading chapters books, you can alternate skill/strategy instruction by chapter depending on the content)

Skills: These can be defined as the things kids need to know in order to connect with and understand what an author is trying to say in a book, story, or article. They help kids organize the information in a text so they can connect with the author’s message and comprehend it. Focused mostly on after a reading (depending on the skill).

  • Main Idea and Details
  • Author’s Purpose
  • Cause and Effect
  • Fantasy vs Reality
  • Classifying and Categorizing
  • Author’s Point of View
  • Drawing Conclusions
  • Making Inferences
  • Sequencing
  • Comparing and Contrasting
  • Fact and Opinion

Strategies: These are the tools that we use in our heads while we’re reading that help us make sense of things and/or help us read better. The thing is that most of us aren’t even aware that we do these things so we don’t think to teach them. To teach these you basically have to pretend that you’re opening up your mind so that your child can “see” how you think. The idea here is to model the way you think and understand things and show your child how to do the same so that he/she can eventually do this on his/her own. The following strategies were written by the authors of SRA’s Open Court Reading Program and were based on research about how kids learn to read and comprehend.

  • Summarizing
  • Predicting
  • Monitoring and Clarifying
  • Visualizing
  • Asking Questions
  • Monitoring and Adjusting Reading Speed
  • Making Connections

Comprehension isn’t something that just happens over night, it’s something that’s developed with time and purposeful practice. Be sure to check out the Comprehension section of Lesson Ideas for more detailed ideas on these comprehension activities, skills, and strategies!