Reading comprehension

Tips to help your child understand what he's reading

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It’s storytime, and you’re thrilled to see that your six-year-old is sounding out the words and putting together the sentences. But when you close the book and ask your child a question, you realize that even though he’s “read” it, he hasn’t picked up much of the storyline.

It’s not uncommon for kids this age to have trouble comprehending what they’re reading, says Mary Handley, who is the coordinator of elementary school improvement for the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Lindsay, Ont. “Children in the primary grades are often too busy decoding the words to derive much meaning,” she says.

But it will come, assures Handley. Comprehension depends on developing a set of skills: decoding letters and words, sounding out words, recognizing letter combinations like th, understanding the meanings of words and following the train of thought. Children gain reading comprehension with practice. Here’s how you can help:

Read together every day Kids this age are learning to read on their own, but curling up with you to hear a story is still important. Listening to a great yarn by Roald Dahl or a classic like The Princess and the Goblin builds vocabulary and comprehension, says Handley. When you read with enthusiasm — using voices, and expressing the excitement and suspense of the story, kids are more likely to listen closely. There are books that lend themselves to taking turns or reading together, like the Amelia Bedelia or Clifford stories. The most important thing, says Handley, is that the experience is warm and connected — encourage her to share in the reading task, but don’t insist.
Talk about it If you ask questions along the way, or express some anticipation, kids are more likely to stay on track with the storyline: What is Jillian Jiggs going to do with those boxes?

Look for patterned text Kids who are learning to follow meaning will be able to predict what might come next in a patterned text, like that found in Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. As kids get to know the pattern, you might say “Do you know what comes next?” Follow along with your finger so she can connect the rhyme with the text.

Connect with his interests “We sometimes think fictional stories and novels are better reading material for kids, but it isn’t so,” says Handley. “Kids have to be motivated to read. If motorbikes are what your child is interested in, read a book about them.” Let kids choose their own books. Books like the Captain Underpants series appeal to a child’s sometimes bawdy sense of humour at this age.

Be a good reading role model If you share a funny anecdote from the newspaper you’re reading, or show your child a description of a vacation spot in a brochure, he learns how reading connects with our experiences.

Choose readers that match your child’s vocabulary If there are too many words kids can’t understand, they’re likely to give up, says Handley. Levelled readers, which have a controlled vocabulary, allow kids to read with enough fluency to follow the story. Not sure what your child’s level is? You can try the five-finger test. Open a book to a page and ask your child to start reading. Every time he comes to a tricky word, ask him to put a finger on it. If he has more than five fingers down on a page, the book is probably one to save for a year or so.

Avoid drill tactics Flash cards and other reading aids can make what should be a pleasurable activity onerous for kids, says Handley.

Don’t rely on computers While there are some good sites to encourage kids to read, don’t rely on them to build reading comprehension, says Handley. “The machine can’t tell when your child is having trouble, or when they’ve got it right.” What’s important, she says, is the sensitive and patient support you provide to your child as he learns to love reading.