Reading comprehension – Now, what was that all about?

You can help your child to develop skills in reading comprehension. These skills will enable them to reflect on the text they have read and extend their understanding beyond literal interpretation to making inferences and deductions – ‘reading between the lines’. This blog post answers three questions:

  1. What is reading comprehension?
  2. Why is reading comprehension an important skill?
  3. How can I develop my child’s reading comprehension skills?

1. What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is an ability to read text and, more importantly, understand its meaning. This includes being able to make inferences (an interpretation that goes beyond the literal meaning of the words) and deductions (an understanding based on the evidence recorded in the text): in other words ‘to read between the lines’ – to make sense of what the words say and how they work together to create a mental picture. This could be within a story, when the author develops an empathy between the reader and a character, or within a factual text, where the reader can link the information to his or her existing knowledge in order to develop a broader understanding of a topic. Reading comprehension requires shallow-level processing skills and high-level processing skills. Shallow-level processing enables a reader to simply recognise the words and be able to read them. High-level processing skills require a reader to create meaning from the way the words work together within the sentences and the wider text.

2. Why is reading comprehension an important skill?

Reading comprehension is a vital skill because it significantly enhances a child’s ability to learn. Comprehension skills include: the interpretation of text; a wide vocabulary; strong inference and deduction; reading stamina; a good understanding of story structures. The ability to understand what you read is of great importance across most of the curriculum – not just literacy. For example, mathematical word problems (see my blog – ‘Mathematical word-problems: where do I start?’) require an ability to make sense of the questions; information needs to be extracted from texts in science, history, geography and other subjects. A child with good reading comprehension skills has an advantage over his or her peers as he or she is better equipped to approach a question or activity.

3. How can I develop my child’s reading comprehension skills?

  • Read frequently – encourage your child to read regularly (see my blog – ‘How can I help my child with reading?’). Provide books that your child will enjoy: these could be fiction or non-fiction texts. By reading frequently your child will build up reading stamina and speed, which will give him or her more time to attempt comprehension questions and enable the child to remain focused while reading an extended text.
  • Discussion – discuss the text with your child. Ask him or her questions such as ‘What do you think might happen next? (prediction); ‘Why did the character behave in that way? (inference); ‘What can you tell me about dinosaurs?’ (deduction).
  • Summarise – ask your child to summarise the story or information (or, better still, to write a summary using phrases from the text to support his or her account).
  • Highlight/underline – ask your child to highlight or underline the words and phrases that he or she considers to be the key points in a text. This enables him or her to access the information quickly when referring back to the text to find an answer. This technique is very useful when reading non-fiction texts, as the child can underline technical vocabulary e.g. ‘photosynthesis’ if reading a text about plants.
  • Empathise – encourage your child to view things from the point of view of the characters: ask ‘How would you feel if…?’ This will develop the child’s inference skills and give him or her a deeper understanding of the meaning of the story.
  • Evidence – when answering questions about the story or information ask your child to use examples and quotations from the text to support his or her responses: this will encourage the child to refer back to the text, rather than relying on memory.
  • Concept maps – these can become more complex as your child gets older. For a younger child, ask him or her to draw a picture of a character from the story and write words around the picture to describe the character: this should include visual observations, such as ‘brown hair’ and emotions, such as ‘happy’.
  • Question yourself (metacognition) – encourage your child to think about what he or she needs to think about, for example, before reading information about Victorians ask your child to tell you why he or she is reading the text and what they will be thinking about and looking for when they read the text. This will help your child to focus on the content of the text and to engage in deeper and more meaningful thought processing.
  • Write questions – after reading a text ask your child to write his or her own questions about the passage. This will encourage the child to think about the format of comprehension questions and develop his or her skills in extracting detail from the text.
  • Vocabulary – teach new vocabulary explicitly, for example, use the word ‘obnoxious’ as often as you can over a week and encourage your child to do the same (this will embed an understanding of the word as well as enjoying a fun challenge on a long car journey!). Also, make sure your child has a dictionary handy when reading and encourage him or her to check the meaning of new words and to keep a record of the words and their meanings in a notebook – then test the child on the definitions (you never know, you might learn some useful vocabulary too!).

Reading comprehension is all about ‘understanding what you read’ – frequently sharing books with your child and encouraging him or her to read independently are the best ways to develop skills.