How to Teach Your Child Reading Comprehension

What is reading comprehension and why is it important? Strong reading skills will help your child excel in all other academic subjects, and is especially critical for college entrance tests, which are largely based on reading comprehension skills.

Skilled readers, those with great reading comprehension skills, don’t just read — they interact with the text. It is second nature to them, so they don’t usually realize it, but as they read, they: predict what will happen next, question the plot and the character’ behavior and thoughts, and connect the message of the text to prior knowledge.

So how do I improve my child’s reading comprehension?

I am sharing five simple and useful comprehensions strategies below. I find it works best to focus on one strategy and move on to the next once when you notice your child has mastered it. By “master”, I mean that your child is taking the things you’ve modeled for her and now independently applying them to texts that she reads.

5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Child’s Reading Comprehension

1. Think about and build background knowledge

For children who struggle as readers comprehension is a big deal. But if you put pressure on your child, he’ll feel reluctant or even grow to dislike reading, so try to keep things lighthearted and fun.

Before your child even opens the book, try to encourage him to think about and predict a portion of the story. You could ask him to read the title or look at the cover and ask him a couple of silly, outlandish questions to get him started. Your questions don’t even necessarily need to be about the book. For example, the book ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’ has a picture of the mouse on the front. I might laughingly ask why the mouse is wearing clothing and whether mice actually wear clothing.

The point is to be silly — make your child laugh and be willing to interact in a fun way. Then you can lead into further questions. Conversation is key because oral language is so directly tied to reading comprehension. What’s the topic? Does your child already know anything about the topic? Does he have a plot prediction for the story, based on the title or cover?

Using background knowledge is also vital as the child reads the text. Ask your child what he would do in that situation. Has that happened to me before? I remember the time that… These thought patterns rely on what the child already knows to help them make sense of the text and apply it to themselves.

2. Help your child make connections

Readers with good comprehension skills make connections when they read.  It might sound like, “I felt the same exact way when…” or “That happened to me once.” When children make connections between a book and their own lives, they feel empathy for the characters and become invested in the story.  They have an easier time remembering the story when they feel a personal connection.

As they gain experience, kids begin to make connections between different books they’ve read.  For example, they might connect the loss of the dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows to Leslie’s death in Bridge to Terabithia. Eventually, they’ll be making connections to their own world, outside of books.  This opens the door to very important concepts and understandings.

Inferences are connections you can encourage, too. Inferring is just “reading between the lines”.  It’s what the reader can guess is going on, even if the author doesn’t spell it out.  Ask your child to infer the setting of the book, characters’ feelings, the lesson or moral of the story, or the author’s purpose — anything the author has not explicitly spelled out, but can be inferred contextually.

3. Help your child build fluency

How fluently a child can read the text also affects comprehension.

Related Reading: 10 Easy Ways to Help Children Develop Reading Fluency

When young readers are focused on decoding all the words they can’t also think about what they’re reading. If you choose simple books, they will be much easier to both read and comprehend.

A few other strategies for helping your child to build fluency are: modeling fluent reading as you read aloud together, buddy reading and re-reading (those methods are explained in the article linked above). And here are several fun resources for teaching literacy.

4. Provide fun, meaningful, book-related activities to build reading comprehension

It’s not very difficult for most kids to be able to regurgitate, almost verbatim, what they’ve just read, whether they comprehended the content well or not.

The goal is for kids to be able to do more than remember and recall what they’ve read. We want them to be able to explain what they think and how they feel about the text. Asking them meaningful questions and using activities that encourage them to be critical thinkers is very helpful.

A few of my favorite book-related activities for improving reading comprehension are:

  • Graphic organizers
  • Story maps
  • Dramatic readings
  • Retelling the story in his own words; perhaps changing the ending
  • Questioning the author
  • Having him describe mental images from the book or even draw them

5. Make reading an interactive experience

Reading specialists estimate that reading comprehension is a 50/50 interaction. In other words, about half of our understanding of the text is what the reader puts into the reading, in terms of prior knowledge, understanding of word choice, and knowledge of text structure and the other half comes from the text itself.

So, how can students learn to read interactively to improve reading comprehension? We can use the way we watch movies (since so many people claim better comprehension of movies than books) as a positive example.

First of all, the light of the movie or television screen and the sound draws your complete attention and focus. Distractions are limited, so you concentrate well. Next, movies are multi-sensory. We also tend to involve ourselves in the movies we watch. We all imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story and even find ourselves talking to the actors on the screen, especially during scary situations.

So, how do we apply those same strategies to reading?

First of all, limit any distractions — tv, phone, music, noise — to improve reading concentration for your child. Next, help him try to apply as many of his senses as possible to reading. Help him to feel what the characters feel and imagine the settings and hear the characters dialogue. Ask him to act out his favorite scene in the book. And last, help him involve himself in the reading by “talking to the text.” This internal dialog improves concentration and will help him better interact with the story.

Helping your child to see reading a two-way active process rather than a one-way passive activity will benefit him immensely.

As important as reading comprehension is, don’t let it cause you stress. Reading, and learning for that matter, is really just one thing at a time, built on precept by precept.

The steps are pretty simple and straightforward. First, you work on phonics. The Ultimate Guide to Phonics is simple, sequential and easy to follow. Once your child is decoding pretty well, work on fluency.  This article, 10 Easy Ways to Help Children Develop Reading Fluency, will help with that.

A great foundation in phonics and progress toward becoming fluent will naturally build reading comprehension. You’ll be astounded at how well your child understands quite difficult concepts! The suggestions given here will help further.

You don’t need to use all of the suggestions, or use them in any particular order. You just use what you need and what will be enjoyable for both you and your child. Because above all, reading should be enjoyable! You want to set your child up for a lifetime love-affair with learning, which begins with reading.

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  1. Oh…doesn’t the butter need to be stored in the cooler, too? Or did you just mean other than “normal” ingredients that would already be packed?

  2. It’s interesting to know that using graphics organizers and dramatic readings will help you to improve your kid’s reading comprehension. My daughter will start going to kindergarten, and we are looking for advice to help her with her reading skills. I will let him know about your recommendations to help my daughter with her reading comprehension.

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      Glad I could help, Ellie!

  3. As a mother and former education and now Grannie to two little grandsons I really enjoyed reading your article. It was informative and had some great suggestions. Thanks for the post!

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      Thank you for your sweet comment! 🙂

  4. Thanks for these tips. My daughter is 6 and reads/understands well. How do these tips translate to when kids are writing their own stories. When she speaks, her stories are intricate and detailed, but when she writes them out much is lost. Do you have any tips on how to work on bridging the gap?

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      It takes some maturity to learn to organize abstract thoughts. If she is amenable to writing (when my kids were her age they found it tedious and difficult, and requests for any more than about a paragraph caused temper tantrums) you could have her tell you the story, then write it down. Remind her about the parts her oral version contained and ask her if she’d like you to help her add them.

      To be completely honest with you, though, I never start my kids on writing until about 7th grade. We read a lot of great literature, and I do teach them punctuation and brief sentence construction, including parts of speech, but that’s all. I hand them a giant, very comprehensive book of grammar at about 12 years-old and let them work on it for awhile before I begin teaching them to write.

      So far, my method has worked well, as my older children both received near-perfect scores on the writing portion of their college-entrance tests. They’re both attending a prestigious university on full academic scholarships.

      I guess what I’m taking a long time to say (sorry!) is don’t push. If she initiates something, absolutely let her, but follow her lead. It’s the best way to be sure she’ll enjoy writing for a lifetime.

  5. I find introducing the concept of making connections outside of reading really helps. We do it when we are watching TV shows and movies. Then the habit is already formed when reading time rolls around.

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      How smart — that’s a great method!

  6. I will send this to my daughter who does an amazing job helping her children to read. Her oldest is 6 years old and is reading at third grade level and understanding what he reads.

    1. Amy Saunders says:

      That’s amazing! What a little smarty pants!

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