One of the most complex mental activities we can engage in is reading. When you look at brain scans taken while the subjects are reading you see many of the areas of the brain lit up with activity. As we read we are simultaneously using our knowledge of sound segments (phonemes) and the connection between sound and letters (phonics) to make meaning of the text (reading comprehension). This last element is the most important and most challenging to develop. Parents and teachers need to explicitly teach reading comprehension skills while at the same time encouraging young readers to keep practicing and honing their skills.
Explicit and Varied Teaching
Because reading comprehension is challenging and multifaceted it must be explicitly taught. Most readers do not infer how to make meaning of texts. They need to be instructed in a variety of strategies for understanding what they are reading. In addition, young readers need to be taught and given opportunities to practice reading comprehension using a variety of texts in a variety of different settings. This is one of the reasons why the partnership between parents and teachers is so important. In the classroom, teachers should work with children as a whole class, in guided reading groups and one-on-one to foster reading comprehension skills. At home, parents can help reinforce and strengthen what their children are learning at school by modeling “real-life” reading (newspapers, Internet, reading books for pleasure) as well as reading with and to their children.
Reading Comprehension Strategies
In order to foster a child’s comprehension of the many types of texts she will encounter, parents and teachers need to equip her with a whole “toolbox” of reading strategies to draw from as needed. While there is an almost infinite number of strategies that we employ as adult readers a core set of reading comprehension strategies provides the foundation for all readers. These are the strategies that adults should explicitly teach young readers to help promote their reading comprehension abilities.
Whether we realize it or not we are constantly asking and answering questions as we read. To foster this behavior in young readers, parents and teachers should model good questioning by asking guiding questions before, during and after children read a text. Before reading questions parents and teachers can ask children to make predictions or activate prior knowledge that will help them comprehend the text. While the child is reading, adults should ask questions to check comprehension as well as to guide understanding. After the child has completed the text we should again ask questions to check for comprehension and to clear up misunderstandings. Adults can foster deeper comprehension and retention by following up basic comprehension “check” questions with those aimed at having children make personal connections with texts as well as analyzing events and characters in the story. Children should also be encouraged to generate and answer their own questions about texts to develop independent questioning skills.
Understanding the vocabulary used in a piece of writing is essential to reading comprehension. There are a number of strategies that parents and teachers can teach young readers to help them comprehend new vocabulary. Unfamiliar words can be taught prior to reading the text. This can be formal (a lesson on the definitions of words) or informal (a parent mentioning a new word and its meaning before the child reads). Vocabulary can also be taught as it is encountered in the text. When a child comes to a word that he seems to be struggling with the adult working with him can provide the meaning. This practice works best when working one-on-one with a child. Beyond this, adults can help children develop skills for “conquering” new words independently as they are reading. Teaching children to use context clues (hints about the meaning of an unfamiliar word provided in the sentence or paragraph where it is used) is one of the best ways to help foster independent vocabulary discovery. Also, children can be taught common roots, prefixes and suffixes that they can use to help understand new vocabulary used in a text.
Good readers constantly monitor their comprehension. They check to make sure they are understanding what they are reading and if they do not, they adjust their approach to the text to ensure comprehension. Young readers often do not realize that they need to regularly “check in” with themselves while they are reading. Therefore, it is incumbent upon adults to help them develop these important self-monitoring skills. Prior to reading, parents and teachers should help children activate prior knowledge about the story’s content, choose appropriate reading strategies and understand the reading task. While the child is reading, we can help her reading comprehension by checking for understanding through questioning and encouraging her to use text structure and other strategies to understand the text. Over time children will internalize these monitoring strategies and will be able to practice them independently.
When we read we rarely sit down and formally create a summary of what we’ve read. Still, our minds store a synopsis of the key ideas in a text. Young readers need to be taught how to summarize what they have read to encourage their comprehension and retention. When a reader is able to restate what he has read in his own words he has truly understood it. Parents and teachers can foster this practice by asking children to summarize what they have read during and after they have read a particular text.
Focus and Attention
Reading comprehension cannot occur when the “flow” of reading is repeatedly interrupted. Think about how difficult it is to remember what you have read when sights and sounds prevent you from focusing your attention on a text. Young readers rarely realize the importance of focus and attention in reading. Parents and teachers can help foster good focus and attention by teaching children to eliminate distractions while they are reading. One way to do this is to encourage them to use an index card or a finger to track the words on the page as they are reading. Also, adults can teach children to take periodic breaks from reading to summarize what they have read.
The Role of Motivation in Fostering Reading Comprehension
While building a full “toolkit” of reading strategies is an important element in fostering a reader’s comprehension and retention, it is not the only factor influencing reading development. As with almost any task the learner must be motivated in order to be successful. Parents and teachers can help foster reading comprehension by encouraging their children’s motivation to read. The easiest way to do this is to model enthusiasm for reading. If the adults around them are excited about their own reading as well as the child’s, she is more likely to also become enthusiastic about reading. In addition, adults can talk with children about the importance of reading highlighting what reading has to offer them (i.e. pleasure, information). Beyond this, adults can motivate young readers by helping them pick texts that “speak” to them. Tapping into a child’s personal interests or encouraging them to continue exploring books by a particular author can help sustain a young person’s interest in reading. Along with this, adults should help children pick texts that are “doable”. The reading level of a new story or book should be at or slightly above the child’s independent reading level. When children experience success at reading, they are more likely to continue reading. And when they continue reading their reading comprehension skills will become stronger and stronger.