Many of us don’t actually remember learning how to read. We may remember sitting on our kindergarten carpet squares, picking out new picture books at the school book fair, or feeling the excitement of turning the final page of a book read independently for the first time. Those fond memories are certainly associated with the skills one must acquire in order to first learn to read; however, we cannot necessarily remember the actual process of learning how to comprehend the words on the page. Thinking about it now, reading almost seems like an innate skill, as though reading just happens. If only that were the case…
Struggles of Reading Comprehension
Sadly, reading comprehension can be a labor intensive task for many young learners. Some children can fool us on the surface; they may learn to read fluently, briskly, and accurately, as though they are natural-born readers. However, reading fluency and comprehension do not always go hand in hand. Children may acquire the necessary skills to read clearly and accurately, but, try as they might, these same kids may simultaneously struggle with the ability to digest or comprehend a text. So, if it is not a natural or innate skill, what goes into reading comprehension anyway?
Part of the reason why reading comprehension can be a struggle for many learners is the fact that the process involves a compilation of other complex skills. Such foundational skills necessary for children to begin to master reading comprehension include: fluency, phonemic awareness, accessing prior knowledge/making connections, vocabulary, syntactical rules/conventions, working memory, and attentiveness. With that being said, let’s look at strategies for how to build each of these foundational skills.
Review sight words and high frequency words regularly. Turn fluency practice into a game by setting timed records, racing against the clock, and matching spoken sight words with word cards. Practice pronunciation by modeling and rehearsing. Use clap period stops and snap comma pauses to improve punctuation recognition.
You can also repeat readings to help with word recognition. Be sure to always read aloud to and with your child. Model and practice reading with expression. Give your different characters a “voice” while reading aloud to your child. Preview or expose children to the new or unfamiliar words before giving them the reading passage. And finally, utilize poetry, nursery rhymes, and songs to practice fluency
Use photos/images to match objects with corresponding beginning sounds. Practice sorting words into “like” sound piles using word cards. Create a word wall in your child’s bedroom or playroom. Play “blend bingo” using bingo cards and corresponding images of words that include each consonant blend.
You can also use Scrabble tiles to “build” sounds. Or even use rhyming strategies to group/categorize words. Try playing “which one of these is not like the others?” using word cards. And finally, use tapping, clapping, or any other kinesthetic method for sounding out words.
Background Knowledge Strategies
Expose your child to a variety of text types and different genres to create a repertoire of background information. Incorporate alternate media, such as movies, art, news, television, etc. Teach new words in categories to help solidify new terms with prior knowledge. Practice word mapping to build connections.
Also consider comparing and contrasting words and concepts while reading. Preview new texts or frontload unfamiliar information using references or just casually discussing the topic. Use KWL charts to track knowledge of new concepts/topics. Utilize picture books, regardless of age, to pair images with new words. And finally, take virtual field trips.
Instruct children about specific vocabulary terms, but make sure that the new words are connected to something they are currently reading, seeing, hearing, or learning about. It is important to avoid teaching vocabulary “in a vacuum.” Vocabulary words taught at random or with little context or connectivity to prior knowledge is not likely to make it into a child’s lexicon.
Pre–teach new vocabulary terms by relating them to concepts and terms that your child already knows. Then, when she encounters the word in a text, she will have prior exposure to the word and some sense of understanding.
Utilize root word instruction and practices. This might include creating root word charts with examples, opposite T-charts, visual word tree trunks with various prefixes and suffixes. Practice making new or nonexistent words using roots as a silly way to grasp root word meanings. Also consider using synonyms casually when speaking to your child.
Create a word web wall and add to the web as you make connections between new words. And finally, emphasize context clues while reading aloud; model how to actively engage with new words by making comments like, “I wonder what this might mean in the sentence given the surrounding information…”
Syntax Rules and Conventions
Ask your child to rearrange the words in the sentence, but maintain the same meaning. For example, given the sentence “You can watch a show after you have finished your homework.” Your child should rephrase by saying something like, “You must finish your homework before you can watch a show.”
Demonstrate different ways in which sentences can be combined, separated, or punctuated. The key is to show them that, even with variations in sentence structure, the phrases mean the same thing. Try modeling the process of summarizing a short excerpt or sentence. Then explain how paraphrasing is slightly different. Practice this process aloud together.
Exaggerate the purpose of punctuation while reading aloud to emphasize each punctuation mark’s function. Provide examples of how punctuation can drastically change the underlying meaning of a sentence. One favorite example is, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” And finally, find fill-in-the-blank reading options, where children are provided with word banks or suggestions on each page, but must use the context of the story to correctly complete each missing word.
Working Memory and Attention Strategies
Purposefully chunk down larger sections of text while reading aloud. Then ask clarifying questions or practice summarizing the section before moving to the next passage or chunk. Ask your child to make predictions while reading to practice recalling and utilizing details that have already been mentioned in the text.
Plan for engaging questions while reading. Parents should preview the text and think about ways in which to connect the details to other aspects of a child’s life. Ask critical thinking questions as well, such as, “Why do you think the character did that?” “What do you think she meant when she said…?” “How would you have reacted differently if you were in the story?”
Sketch a visual timeline of events while reading. This doesn’t have to be a detailed, moment-by-moment recollection; you can use bullet points on sticky notes, a small white board, or index cards with events 1-3 on them. Be sure to deliberately emphasize the use of transition words, especially when focusing on chronological summaries.
Listen to an audio version of the text while following along with the physical book. When reading together, once you reach the bottom of a page, ask your child which detail stands out to her the most. If she’s unable to recall a significant detail, encourage rereading. And finally, remove all distractions while reading, including background noise, cell phones/screens, etc. You can also find texts with larger print, reduced text per page, and print with extra space between paragraphs to help children visually focus on one aspect of the text at a time.
Wendy Taylor, M.Ed has extensive experience working with students of all ages and abilities, with a focus on learning differences and disabilities. Prior to founding Learning Essentials, she served as a faculty member at Saint Petersburg College, a supervisor of pre-service teachers and a Montgomery County Public School teacher. A certified educator and qualified educational diagnostician, Wendy holds a B.S. in Social Science and Secondary Education from Frostburg State University and a M.Ed. in Special Education from George Mason University.