Most parents understand the importance of reading with children when they are young. But how can you make sure your child truly understands what they are reading? They may be able to read all of the words out loud but they may struggle with actually understanding what is happening in the story or being conveyed in an informational text. For children to develop true reading comprehension skills, they need to practice these skills over and over again with support. In honor of Read Across America Week, we reached out to University of Michigan Professor and Parent Toolkit expert Nell Duke to learn more about what parents can do to support their children’s reading comprehension skills.
Read a range of texts
While you may be used to reading fiction and fairy tales with your children, Duke explains that it is important to read a variety of different types of texts with them. Nonfiction books, or books about real life, are also important to building your child’s comprehension skills. Books about space, history or dinosaurs can expose children to a lot of new information while also capturing their imaginations. But don’t just stop at nonfiction or factual based books. Try introducing your children to poetry, newspapers or even activities that require them to follow along with directions, like cooking books. Anytime your child has to read instructions and follow them in order to create something, they are strengthening their comprehension skills. Try a book on origami for kids who are into arts and crafts instead of cooking.
Reading isn’t the only way to strengthen your child’s comprehension skills. Try telling stories to your child about your past or events that are coming up. Stories that start with, “Let me tell you a story from when I was your age…” are a great way at building comprehension. When you start telling a story about your youth, you don’t usually include every single detail for your audience, which leaves aspects of the story unsaid. It will be up to your children to fill in the blanks in their head. Filling in those details is called inferring. It’s a process that develops over time and can build simply by listening to stories that you share with your children.
Keep reading with kids
Duke says parents should continue to read with children throughout elementary school. You may think it’s better to let kids read alone once they have learned to read. But research has shown that what children can read on their own is actually below what they can understand when they are read to. Reading out loud exposes children to more complicated words and vocabulary as well as different literary and informational structures. According to Duke, the average child’s independent reading level does not catch up to their comprehension level until about middle school.
Read deeply in one area
If your child doesn’t like to read a variety of topics, don’t worry! Mastering one subject area could be beneficial for your child. A recent study of school children compared kids that had read six books on six different topics to children that read six books about the same topic. The children that read books about the same topic had developed stronger vocabulary and comprehension skills. Duke believes that it is important for parents to support their children’s interests and provide a variety of different texts on those topics. While you might be sick of reading about frogs for what feels like the hundredth time, different books offer an opportunity to talk to your child about the similarities and differences between the information in the books. It also offers the opportunity to compare different versions of the same story, like Cinderella, or different texts that offer divergent explanations for why historical events happened, like the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Even if your child has already read a book, it is worth reading it again. The second or third time through a book, children will pick up subtleties that they may have missed the first time around. A great time to reread a book is after watching a movie based on the same story. Reading through the book again allows your child to determine some of the similarities and differences between the film and the story.
Read books related to upcoming events
Try to read books that are related to upcoming events or holiday celebrations. If your family is planning on taking a trip in the near future, read through a travel book related to the destination or a story that may be related to a famous historical location you will pass along the way. Duke believes that it is always important to connect books to things that are going on in kids’ lives. The book will not only help get kids excited about their upcoming adventure, but will also help to build their vocabulary. When you return from the trip, reread the same book and talk with your child about how it relates to their experience. Children learn and master more vocabulary from rereading books than from reading a new book each time.
As you are reading aloud with your child, talk to him about what you are reading. Ask questions that take more than one word to answer. This will begin a longer discussion and make your child explain his ideas. Instead of, “What was the name of his friend?” or “What color was his shirt?” ask “Why was that character feeling that way?” Not only does this build understanding of the book, it will also build vocabulary skills.
Focusing on reading comprehension is important for parents and anyone that reads with children. Most state tests measure reading comprehension, testing a child’s ability to make meaning out of what they are reading. Clues to whether your child’s comprehension skills are growing include whether or not they enjoy reading, they talk about what they are reading, and they start to make connections from one book to another.