Reading Strategies and Comprehension

Have you ever been in the midst of an oscar-winning performance of a new children's book when your child interrupts you to ask a question about something that was clearly explained just minutes earlier?

Or maybe you are half way through reading a newspaper article to yourself when you find your mind is completely blank when trying to remember what you just read? In both of these examples, your child or you may have heard or read the specific words in the text, but you did not process these words to extract real understanding from them. What is the point of reading if you do not understand what you read?

The purpose of reading is to construct meaning from the words on the page. We do this by connecting ideas from the words we are reading to what we already know. To help your child understand what they are reading better, you can encourage them to use a combination of reading strategies to enable them to process the words and ideas. The five key reading strategies are:

You should practice these reading strategies with your child until they can start to apply them automatically. Your child will begin to think more deeply and critically about the text, forming new ideas and adding to their store of knowledge which can then be used in other areas of their life. Even young children are able to start to use these techniques to bring more meaning to what they are listening to. Use these reading strategies when reading aloud to your child to help to introduce a little bit of learning into this special time.

Reading Strategies

Choose a reading strategy to focus on, explain what it is and why we use it and then model the strategy for your child. This simply means that while reading aloud to your child you stop reading every now and then and think aloud about what you just read, demonstrating the reading strategy. When your child starts to get the idea, start asking them for their opinions. But remember to keep it fun and don't push your child. If they are not interested in joining in, continue modelling and try again the next day.

Keep reading for more details and examples on each of the five key reading strategies of making connections, asking questions, visualising, inferring and summarising.

Using Background Knowledge and Making Connections

When your child uses some piece of prior knowledge or experience to help them understand and relate to what they are reading, they are making connections with the text. This connection makes it easier for them to learn and remember any new information they come across within the text. They may also adjust their thinking based on the ideas they read. Good readers make connections with their own personal experiences, other literature they have read or to real-world events, people or issues.

This is one of the easiest reading strategies to use with young children, since they love to tell you about themselves and what they have done and so can be readily encouraged to connect things they are reading with their personal experiences. You can explain to your young child how we understand and remember something we read better if we can 'stick' it to another idea already in our head.

Help your child make these connections by having conversations such as:

  • Olivia book depository by Ian Falconer reminds me of someone I know … someone who also wants lots of books read to them before bed … someone sitting right next to me now!

  • Stone Fox book depository by John Reynolds Gardiner reminds me of The Little Engine That Could book depository by Watty Piper which we read when you were smaller. Both Willy and the little blue engine really believed in themselves and their abilities and worked hard to achieve the near impossible.

  • I find The Man Who Walked Between the Towers book depository by Mordicai Gerstein such an uplifting story, which makes it all the more shocking when thinking about what happened to the towers nearly 30 years later.

Generating and Answering Questions

If your child is asking and answering questions about what they are reading (or what you are reading to them) they interact more with the text, being forced to think actively as they read. This helps them to better understand the meaning of what they are reading and retain more about the text. To help your child use this reading strategy, ask questions for your child to answer, and encourage them to ask questions themselves.

Ask questions before, during, and after reading. Before reading ask your child what they think the book is about. Encourage them to look at the title and cover and skim through the text to try to get clues as to what it is about. This previewing process starts to stimulate the reader to remember relevant background information they may already have on the subject which can then be used in the other comprehension strategies.

During reading ask about the plot, the characters and what they are feeling and the setting. Ask your child to predict what they think will happen next, based on what they have read so far and on their personal background knowledge. After reading further, they can confirm whether their predictions were accurate. Predictive questioning helps your child to connect earlier with the text and really understand what they are reading.

After the reading ask what your child learned from the text, what they think the author may be like, and what their favourite part was. When your child is asking questions, encourage them to ask challenging questions where the answers are not immediately obvious without a little reflection.

Examples of questions you might ask are:

  • The BFG book depository by Roald Dahl has a picture of a giant and a little girl on the front. What do you think might happen in the book?

  • What do you think the toys in the store are thinking in Corduroy book depository by Don Freeman

  • The boy in My Father's Dragon book depository by Ruth Stiles Gannett has some clever ways of getting past the animals he meets on the path. Which is your favourite encounter?

Visualising and Mental Images

Another of the reading strategies you can explain to your child is visualisation. Readers create a picture in their minds of what they are reading, using their own prior knowledge as well as the author's writing to build a rich visual picture or even a movie. This comprehension strategy helps readers to engage more deeply with the text by encouraging them to interpret and draw conclusions about what they are reading. Visualizing can also help the reader remember and retain more of what they are reading. Encourage your child to use all their senses while visualising, so they describe not only what they see, but also what they taste, hear, smell and feel. Ask them about what the characters look like and what they are wearing, or how they see the setting in their mind.

Visualizing can also work well with younger children, although it can be harder to do with picture books, where much of the description is already provided in pictures rather than words. Children's poems are ideal for practicing this reading strategy, their short length being more likely to hold your child's attention. It is also a good technique to use as your child makes the transition from picture books to chapter books, where they might otherwise struggle with the lack of pictures.

Try having conversations along these lines:

  • Roald Dahl tells us in The BFG book depository that the BFG's cave has lots and lots of jars in it, but describe what the rest of the cave looks like in your mind.

  • Did you create a movie in your mind when Augustus Gloop went up the pipe in the Chocolate Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book depository by Roald Dahl? Describe the movie to me.

  • What do you think Mr McGregor looks like in Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit book depository? Could you make a map of his garden? Let's try this map making activity.

Inferring and Drawing Conclusions

Good readers merge their background knowledge with clues provided in the text and draw conclusions which are not explicitly stated in the text. This is known as inferring, or 'reading between the lines', and is another of the reading strategies you can practice with your child. By inferring, readers are able to grasp the deeper essence of what they are reading, understanding more completely the writer's point of view. This in turn helps them to glean more information and ideas from the text. The more background knowledge a reader has, the more likely they are to make a reasonable inference.

You can try practicing this technique with a younger child by asking them, before the first reading of a picture book, to look at the front cover and the title of the book and think about what might happen in the book. Encourage them to ask questions starting with "I wonder why…", "I wonder how…" or "I wonder if…" and jot these questions down. Read the book and then look back at the list of questions. Discuss with your child whether each question was answered explicitly in the book or whether they have to deduce (or infer) the answer.

Other good inferring questions to ask are:

Summarising and Synthesising

The last of the key reading strategies to help your child develop is the ability to summarise and synthesise what they read. This involves identifying the most important points in what they are reading, summarising these essential ideas in their own words and then integrating these ideas with their existing knowledge to form an idea which is new to them. This process will help your child to acquire and remember new knowledge from what they are reading much more effectively and ensure they have a complete understanding of what they are reading.

First help your child to extract the key information in the text. Ask them to distinguish between what is important and what is simply interesting. They can't remember everything, so what are the essential facts. Suggest they use titles, headings and pictures to help them identify the big ideas. Then ask your child to put all of these big ideas together again, retelling the information in their own words. Finally ask your child to add this new information to existing knowledge they already have on the subject and see if this leads to any new thoughts or conclusions. What does the bigger picture look like now?

Activities you could try with your child include:

  • After reading to your child for about half an hour (or after they have read independently) ask them to re-tell to you what has just been read. It can be fun to ask your child to re-tell the story by acting it out with props such as in this re-telling of "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak.

  • Ask your child to create a kid's comic strip summarising with pictures and words a story which they have just read, as in this activity with "How The Grinch Stole Christmas".

  • After finishing a story ask your child to think up a different ending.

  • If your child has a particular interest in something such as volcanoes, dinosaurs or horses, buy or borrow a non-fiction book on the subject and read part of it. Ask your child what they understand now which they didn't understand before.

So there you are, five reading strategies to make sure your child gets the most out of what they are reading. Choose one today and try it out with your child. Soon they will not just be thinking about what they are reading, but they will also be thinking about what they are learning.

You may also like:

Teaching With Picture Books
Teaching With Picture Books
Encourage Reading
Encourage Reading
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Using Newspapers
Using Newspapers to Improve Fluency

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