When it is warm enough where I live in the Midwest, my 11-year-old son and I sometimes play catch with a baseball. He is usually the pitcher, winding up and throwing the ball to me. I am usually the catcher, crouching down and catching the ball with a baseball glove.
Reading is like a game of catch. The author is the one who “throws” or writes words on a page, and the reader is the one who tries to “catch” what the author wrote. We know that this game of catch is successful when the reader comprehends what the author said.
What is reading comprehension?
Reading comprehension is the ability to understand and make sense of what you read. How can children achieve it? They need two main ingredients: language comprehension and decoding.
If you remember from an earlier post, language comprehension is the ability to understand the different elements of language: what words mean, how words are arranged, and general information about the ideas in a text. Decoding is the ability to turn the sets of letters you see into the sounds they represent and blend them together to form words. Read our posts about phonics and phonemic awareness to learn how they help with decoding.
In the pyramid graphic below, reading comprehension, or making meaning of text (shown in the top triangle), is the key goal of reading. Decoding (shown in the bottom right) and language comprehension (in the bottom left) are the foundations of reading comprehension. Fluency (in the center) is the ability to read accurately, with proper expression and pace. It is the bridge that leads to reading comprehension. My colleague Lauren Bardwell explains the role of fluency in her article “6 ways to help your child read fluently, cover to cover.”
What else supports reading comprehension?
In addition to the essential pieces from the pyramid above, research has shown us that several other factors support children’s reading comprehension. They include active reading, motivation, and volume reading.
In How to Read a Book, the educator Mortimer Adler compares reading to reaching out and catching a ball because purposeful action is needed to make sense of what we read. Imagine someone throwing a ball to you. If you don’t actively track the ball with your eyes or reach out to catch it, the ball might hit you or drop to the ground with a thud. To catch a text, reading must likewise be active.
Active reading is more than just paying attention to each sentence […]. It is also actively monitoring whether you understand what you are reading, making connections with things you already know, and thinking about how the ideas in a text are connected.
Active reading is when readers intentionally use their mind to engage in what they read. You may have experienced reading a page in a book and not understanding it because you were distracted; this certainly happens to me. While I’m reading page 26 in a book, I might be thinking of some unfinished tasks I need to complete or about a conversation I recently had. When I re-engage with the book, I wonder how I got to page 27! I realize that I wasn’t actively paying attention to what I was reading. Similarly, kids can be distracted from reading by thinking of other things or even by noise, which may be one reason why a library is so quiet.
Active reading is more than just paying attention to each sentence in front of you, however. It is also actively monitoring whether you understand what you are reading, making connections with things you already know, and thinking about how the ideas in a text are connected.
Motivation also supports reading comprehension. Children who are motivated to read are more likely to be engaged in whatever they are reading. This engagement makes reading more enjoyable and positively affects reading comprehension.
There could be any number of reasons that motivate children to read. Some children are more willing to read after they learn how. Some kids are naturally bookworms. Other kids might need a specific situation or prompt to help motivate them. They might be motivated because they are interested in learning more about a topic. For example, if a child is interested in dinosaurs, they will be more likely to read books about them even though dinosaurs have long names that are difficult to pronounce, like the micropachycephalosaurus.
Children might also be motivated to read if they can read with others or if it is for a relevant purpose, like following instructions to build something. There is also research to support that children’s motivation to read grows when they are able to successfully read challenging texts since it increases their sense that they are capable readers. By having enjoyable and successful reading experiences, children may feel that reading is worthwhile and be open to reading and understanding other texts, too.
When my children first learned to play catch, they dropped the ball more than they caught it, which was expected. But the more times they caught the ball, the better they got at it. Not only did their eye-hand coordination improve, but they were also better able to predict where the ball was going so they could position their hands to catch it in time.
Building your child’s reading comprehension when they’re not at school can be easier than you think.
Similarly, reading more—with understanding—helps grow the key elements that lead to reading comprehension. By reading more, children learn new vocabulary (an important element explored by my colleague Toni Gibbs), gain knowledge about the world, and improve fluency. There are also vocabulary and sentence structures children may only encounter by reading. In one of his books, Language at the Speed of Sight, reading researcher Mark Seidenberg uses this sentence from a first-grade read-aloud book as an example: “There were sure to be foxes in the woods or turtles in the water, and she [Mrs. Mallard] was not going to raise a family where there might be foxes or turtles.” Seidenberg suggests that “mallard” (a wild duck) is a word most first-graders would only encounter in a book. He also notes the sentence is longer and structurally more difficult than what first-graders would hear in everyday speech.
Another benefit of reading more is that children can build their reading stamina. The longer they spend on focused reading, the more opportunities they have to grow their knowledge, vocabulary, and fluency. This, in turn, can help children persevere with longer or more challenging texts they encounter in and out of school. Once children can decode fluently (after grade 2 or 3), they can start increasing their reading stamina by gradually reading for longer periods. What they read doesn’t necessarily have to have more words. A shorter, more difficult text can also be read for a longer period of time. Remember, reading stamina is about increasing the time that a child can read attentively.
4 ways to help with reading comprehension at home
Building your child’s reading comprehension when they’re not at school can be easier than you think. Here are four tips to try.
1. Discover what motivates them
Search for books about topics that your child is interested in. Ask them if there is any topic, event, or person they want to learn more about. Ask what type of text they want to read: mystery, poetry, adventure, fantasy, graphic novel, nonfiction. The website “Literary genres” from the California Department of Education can help.
You can also offer titles and descriptions of different books and let your child choose what they want to read. If you need ideas, ask your local librarian or take a look at Reading Rockets’ “Children’s books & authors” to locate books based on topic, theme, awards, and book type. Also find titles from the Children’s Choices book list. For younger readers in particular, check out “Selecting books for your child: Finding ‘just right’ books.”
Children might also be motivated to read if it is with you. Consider having a family reading time, where you take turns reading something interesting out loud for as little as 20 minutes together every couple of weeks. My third-grade daughter and I recently took turns reading poems from Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. This time could also be spent reading independently, where everyone reads their own book silently at the same time. Another idea is to read a book together and then watch the movie that it is based on, like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
2. Read different kinds of material
Just like with volume reading, reading different kinds of materials allows children opportunities to gain knowledge, vocabulary, and exposure to sentences they’ll only see in texts. If children mostly read stories, try biographies or nonfiction books focusing on a specific topic. You can even invite your child to read a piece of mail, a recipe, or instructions with you.
3. Ask questions about what they read
While reading with or to your child, ask who, what, when, where, and why questions about the details of the text. For example, ask what they think a book will be about based on its title or illustrations. If you are reading a story, ask about individual characters or the setting while reading. If it is nonfiction, ask how different ideas or events connect. With any type of text, ask about unfamiliar words. Our post on vocabulary has excellent advice on how to go about this.
If you are reading a very difficult text with or to your child, stop more frequently to ask questions while reading. Questions are not just for measuring what your child has understood during the reading; they can also be used as a tool to help your child deepen their comprehension and remember what they read.
4. Problem solve together
If you notice that your child is finding comprehension of a text challenging, here are some different solutions to try, depending on the challenge: reread a portion of the text, look up unfamiliar words, try to break down and understand each part of a long sentence, read the text more slowly, look up information they don’t know, or make connections to ideas that they already know.
If you find that your child is having difficulty with their comprehension across multiple texts, consider contacting their teacher to ask what they are noticing in class, and find out if they have any other suggestions for supporting your child at home.
Catching what an author writes is the first goal of reading. To reach that goal, decoding, language comprehension, and reading fluency are necessary. Beyond that, motivation and active ways of thinking can help a reader make meaning from a text. Let’s not forget that children can improve their reading comprehension by reading! We hope this blog series was useful as you help your child make the catch. Read our previous posts to learn more about supporting your child’s reading at home.
Many thanks to my NWEA colleagues Leslie Yudman and Toni Gibbs, ELA senior content specialists, and Lauren Bardwell, senior manager of Content Advocacy and Design, for their contributions to this blog post.