Understanding What You Read
In my years as an elementary teacher I’ve hosted a large number of parent conferences, and there have been many instances when a parent greeted my news that their child was having reading difficulties with the familiar tune that resembles the following:
“I listen to him read at home and he reads great. He doesn’t miss one word." It is after this remark that I have to clarify for the parent the common misconception that reading is a one-dimensional undertaking.
In fact, reading the words correctly in a story does not make a child a good reader. The process of reading must also include the element of comprehension. An adult not related to the medical field need only pick up a medical journal and read five lines to know that what can be read cannot always be understood.
In many schools where a skills-based program such as phonics is in place during the early years, it is often the comprehension of reading that is lost with most children as an emphasis on developing good phonics skills overrides everything else.
Use Discussion to Improve Comprehension vs. Decoding
So, perhaps your child is a great decoder. He has a wonderful knowledge of how letters and sounds work. He is familiar with the most common words that appear in literature at his level, and he is a fluent reader. That is because he acquired these skills through his natural exposure to written material and his phonics program at school. If a child cannot decode words she certainly can’t move on to understand what the words are saying.
Teachers are not the only ones who can help children develop these strategies. Parents equipped with a book at the appropriate level can, through simple interactions with their child, get a bird’s eye view of their child’s understanding of a book or passage, as well as support him at home as he learns and practices these valuable skills.
I like to think about teaching reading in turns of having an exciting book group. What could be more motivating then sharing or reading the same story with other people and then discussing it? Yes, children can discuss their literature, in fact, they need to!
That said, you as a parent have a book in your hand, and are ready to listen to your child read:
- Pull him close to your side and take a good look at the book’s cover.
- Read the author’s name and then study the pictures together.
- Ask your child what he thinks the book will be about or who the characters will be.
Let him make as many predictions as he wants, not only in the beginning but in the middle too. After all, isn’t that what adults do when they read? We try to figure out how it will all end many pages before we read the last paragraph. It makes it exciting.
If, for example, the book is The Three Little Pigs, ask your child what other books he’s read that had a pig in it. I’ll bet he’ll know one.
Ask him if he thinks any of the pigs in The Three Little Pigs will be like the pig in the story he has read before. This will go a long way in helping him understand that connecting one book with another can help him make predictions about a certain character or plot.
If in another book a character is in the desert and has no water, ask your child how he thinks the character feels. Ask him if he ever remembers a time in his life when he was hot and had nothing to drink. If a connection is made he’ll be able to better empathize with the character as he can personally relate to the dilemma. You know that when your child is able to empathize with a fictional character, he understands something about the story. A show of emotion, whether laughter or shock, is a big sign that he comprehends, so watch for those emotions.
Avoid Over Correcting
As you continue reading along avoid correcting their reading errors. Instead, emphasize any questions that pop into your mind and think about it aloud. “I wonder why the boy threw the paper airplane when he knew the teacher would send him to the principal’s office. What do you think?" This is a good way to model to your child how to think about the motives of the characters and how they serve the plot of the story. Adults do it all the time when they read.
Using these strategies while listening to your child read, as well as reading along with your child and actively discussing the story, will strengthen his comprehension, as he will gradually internalize these techniques and use them when he is reading alone.