The ability to comprehend written text is one of the most important life skills for budding brains. Reading can open the mind, stimulate the imagination, and is imperative for classroom and professional success.

However, reading comprehension doesn’t come easily or naturally for many children. They may find it difficult to understand what they read, make connections between the text and their existing knowledge, think deeply and critically about concepts, and draw conclusions. When this happens, it can bring on feelings of frustration and hopelessness, and your child may even resist the act of reading altogether.

Comprehension goes simply beyond answering the question “what happened.” Understanding and decoding text, while also applying reasoning and critical thinking, can help your child pinpoint facts versus fiction, determine why some story characters are mean, funny,  or sad, what caused a specific event to happen, and what will happen next in the story.

One common misperception is that children who are “good readers” are “good comprehenders.” In fact, frequently children who are able to read fluently and proficiently still struggle to grasp the meaning of what has actually happened. This is because reading comprehension isn’t necessarily just a single skill, but instead a collection of important developmental skills that must be improved in tandem in order to demonstrate progress. Let’s start by reviewing what skills are involved in reading comprehension:

Important Reading Comprehension Skills

There are a number of critical language, memory, and reasoning skills that can contribute to reading comprehension deficits, including:

Language Abilities: Strong language abilities are highly correlated to reading comprehension outcomes. Vocabulary is one specific example. Children must have a large working knowledge of different vocabulary words to understand verbal and nonverbal language, including written text. They need to know word definitions not just in isolation (such as repeating them with flashcards), but also within the context of the written word. Children that often have some type of developmental language disorder are generally more likely to struggle with reading comprehension.

Working Memory: Your child’s cognitive abilities and working memory are vitally important. Working memory refers to the short-term memory we use to temporarily hold information, apply logic, and make decisions. For example, children with poor working memory may spend lots of time trying to decode the connections between letters and sounds, and leave little time to grasp and retain what they just read.

Attention: We’ve all “zoned-out” during reading, and then realized we remember very little of what happened on the page. The words may be clicking in our heads, but they’re not sticking. For children who have short attention spans or become easily distracted, this can contribute to poor reading comprehension. For example, studies have shown that children with ADHD, which can affect a person’s ability to focus and pay attention, perform worse at reading comprehension tasks compared to children without ADHD.  

Processing Speed: This refers to the speed it takes for a person to complete tasks with accuracy. This can range from visual tasks (such as naming colors, letters, or numbers), or verbal tasks (such as answering questions or summarizing information). Children that display slower processing speed may have a harder time understanding the words they read or answering open-ended questions about the text.

Strategies to Improve Reading Comprehension

There are many strategies you can use with your child to improve their reading comprehension. Like all language-based skills, you may not see progress magically overnight - it takes practice and persistence. However, using these techniques regularly with your child will increase their comprehension over time and set them up for academic success. You can use this handy list of tips to make reading more fun and enjoyable for your child as well.

  1. Reading Aloud: When children read books aloud, this can naturally force them to slow down. They’ll have more time to process information on the page which can increase their retention and comprehension.  

  2. Make Connections: Whenever you can help your child connect what they read to their personal experiences, it can help them focus. For example, if a character in the book travels is on a beach, remind them of a similar time your family traveled to the shore. Overtime, have your child proactively make these connections themselves.

    Additionally, use the outside word to help children derive more meaning from the text. Does your child love reading about sports? If so, watching or attending a sports game can help them bring these real-word connections to life.

  3. Reread Books: Many children enjoy rereading books they love. Sure, this can be somewhat numbing for parents and caregivers, but it’s actually a fantastic comprehension-building technique. Rereading books will help your child familiarize themselves with the story, decode words, and gain meaningful insight from the text. It will also help improve their fluency by encouraging them to read quickly and smoothly.

  4. Read Books at the Right Skill Level: Choose books that are appropriate for their reading level - one’s that aren’t too difficult. As a rule of thumb, your child should know the definitions of 80-90% of the vocabulary words within the story. If they’re confronted with too many unrecognizable words, or are stopping frequently to try and interpret words, it can detract from their focus and comprehension.

  5. Ask Open-Ended Questions: While you don’t want to constantly interrupt your child, find opportunities throughout the story to ask questions. Try to ask open-ended questions that can’t be satisfied with a simple yes-or-no response, which will encourage them to think through their answers. For example, instead of asking, “was that character sad?” you can say, “why was the character sad?” This helps your child to verbally process the information they’ve just read.

    You can also encourage reading comprehension by asking questions before, during, and after reading the book. For example:

    - Before: Why do you want to read this book? What do you think this book is going to be about?

    - During: What do you think will happen next? Why is that character upset

    - After: What was the book about? Did you like the book? Did the book remind you about something that has happened to you?

  6. Practice Inferencing: Inferencing is an important development skill that requires combining information you already know to make predictions about the future. This is a wonderful way to have your child apply logic to the story in order to improve comprehension. For example, if a character is red-faced and yelling, we can infer they’re angry. If they have red eyes, a runny nose, and are sneezing, we can infer they’re sick. You can learn more about building reading skills with inferencing here.

  7. Provide Check-Ins: It never hurts to take a quick pause during the reading process to check for understanding. You can do this during parts that are more complicated, use bigger vocabulary words, or if you notice your child getting stuck. If they’re struggling, encourage them to reread the section and try to summarize what happened.

What If Your Child is Still Struggling?

Consider seeking professional help from a speech-language pathologist. Speech therapy can help children learn to better process information, understand verbal and non-verbal language, and improve their comprehension skills. Your speech therapist will use a host of different techniques and strategies with your child, as well as provide you with additional at-home exercises to continue building this foundational lifelong skill. Increasingly, in a time of social distancing, many families are turning to online speech therapy to receive the same personalized, high quality care with the added benefits of being more affordable, convenient, and accessible.