Teaching Reading Comprehension

Develop reading comprehension skills by asking hard questions. Teach your children critical thinking and reading comprehension. Move beyond the simple, basic questions, and dig into those hard questions that require thinking! Don’t be afraid to teach your children to become independent thinkers!

Every child deserves the gift of reading, deserves to be taught to read well. But reading skills go far beyond being able to decipher the words on a page. Reading must progress from basic decoding skills to understanding and comprehension. Reading and understanding are not synonymous; rather, the two skills work together to give comprehension and meaning to what we read.

Reading Comprehension Matters

What is the point of learning to read words from a page if a child doesn’t understand what he is reading? Reading matters, yes, but comprehending the reading matters more! Why? Consider the following reasons:

  • Comprehension leads to understanding.
  • Learning to understand what he reads allows a child to go on to higher learning, providing him with skills for his future.
  • Reading comprehension skills lead to the development of critical and independent thinking.
  • Comprehension skills allow children to understand, learn, and practice discernment in all areas of life.

How Do You Teach or Develop Reading Comprehension Skills?

To teach comprehension, you must start with the basics. Also, we need to begin this teaching from the earliest years, starting with even pre-reading. Teaching comprehension begins with asking questions. As your child develops his reading and understanding skills, the process, levels, or types of questions will change.

Start with Literal Comprehension

Does your child understand the words you are reading to him or the words he reads himself? Does she know what the story is about? This is literal comprehension.

Begin the comprehension process with read-aloud or storybooks.

Ask questions about what happens in the story. Why did a character feel sad? What made him feel happy again? Who are the character’s friends? Ask questions that make your child think about what you read.   

Ask questions that are meaningful.

At any level (or every level), ask meaningful questions. Sure, you can ask a couple of simple questions about what color the ball was or how many clocks were on the wall, but those questions should be limited to one. It is far better and more productive to ask questions of substance.

Instead of how many clocks were on the wall, you can ask why there were so many clocks on the wall. You could ask what color the character’s ball was, but a better question could be, “What do you think the character’s favorite color is, and why did you choose that as your answer?” That way, the child must think about the answer, not just look at a picture. A good answer to that question might be something like this: I think his favorite color is red because he has a red ball, a red shirt, red shoes, and red-and-white-striped blankets on his bed.

While the pictures in the book might have helped your child with his answer, your child still had to go through a thinking process.

Find proof in the text.

Begin to teach your child to find proof for his answer in the text of the book. Why did you say his favorite color is red? What part of the story told you that? What did the story say that made you think the character was sad? Learning to support answers with evidence from the text will go a long way towards teaching critical thinking to your child.

Inferential Comprehension

Once kids have learned to find answers from the text and provide evidence for those answers, we need to have them progress to inferential comprehension, or “reading between the lines.” We need to ask hard questions!

Inferential Comprehension develops and requires critical thinking skills.

This type of understanding involves deeper thinking and reasoning. These are skills that will aid him for the rest of his life.

There may not be “right” answers.

A child (and his instructors/parents) need to realize that these questions do not necessarily have right or wrong answers. We may not all agree on the answer, but that does not mean that any given answer is wrong. Each of us sees things differently, has a different viewpoint or perspective.

Teach the importance of context and background.

Your child must learn to consider the context and background for what he is reading. Learning to read with the proper cultural context and historical background in mind will help a child understand why the story or book was written in a particular way. Ideas that were generally accepted a hundred, a thousand years ago may have changed.

The story may include things that we have learned are wrong. This provides great opportunities for discussion about right and wrong, censorship, the value of reading opinions or ideas that differ from yours.

Because we believe things that are different from the characters’ beliefs in a book, should we ban the book? Or should we consider the cultural and ideological context of the book and look to learn from it? (positive and/or negative)

Learn to look for main ideas.

Teach children to look for the main ideas, the most important concepts from a paragraph, a chapter, a paper, a book. What points is the author trying to get across? Learning to identify main ideas will aid in their comprehension of the material, especially in non-fiction writing. Have them outline main points and supporting subpoints. Not only will this help with comprehension, but it will improve their composition skills as well. Logic, order, progression)

Ask the hard questions.

Go ahead and ask the hard questions. Questions for promoting inferential comprehension differ from the questions used in literal comprehension. These questions should be more in-depth, more thoughtful. We should be asking about why things happened, what caused an action or reaction. Cause the child to consider how a character might respond if something else had happened. How might the story change if it was a sunny, warm day instead of a cold and icy day? Look for cause-and-effect. Study how a character changes throughout the story, why the character changed, what evidence showed the changes. Do these changes make the character a better person, friend, etc.?

Prove or support the answer from the text.

  • Again, your child should use the text to “prove” his answers. He needs to back up his answers with passages in the text to support his thinking.
  • Your child needs to learn to choose the best supporting textual evidence.
  • She needs to learn that it is OK to have her opinions differ from those of others – as long as she can support her opinions from the text.
  • It is a good idea to discuss these questions with your child before you require him to write about them. Prompt your child to begin thinking before sitting in front of his paper or screen to begin writing the answers. Also, remind your child that these questions require much more than a one or two-word answer!

Valuable Tools to Help Develop Reading Comprehension Skills and What to do with the Tools

Tools you can use to teach reading comprehension may include the following:

  • Your own personal copy of the book under discussion. (Funny, but libraries don’t really appreciate people writing or highlighting in their books!)
  • Highlighters
  • Sticky Notes/Sticky Flags
  • Colored pencils
  • Pencils

What to do with the tools:

  • Take notes in the margins of the book as they read. Jot down thoughts or ideas about what they think while reading the book.
  • Highlight different character traits, thoughts, ideas for the different characters in the book.
  • Mark different themes throughout the book – love, greed, kindness, revenge, etc.
  • Mark or make notes about how a character changes and what causes them to change.
  • Write down questions as they read – what does this mean, why would anyone do this, how is the character’s thinking different from mine?
  • Mark or circle unfamiliar words. Do they know the meaning of the word? Do they know how to pronounce it correctly?
  • Use sticky notes or flags to connect ideas, thoughts, actions throughout the book.

Real-Life Applications of Literal and Inferential Reading Comprehension

You know those questions your kids ask you (far too frequently) – Why do I need to learn this? (Advanced Math?) When will I ever use this stuff? (Diagramming sentences?) Reading comprehension skills are tools our children will (or should) use for the rest of their lives!

In School

When children have the tools to understand and think critically, you have given them the skills to succeed in any further or higher education. Children can more readily read and understand primary source materials, academic or scientific papers, and even collegiate-level textbooks with reading comprehension skills.

In Future Employment

Many jobs require the ability to read and understand difficult content. Those who have acquired good comprehension skills will have an advantage in the job market.

Searching for Truth

If we want our children to become responsible citizens, we need to teach them reading comprehension skills. They need to learn to read for true content, whether that be news stories, political statements, or scientific evidence. They need to read beyond the headlines, get to the “meat” of the story, read all sides of the story, and make decisions based on all the facts, not just what the media shares. Truth is based on fact, not opinions, and our children must know the difference between the two.

For Spiritual Growth and Development

Our children need reading comprehension skills to develop their spiritual lives. Sure, they can subsist on the “fluffy” materials from many of the day’s current publishers, but to get into the depths of God’s truth requires some serious reading skills. Who is the passage written to? What is the context of these verses? What is the main point of the passage? Reading with comprehension skills will allow our children to dig deep into God’s Word and discover its great truths to strengthen their faith.

So, go ahead and ask the hard questions, those questions that will help your children develop reading comprehension skills. Ask the hard questions and make your children think. Help them find the main ideas, the meaning, the truth in the things they read. Sure, these questions are harder to grade. But you are teaching your children skills to use for the rest of their lives. And that, my friend, is what truly matters.

Looking for more information about teaching your child to read? Try these posts:

Developing a Love for Reading

Teach Your Child to Read

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