By PATRICK MCNAMARA
Although many children can successfully read a passage out loud, that ability does not necessarily mean that they understand what they are reading. Reading and reading comprehension are two very different things. Reading comprehension requires not only understanding the words that were just read but also understanding their meaning – and not just those words, but the text as a whole. Successful reading comprehension requires the ability to read, process, recall, interpret and explain what was just read. Moreover, effective writing, the concrete way we show our understanding, is only possible if one has truly processed what one has just read. For many students who write poorly, the source of that problem is that they don’t comprehend what they are reading.
Having excellent reading comprehension skills is critical to success in school. It not only increases the effectiveness and enjoyment of reading, it also enables students to both understand the questions they must answer and to express their answers effectively. Often, students whose grades are not commensurate with their level of effort conclude that they are just not “smart enough” or are told they are not “trying hard enough.” But very often, their grades arise not from their lack of effort or ability, but from a deficit in their reading comprehension skills. Students who are in 8th grade, but who are reading at a 6th grade level are going to find virtually all of their 8th grade material very difficult, as it is created on the assumption that the student is reading at grade level. A strong student may compensate for low reading comprehension skills by reading the material multiple times, or they may listen carefully in class and pick up what they missed that way. But when they come to the test (and its time limits), their compensating skills are not available, and so they may fail to properly understand the question because they read it too quickly (and only half answer the question) or they freeze up and fail to provide much of an answer at all.
Reading comprehension doesn’t only influence success in ELA. Comprehension is crucial for success in every facet of a student’s education. History and science require students to read and understand challenging passages and new vocabulary. Math word problems are often where a problem with reading comprehension is first identified. If you can’t figure out what the word problem is asking you to do to get that answer, you aren’t going to score very well.
Improvement of reading comprehension is very possible with active involvement in a student’s reading practice. Reading practice should include the following:
All children should spend at least half-hour daily reading. Younger students should read with parents. Older students can read on their own, but parents will need to read it too. Not only does this foster a positive relationship with reading, but it also allows you to model the cognitive steps required to comprehend what is read. Reading regularly is the most critical part of developing reading comprehension.
Whether you are reading to your child, your child is reading to you, or they are reading to themselves, periodically check in to confirm comprehension. Doing this not only helps you see if they are understanding what is being read, but it also teaches them what questions they should be asking themselves as they read. The fact that they pronounced every word perfectly doesn’t necessarily mean they understood what they just read. At the end of a page or chapter, you might ask what just happened, or where, why, or how did it happen?
Making inferences and predictions is an important skill for reading comprehension. Inferring is the ability to take what is in the text and conclude what will happen next. You might ask “Why did the character just do that?” or “What do you think will happen next?”
If, as you read, you see that they are confused or don’t understand what they’ve read, it is important to go back and re-read. They will learn that this is part of the reading process.
Developing good reading comprehension skills take effort. As your child’s skills improve, they will grow to learn that it is important to understand every single word, sentence, paragraph they read and how to achieve that goal.
Patrick McNamara is the owner and executive director at Sylvan Learning of Albany and Clifton Park. For more information, visit SylvanLearning.com.