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Reading Comprehension: Research Informs Us

Here's what you need to know to help your child build the skills she needs to understand what she reads.

By Jan Baumel, M.S.

The goals of reading are to understand written text, integrate new ideas, and generalize from what is read. As a parent, what should you know about reading comprehension to help your child improve his skills and achieve those goals?

Develop Decoding Skills

Your child can't understand what he's read unless he has a way to figure the words out. Research has shown that poor readers "guess," an inefficient way to approach new text. Good readers, however, use decoding skills.

Phonemic awareness precedes learning to read print. Your young child needs to be able to hear speech sounds of the language and tell them apart, isolate sounds, and break words up into separate sounds.

In order to build decoding skills, your child needs to be able to match those sounds to letters of the alphabet and blend the sounds to make words. This is phonics instruction.

Increase Fluency

If your child struggles as he sounds out each word, he'll have trouble remembering what he's read by the time he comes to the end of the sentence or paragraph. So once he's learned how to decode words, he needs to read quickly and fluently to remember and understand what he's read.

In order to achieve this goal, he requires many opportunities to read out loud. Research has shown that practice in oral reading, not silent reading, makes the process of reading effortless. So take time to listen to him read aloud and help him through the difficult words.

Expand oral language.

For most kids, listening comprehension develops at a faster speed and remains at a higher level than reading comprehension. Your child can't understand what he's read unless he understands the material when it's read aloud to him. In order to decide whether reading makes sense, your child needs well-developed oral language skills, including:

Learning the meaning of new words.

The larger his vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be for him to relate words to the context of the sentence, paragraph, or story. His vocabulary continually increases in complexity as he converses and reads. You can help by introducing new words and explaining the words he doesn't know.

Studying word parts and changes in the inflection of words.

If your child knows the meaning of a root word ("kind"), then he'll know what the new word means when the prefix ("un"/not) or suffix ("ness"/state of being) is added. He also needs to see that meaning changes when word pronunciation changes, e.g., "I took a birthday present to the party, and I will present it before the cake is served."

Understanding meanings and relationships between words.

Synonyms are words with the same or similar meanings ("bucket/pail"), and antonyms are opposites ("good/bad"). Your child may need help learning figures of speech, such as, "It's raining cats and dogs," in order to understand what he's reading.

Knowing the rules for putting words into meaningful sentences.

Different languages follow different rules. For example, in English, the adjective precedes the noun (blue water), whereas in Spanish the adjective follows the noun (water blue). In a sentence, subject and verb need to agree. Making a statement into a question requires changing the order of the subject and verb, such as, "That was a good story." "Was that a good story?"

Having background knowledge.

Your child needs some idea of the subject he's talking or reading about, or he won't be able to gain meaning from it. For example, if you're talking about the beach, has he been there? Seen pictures of one? Watched a program about it on TV?

Jan Baumel, M.S., Licensed Educational Psychologist, spent 35 years in education as a teacher, school psychologist, and special education administrator before joining Schwab Learning. Today she is a consultant to local school districts and university field supervisor for student teachers.

Comments from readers

"I am doing my doctoral dissertation with specific focus on the ability of students at the end of the third grade to read proficiently. I am looking for research-based professional articles that establish the correlation of reading ability at the end of the third grade with successful completion of high school. Thank you for citing any available research to support this premise of exiting third grade reading skills and its high correlation with high school graduation. "
"I am an adult with a reading comprehension that I have had every since I was a child. Is there any way that I can increase my reading comprehension because I read very poorly and would like to read better and would like to read more and not avoid reading like I do because of my reading comprehension problem'Please Help.' Is there any thing that can help me. T Campbell"
"my 11 year old grandson is struggling in middle school due to reading comprehension problems. he was born with a cleft palate therefore there are speech issues also. those issues are being helped with speech therapy. however, his reading comprehension is very bad. he tests with above average intelligence but is making d's and f' due to the comprehension problem. there are no tutors in our area. is there a book or some web site that could help me to tutor or help him with the comprehension issue. i am desperate. thank you. "
"Do you have any information on a program or study where students were given scripts to teach and tutor other students. If I understand, the teachers supervised the process. I am doing some research and I wonder how this study came out. I think the study was done at Sunbeem school. I think the program was called learninng and growing together?"
"Do you have any online exercises for reading comprehension activities for high school students along with writing? If so, could you please email some. Thanks K. Curry"
"I believe reading comprehenion is the key to why my son avoids doing his homework. It's a daily struggle to get him to sit down and start his homework. He knows what to do if you verbally tell him however, he struggles when he has to read the directions by himself. He can read the smaller words however he hesitates when it comes to the larger words. He tends to guess at the meaning of the larger words. I have been helping him break up the words so he can sound them out as he reads and it seems to be helping. Would you suggest a program like 'Hooked on Phonics?'"