The goals of reading are to understand the written text, integrate new ideas, and generalize from what is read. When parents understand all the skills required in higher-level reading comprehension, they can help their children be successful. Here’s information parents can use.

Develop decoding skills

Your child can’t understand what they read unless they have a way to figure out the words. Well-established and long-accepted research shows that poor readers “guess,” which is an inefficient way to approach new text. Good readers use decoding skills.

Your child can learn to decode words using phonemic awareness. This means sounding out the letters in each word to create separate speech sounds and then combining those sounds into words. In order to build decoding skills, your child needs to be able to match sounds to letters of the alphabet and blend the sounds to make words. This is phonics instruction. Parents can patiently help their child sound out words they don’t recognize. It’s fun. Remember to congratulate your child when they correctly figure out the word.

Increase fluency

If your child struggles as they sound out each word, they’ll have trouble remembering what they’ve read by the time they come to the end of the sentence. So once they’ve learned how to decode words, kids need to read quickly and fluently to remember and understand what they read. To improve your child’s comprehension, encourage them to frequently read out loud at a steady pace. Research shows that practice reading aloud, not silent reading, improves a child’s reading ability. Take time every day to listen to your child read aloud, helping them through the difficult words.

Expand oral language skills

For most kids, listening comprehension develops at a faster speed and remains at a higher level than reading comprehension. Most kids can’t understand what they’ve read unless they understand the material when it’s read aloud to them. 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 your child’s vocabulary, the easier it will be for them to understand the meaning of the sentence, paragraph, and story they hear and read. You can help your child increase their vocabulary by introducing new words in daily life and both explaining the definition and helping your child figure out the meaning of new words from the context. Your child’s vocabulary will continually increase in complexity as they speak and read, too.

Studying word parts and how they change the meaning of words.

If your child knows the meaning of a root word (“kind”), then they’ll know what the new word means when the prefix (“un”/not) or suffix (“ness”/state of being) is added.

Studying inflection and how it changes the meaning of words.

If children recognize inflection, they will understand how 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 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,” to understand what they read, but they will likely find figures of speech very amusing.


Knowing the rules in different languages.

Parents can explain how different languages have different rules. In English, adjectives typically precede the noun (blue water), but in Spanish, the adjective often follows the noun (agua azul).


Changing word order to create a question.

In a sentence, the 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?”


Increase your child’s background knowledge.

Your child needs familiarity with the subjects they read about, or they won’t be able to gain meaning from it. For example, if you’re reading about a beach, has your child been to a beach? Seen pictures of one? Watched a program about beaches on TV? Research suggests lack of world knowledge can cause delays in reading comprehension.

Strategies to improve reading comprehension

When you talk with your child about books, newspaper articles, and school reading assignments, use the activities below to broaden their reading comprehension skills. Research suggests best results are reached “when two or more strategies [are] combined.” Parents should use the most appropriate strategies for the child’s level of development.

  • What was the main idea?
  • Tell me 3 to 5 important, interesting details from the story.
  • Did you like the story? Why or why not?
  • Who was your favorite character and why?
  • Retell the story in your own words.
  • What do you think might happen in the next chapter?
  • Make up 5 questions about the story – “Who? What? When? Where? Why?”
  • Use graphic organizing to explain what you read. Research reveals this is very effective in primary grades.
  • Write a short paragraph to summarize the story.
  • Was any part of the story confusing to you?
  • Did this remind you of any other story you’ve read? Which one and why?
  • What did you learn from the story that you didn’t know before?

Remember to keep this fun for your child. Provide lots of options on which strategies to use. If they hesitate, tell them the exercise is helpful in improving reading comprehension, and it will help them understand more in school and learn interesting life skills like fixing a bike. Keep it enjoyable so your child is motivated to keep trying these strategies with you and on their own as they read new material.

Balance skill building

Developing reading comprehension requires practice in several interrelated skills: decoding printed words, understanding oral language, reading fluently, increasing vocabulary and background knowledge, understanding word parts, inflection, language rules, and relationships between words, and using the multiple strategies to practice recalling and thinking about what they’ve read. No matter what your child’s age, it’s important for their skills to develop in all of these areas because significant difficulty in any one of them can cause a breakdown in the whole process of reading.