The difference between reading and comprehension is like the difference between hearing and listening. Just as listening requires you to pay attention so your brain can process what you hear, comprehension requires you to pay attention so your brain can process what you read.
In 1997 Congress created the National Reading Panel. One of its largest tasks was to determine the best ways to teach children to read. Of the 16 strategies they studied, a handful seemed to really work. And of those methods that worked, there were three common characteristics:
• They make the reader set expectations for the material they’re about to read;
• They give the reader a way to continually check to see if they are understanding what they’re reading;
• They have the reader reorganize the information so it makes sense to them.
The panel also concluded that the best methods for teaching reading comprehension used multiple strategies, rather than just one.
So, in order to apply these findings to your own mission to teach comprehension, we recommend the following steps:
STEP 1: Choose material.
Choose a book that is age appropriate, of interest to the child, and new or only slightly familiar (vs. a book that the child has memorized).
EXAMPLE: “The Three Little Pigs”
STEP 2: Set expectations.
Ask the child to be looking for answers to three questions as they read. You can generate the questions or have the child come up with them as soon as they decide on a book. If the story is new to the child, you can have him predict what will happen based on the title.
EXAMPLE: “Who are the three little pigs afraid of? Why are they afraid of him? What type of house is the strongest?”
STEP 3: Check for understanding.
Have the child stop reading every few sentences to determine if they understand what they’ve just read. If they don’t, let them go back and reread the text for better comprehension.
EXAMPLE: “What was the first house the wolf blew down?”
STEP 4: Summarize what was read.
For the beginning reader, ask them to summarize what they’ve read after every few sentences. The more advanced the reader, the longer the passages can be before summarizing. You can also do this at the end of the book.
EXAMPLE: “Pretend I am a friend who has never heard this story and tell me what the book is about.”
Obviously, this is a simplified version (with examples for beginning readers) of how to strengthen reading comprehension, but the general ideas are applicable to all reading levels. Practice this multi-prong systematic approach and you’ll see steady gains in both comprehension and reading enjoyment!