How to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills in Children?
Help Children Understand What They are Reading
While reading is arguably one of the most important skills one must master, reading comprehension is every bit as important. Otherwise, what's the point of reading when you have no idea of what it is that you've just finished reading? Reading comprehension is the understanding one gathers from the text they've just read. To have good reading comprehension skills, it is essential that the reader has superb word recognition abilities - that is, the reader is able to recognize the words with little to no effort, and do so quickly. Children with word recognition difficulties will be forced to expend much of their attention and focus on processing (trying to recognize) the printed text - leaving little room for grasping the meaning of what they are reading, leading to poor reading comprehension.
There are some educators that believe children should learn to analyze and comprehend text before learning to read, and there are other educators who believe that children should develop decoding and word recognition skills first. However, a better approach is that learning to read and learning to comprehend should go hand in hand.
What is reading? Have you thought about this much? Reading is a process that begins with the processing of individual letters, which combine to form words and their associated sounds (just like what you are reading right now), and then extracting information from the lines of printed text to gather meaning. To help children develop exceptional reading comprehension skills, there are several key aspects that we need to focus on, and we'll discuss them here.
Teaching Reading Comprehension Strategies
The few key aspects for helping kids develop strong reading comprehension skills are: 1) decoding and word recognition abilities, 2) vocabulary, and 3) active comprehension strategies.
Decoding and Word Recognition
Decoding and word recognition is the ability to recognize words quickly and correctly, and this ability to decode printed text is the first essential step to developing reading comprehension skills in children (and adults). Those who believe that learning to comprehend should come first are sort of putting the cart before the horse. After all, we can't understand what we can't read. Right? And just being able to decode and recognize words is not enough. One must be very fluent and fast at decoding where it becomes an automatic process that takes little to no effort. A poor reader will have poor reading comprehension ability. Why? Simply because too much of their attention, focus, and brain power goes toward deciphering what it is that they reading, such that little is left to understand and analyze what they've just read.
To improve reading comprehension for kids, the first step is to develop FAST and FLUENT decoding skills. The process of recognizing words must consume very little cognitive capacity, freeing up most of a child's mental energy to analyze and understand what it is he or she is reading. Having taught all of my own kids to read before they turned 3 years old, and having worked with thousands of parents with young children through our Children Learning Reading program, I can attest to the fact that a beginning reader requires serious mental effort to decode and sound out words. It is through repeated practice and reading sessions that this process of "sounding out" words becomes internalized and the child eventually becomes a fast and fluent reader.
Therefore, the first step to improving a child's reading comprehension skill is to first teach them to decode and become superbly proficient at it.
Developing a Rich Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension
Another key important factor contributing to powerful reading comprehension skills is vocabulary. It should not surprise you to hear that good comprehenders will have rich vocabularies. That's just the way it is. Having a rich vocabulary is strongly correlated with one's ability to comprehend printed text, and this is why it is critical to start teaching children to read at a young age. Even studies have confirmed this correlation. For example, a study done by Beck et al., had shown that grade 4 children who were taught 104 words over 5 months outperformed children who did not receive the instructions on comprehension tests. 
When a child learns to read at an early age, they develop a vastly richer vocabulary compared to their peers. The act of reading, and reading often will help the child develop a very rich vocabulary. A study by Hayes and Ahrens (1988) had found that even children's books contained TWICE as many rare words compared to adult conversation between college graduates! The more you read, the richer your vocabulary will be. One key reading comprehension strategies for children is to help them develop a rich vocabulary. Again, this is done through learning to read early, and developing a habit of daily reading.
Active Comprehension Strategies
What are active comprehension strategies for reading? Do you know what makes someone a good reader? A good reader is very "active" in their reading - they know what they are reading and why they are reading it; they have an active overview of the text they are reading; they have expectations of what to gain from their reading; they read selectively based on their overview and knowledge; they associate what they read to their existing knowledge; and they are able to extract meanings from unfamiliar words based on the context of what they are reading.
Using active reading comprehension strategies will help kids improve their reading comprehension skills, and these can include:
- Engage your child in active discussion about what they are reading - ask questions of what, when, where, why, and how.
- Summarize what you've just read. This again leads back to the active discussion part - ask your child to summarize what it is they've just read.
- Get in to details - discuss the characters, the plot, the problems encountered, and the solutions to the problems.
We have been actively working on building reading comprehension skills with our children as we've taught all of them to read at a very early age. They've all developed a keen thought process of analyzing what they are reading, or being read to, such that they constantly ask questions and engage us in discussion about the happenings in the stories. At times, this can frustrate the parents, who would prefer an uninterrupted flow during stories. However, keep in mind that it is through these active discussions during and after reading that helps your child develop superb reading comprehension skills. Read to your children early on, read everyday, and teach your child to read early to help them develop the most critical skill in life. We can show you how...
1. Effects of Long-Term Vocabulary Instruction on Lexical Access and Reading Comprehension.
Beck, Isabel L.; And Others 1982
Journal of Educational Psychology, v74 n4 p506-21 Aug 1982