The dictionary defines comprehension as the capacity of the mind to understand; power of the understanding to receive and contain ideas; capacity of knowing. The verb form of the word, comprehend, means to take in, to take with, to imply, to contain, to understand, to take hold, or to conceive. When applied to the subject of reading comprehension, we see that this skill employs not just reading, but also listening and speaking—as well as writing at times, too. What I mean by this is that quite a bit of what is billed as “reading comprehension” can be discussed, but that there are going to be times when students really should write down their thoughts about the things they have read.
An integral part of reading is the exchange of ideas. It stands to reason, then, that understanding would also be required for those ideas to be received, considered, and then exchanged again. Do you remember when we discussed Chall’s Stages of Reading Development? Those stages progress from the very elementary to very advanced, but all of them require some degree of comprehension behind the act of decoding of the text itself. Reading comprehension builds over time. You would not expect very little children to write an in-depth critical analysis of the motivation behind a particular character or the worldview of the author when they are first beginning to read, but these things are also part of reading comprehension. However, because comprehension involves the skills of inferencing and connecting thoughts as well as recalling details, there is so much parents can do to help their children learn to think about what they are reading in order to bring them to those upper stages of reading that Chall and Adler speak about in their books.
Reading comprehension covers so many areas with many different strategies that can be employed. For example, when beginning a new passage or a new book, students can ask what they think will happen in the story from just looking at the cover or the first few lines of text. For some books, the table of contents and the index can yield valuable ideas as well. Even pre-readers can begin to work on comprehension by learning to monitor their own comprehension, make predictions, connect that with what they already know about a topic, and then compare what they thought would happen with what actually happened in the book. As time goes on, these children will be bringing more and more knowledge to the table when they read; therefore, they will be able to make more and more connections and be able to understand more and more.
This page on Reading Rockets offers wonderful strategies to help your reader understand or take hold of the text. Once your child can seamlessly blend sounds into words enough to follow the thought of a sentence, you can begin working on more explicit comprehension strategies, which can often be found through worksheets or assessment curricula. Personally, I’ve found that the McCall-Crabbs series from the 60s works really well from about 3rd grade. You can purchase the single hardback volume from Wanda Sanseri or Elizabeth Fitzgerald or you can opt for the individual booklets ordered directly from Spalding International. Whichever way you go, Spalding carries a slim paperback guide that contains answers as well as teaching notes for the mental actions the student needs to consistently apply when reading for optimum comprehension. Around 4th grade, but certainly useable all through the middle school years, Walking with Jesus, a reading strategies curriculum from the Foundation for American Christian Education, provides succinct strategies that are first applied to Biblical texts and then can be expanded to other works the child is reading. Finally, Tapestry of Grace, a classical Christian curriculum company, created something called Writing Aids to help 4th through 12th grade students organize their thoughts—which is much of what the skill of comprehension encompasses—so that they can write about what they read. (The grade levels cited with the above two products are what their publishers recommend for the general education segment. I’ve used these items later than that to good success with my own struggling learners.) Although I have not used it, I’ve heard great things about Connect to Comprehension by Lynn Givens, who is part of the Orton-Gillingham Online Academy. If your child is already in an Orton progression for reading, check to see whether your practitioner utilizes this highly acclaimed program.
I have one caution when discussing the concept of reading comprehension and that is to resist the urge to discuss everything to death! Nothing ruins anything like overdoing it. Dissection of texts doesn’t HAVE to happen with every single thing your children read! Just like you don’t analyze every book you read or even finish every single one your start, they should be allowed to read for fun as well as for increasing their skills. That’s actually the key to “selling” someone on the idea of reading—especially when it is a tough sell due to difficulties. Don’t kill the joy! If you keep that one caution in mind, your children are sure to enjoy reading—and talking about their reading—for years to come.