Comprehension can be a bit of a battle. It's a tricky business and there's a whole SATs paper dedicated to it. As a teacher, I've been told many times - "Little Jimmy is good at reading" and that's supposed to have somehow magically enabled the understanding required. It's bigger than that.
At school, we do guided reading in groups - which does not usually give every child the opportunity to answer every question that is posed to the seven or so children reading the particular book. They NEED that practice and that's where you come in.
The reading part is only a small part of it, the questions are the tricky bit. We don't just ask questions about what happened in the story, in fact, there are six different types of question we ask. These are called the AFs (Assessment Focus).
AF2 - Understand, describe, select or retrieve information, events or ideas from texts and use quotation and reference to text.
AF3 - Deduce, infer or interpret information, events or ideas from texts.
AF4 - Identify and comment on the structure and organisation of texts, including grammatical and presentational features at text level.
AF5 - Explain and comment on writers' uses of language, including grammatical and literary features at word and sentence level.
AF6 - Identify and comment on writers' purposes and viewpoints and the overall effect of the text on the reader.
AF7 - Relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts and literary traditions.
It's about much more than just reading and giving a word for word account of what happened in the story, it's about knowing about the world and how people communicate. (Our comprehensions and guided reading packs have all the questions in already and show which AF they are linked to. You can find them here.)
How to do it!
Here are some ideas to try out at home to improve your child's comprehension skills.
1. When listening to them read, don't allow them to be lazy. If they stop on a word because they don't know it, don't just tell them the word, make them sound it out. If they get it wrong, ask them what the word could be. Ask them of if it is actually a word or what it sounds like - this way they'll be more likely to learn it for next time, instead of relying on you to say it for them again.
2. Try reading to them. Read a book that would be too hard for them to read. Do the voices for the characters and vary your intonation so they will be able to follow your good example. Stop at certain points and ask questions.
3. Encourage them to listen to adult conversation/involve them with adult conversation to promote a better understanding of the world.
4. Watch the news and discuss it. Ask them questions about what has been reported.
5. Watch soaps/drama /comedies - they are all stories where we learn about actions and reactions and the world around us.
6. Ask questions. The right questions. Use the AFs to help you think of them. This is how I do it:
When a child is reading a book, I read with them (over their shoulder) and every time I see a word or phrase that is a bit tricky or obscure, I jot it down on a sticky note. Ideal ones to look for are common expressions - they usually find those tricky and take them literally - for example, a cat getting out of a bag (the cat's out of the bag). This helps me at the end to know what kind of questions to ask as I have something to work from.
Let me show you an example.
This is an excerpt from our Expert Nelson Mandela Comprehension.
I have jotted down a few notes:
member of his family
and it stuck
boarding school - is it strange?
These are all things I want to pick up on to check understanding.
I could ask questions like:
1. What is a missionary? (AF7 - World around them)
2. What does the author mean when they say 'member of his family'? Why did they not just say brothers and sisters? (AF6 - Author's viewpoint)
3. How do you picture Africa? (AF3 - Inferring from ideas in the text)
4. Why does it seem strange that Nelson went to boarding school? (AF7 - World around them)
5. What does 'and it stuck' mean? (AF7 - World around them)
If you are doing a comprehension where the questions are provided for you, you can also jot down notes for anything they have missed. Comprehension rules are as follows:
1. Read the text.
2. Read the questions.
3. Read the text again.
4. Answer the questions.
Why not try our comprehensions or guided reading packs? You can find them here.
Have a question? Could you share your experiences to help others? Please comment below.