A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old and I were watching the news and all the latest updates on Russia’s war with Ukraine. My daughter was deep in thought and suddenly she started talking to me about Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, a novel for children and young adults about a farm horse named Joey who is separated from his young owner and sold to the British cavalry. Joey then embarks on an extraordinary journey during the World War I, serving on both sides of the trench line. My daughter was making a connection between the book and the news, about the futility of war and the lost purpose.
Reading is more than simply understanding the words on the page. It is also about deciphering the book’s meaning, working out its plot, and making relevant connections. While it is a given that reading comprehension skills are useful ways to improve academic performance and oral communication, they provide, most importantly, a boost to a child’s confidence and understanding of the world. They also get children to truly enjoy a book and lose themselves in the world of a narrative.
Here are a few strategies you can use to build vital reading comprehension skills in your children.
Introduce the right books
Gayathri Vamsi, the CEO and founder of BuzzingBees and LiteracyBees in Bengaluru, believes that it is important to choose books at the appropriate reading level. “If a child is not able to read longer words or sentences fluently, we must explore books that are on par with the child’s reading level or even one level below,” she says. “If a child is stuck trying to decode a word, he or she will not focus on understanding the book and because of this, will stay away from reading.”
When you choose books with your children, explore titles with age-appropriate vocabulary. Also, look for books that align with your child’s interests. When I was a teenager, I loved reading Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl because the author was my age when she wrote it, even though she was from another time and place.
Build background knowledge
Background knowledge refers to all the other areas of life that a child has access to, in terms of friendships, relationships, conversations, and other experiences that broaden the child’s horizons.
Of course, you don’t have to travel to Alabama to read and enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird but different experiences can deepen a child’s understanding of a book. I once took my daughter to see a play about a man who meets an old foe after a long time. They have a fight before they break through their differences and make a connection. This got my daughter thinking because she was so used to just heroes and villains in a story but after the play, she tried to understand books as multidimensional experiences.
Enhance their vocabulary
One strategy that Vamsi uses is to build vocabulary among children. “When we read and learn new words, our mental lexicon is stronger,” she says. Reading out loud, even if your child is an independent reader, is a good way to enhance vocabulary and to also enjoy a shared reading experience.
Vamsi creates a word wall in her classes and every week, the children learn five words, the meaning of each word, and also use the words in different sentences and in casual conversations. They learn synonyms and how to spell these words. They also play word building games, including Scrabble and Word Search.
Children love to visualize a story and paint a picture in their minds. This is a great strategy and a skill that children build over time. I usually get my daughter to draw pictures of the characters she reads in books or doodle cartoons of interesting scenes. She once spent hours drawing and describing the tornado in The Wizard of Oz and how it wrecked all the houses it uprooted.
When visualizing, prediction questions can help with the visual imagery too. “What do you think is going to happen next?” “Who do you think is at the door?” These questions get the wheels turning and encourage children to place themselves in the story’s setting and this is an exciting thing to do. Visually interpreting stories set in fantasy lands or on other planets can be fun too, and also opens the child’s mind to different possibilities.
Sentence construction and writing
According to Vamsi, sentence construction is a great way to strengthen reading comprehension. “When we construct sentences, we connect ideas, and this makes reading comprehension stronger,” she says. "This is also called cohesion. We then link the opening of the story, the characters, and the ending.” Cohesion is about putting together the ideas, words, themes, and incidents in the book.
The process of reading is so deliciously complex that books can reach out across time and spark a connection in your children. You never know when they will come to their aid. Comprehension is all about diving deep into the book and making these important connections.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist in Mumbai.