In my blog, The Relationship between Reading and Speech Sound Disorders, I recommended improving children’s pre-reading skills from preschool through first grade. The pre-reading skills establish a foundation for children to learn to read. Starting from the third grade, children need to use reading to learn various subjects in the curriculum.
What is Reading Comprehension?
The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) states that reading comprehension requires decoding and linguistic comprehension skills. For the linguistic aspect, oral language skills are the foundation for reading comprehension, and vocabulary and sentence structures (semantics, syntax, and morphology) are the fundamental basis for reading comprehension skills. However, reading comprehension has its complexity.
In 2001, Hollis Scarborough created the” Reading Rope” that demonstrated different strands of skills that were interconnected and intertwined. The Reading Rope is made of lower and upper strands. The lower strands include the skill sets in phonological awareness, decoding (alphabet and sound-letter correspondence), and sight word recognition. In the upper strands, the skills include background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge.
Regarding the lower strands, in my previous blog on reading and speech sound disorders, phonological awareness was explained in detail. Decoding is the ability to apply sound-letter correspondence knowledge to sound out words correctly, and this is phonic. Sight word recognition is foundational to reading fluently. Words such as “the,” “that,” and “this” do not require sounding out; we can recognize them and say them instantly as they are in our sight word memories.
For the upper strands, the background knowledge is the general fund of information. We rely on background information to make sense of what we are reading. Having prior knowledge of various topics and ideas can help us make sense of what we are reading and make us more likely to add what we are reading to our fund of information.
Strong oral language also means that a child has a rich and extensive vocabulary, which helps the child when he/she sees the oral and auditory vocabulary in print. That will make it easier for him/her to read through texts.
Language structure in English means syntax (word order in a sentence) and morphology (word endings that indicate possessives, verb tenses, plurals), as well as semantics (meaning of word endings, words, phrases, and sentences.)
Verbal reasoning is a higher-level language skill that includes understanding and using inference and metaphor. Literary knowledge includes basic print concepts (such as reading from left to right, spacing between words and sentences, etc.) and genres of literature (different genres and characteristics of types of books or stories.)
Ways to help your child improve reading comprehension skills:
By the time children are in first grade, they are expected to have mastered the skills in the lower strands of the Reading Rope. I have made recommendations in my previous blog, The Relationship between Reading and Speech Sound Disorders, on ways to improve your child’s pre-reading skills in phonological awareness and decoding. For sight recognition, I recommend that you use the Dolch Sight Words List, which is commercially available. Solid sight word memory and recognition can improve reading fluency.
Here we will discuss ways to help our children improve skills in the upper strands of the Reading Rope.
Children can gain background knowledge and fund of information through reading, media, and personal experiences. The more they know about a subject they are reading, the easier it is for them to make sense of what they are reading. A rich fund of information can also inspire a child’s interest in reading. This may start when a child is in preschool years. For example, reading a book about birds would make it easier for the child to understand if the child is introduced to different birds, including their habitat and behaviors, through pictures, video, film, and a visit to the zoo. After such rich exposure, when the child is reading a fictional story about birds, the child will bring up imagery of what he/she is already being exposed to and create his/her own imagination. The vivid imagery and the background information can enhance reading comprehension.
A rich vocabulary helps children make sense of what they read. It is essential to have an extensive oral and auditory vocabulary. That means they hear language with an extensive vocabulary and can use the learned vocabulary in their oral language. When they first see the words they already know in print, it will be easy for them to not only sound out the words but also know the meaning of the words, therefore, spending less effort on reading comprehension. This underscores the importance of well-developed oral language. Audiobooks can help children develop auditory/oral vocabulary and listening skills. Listening to stories can also enhance visual imagery while listening. Vivid and rich mental visual imagery further helps reading comprehension.
This is about grammar, including sentence structure and meanings of morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences. Knowledge of sentence structure and meaning is essential to reading. When you are reading with your child, ask questions about the story’s content to assess your child’s comprehension. If your child does not understand the sentences fully, explain not only the meaning of the sentence but also the structure of the sentences. You may also point out how word endings change meanings; for example, the ending sound “-s” could be the third-person singular verb form or plurals, the word ending “-ed” is the past tense verb form, and “-ing” is a progress verb form.
Inferences (the process of inferring something, for example, if you see someone taking a bite of an apple and immediately making a face, then you infer the person does not like the taste of the apple), metaphors (figurative language not to be interpreted literally, for example, “The snow is a white blanket,”) and idiomatic expressions (a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words, for example, “It rains cats and dogs.”) are higher level language skills. When you encounter such expressions and writings while reading with your child, you may need to explicitly explain to your child the meaning of these expressions in the context of the reading material and how these language forms are used in oral language.
There are different types of stories. You want to introduce to your child different genres of literature. There are short stories, poetry, and fictional long stories that become a novel. The different types of stories could be fairy tales, fantasy stories, or folklore. They can be historical or fictional; they can be stories of drama or mystery. If your child understands the structures and nature of different genres of literature, it helps him/her understand the stories when reading.
So, when you read with your child, keep the elements of the Reading Rope in mind and try to help your child not only decode the words but also get into the deep meaning of the reading materials. Engage your child in reading by asking questions, providing explanations, and getting into deeper meanings of the text structure and higher-level language, such as inferences and metaphors. Also, widen your child’s personal experience about various subjects and topics covered in your reading materials.
1. Nation, K. (2019). Children’s reading difficulties, language, and reflections on the simple view of reading. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 2019, Vol. 24, No. 1, 47-73.
2. Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy. New York: Guilford Press.
3. Hennessy, N. (2022). Constructing Reading comprehension: A Blueprint & Instructional Tools Provided. 30th Annual NJSHA/NJIDA joint conference.