We know that being a great reader is important. But being a great reader is more than just being able to read. We want our kids to:
- do well in their studies,
- understand what they are reading,
- grasp the hidden meanings,
- be able to test well on the ACT or SAT, and
- be prepared for college-level classes with dense textbooks.
So, how do we help our children to become great readers and boost reading comprehension?
Can you teach reading comprehension?
The items in the list above are also called reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is a buzz phrase in education circles. I'm sure you've heard educators say something like, "Sure, they can read, but they don't comprehend what they are reading."
Or, you've seen advertisements for workbooks and literature studies that proclaim your child should be using them to ensure reading comprehension. If you don't quiz your kid with those questions, you'll never know if they understood the book.
Perhaps you've even asked your child questions after they read a book and they shrugged their shoulders, and gave you a non-committal "I don't know," convincing you that they didn't comprehend a single word they read.
But is any of that true, and if it is, how do you teach reading comprehension?
What is reading comprehension, and how does it build great readers?
In 2001, Hollis Scarborough developed and published a visual to help educators understand all the moving parts needed to support a learner to become a “good reader.”
Dr. Hollis Scarborough compares skilled reading to the many strands of a rope. Each strand represents a separate skill that when combined with the others, creates a strong, proficient reader. When any one strand (skill) is not acquired with fluency, it weakens the strength of the rope.
As you can see from the diagram, the rope is two large strands which are made up of several thinner threads.
The lower strand is the “learning to read” portion: letter recognition, phonics, and fluency. These are things we teach our youngest learners through phonics. As students become fluent readers, we continue to reinforce phonics through the use of copywork.
The top strand is a bit more complicated. This strand represents language comprehension, which comes into play after a child has developed word recognition. This strand comprises vocabulary, verbal reasoning, and background information/knowledge.
These two strands combine to form reading comprehension. If any strand is weak, the entire rope will be weak. If any of the strands break, then the rope breaks. In other words, it takes both to create great readers.
How do we help kids master comprehension skills and become great readers?
Can these threads be taught individually, or are they better taught altogether?
According to Dr. Scarborough, these must work together. For example, a student may recognize and be able to pronounce the words in the book, but if they don't know what those words mean, then they won't understand the book.
It makes me think of when my oldest daughter came running in from school one day and proudly told me how many pages she had read that day but had no clue what she had read. This was one of the reasons we decided to homeschool. The emphasis had been on the number of pages she read, not on enjoying and understanding what she had read.
Strand One: Master Word Recognition
To help children become great readers, you have to start with making sure they have a strong background in word recognition.
- Can they recognize words by sight?
- Do you have phonological awareness, or can they recognize the letters that makeup sounds?
- Can they decode what a word is by recognizing other words, symbols, or pictures in the reading?
Strand Two: Master Language Comprehension
The next step is language comprehension. Kids need to understand what they are reading, not just be able to sound out the words. These threads are best taught all together with great books and conversation.
- Do your kids have the background knowledge to help them relate to the story? When creating book clubs, we've always enjoyed hopping off on Rabbit Trails. These are parallel to our story but explain something about the story. It might be a Rabbit Trail that explores the geography of the setting or the history of the time period. They could be an explanation of a science term or even a math term. These Rabbit Trails provide background knowledge for the learner to understand the story more deeply.
We also include hands-on activities that help readers tactically experience parts of the story. We choose to do this in a way that engages modern kids by utilizing technology like videos and online resources.
- Do your kids have a rich vocabulary? You can certainly grab a vocabulary workbook and have your kids work through it.
But, to be honest, that's a bit dry and boring. We feel that hearing, reading, and using those words in literature and discussion is more effective and longer lasting. So we choose vocabulary words from the book for students to engage with through copywork and vocabulary practice.
- Do your readers understand the order and meaning of words? Language Structure is a combination of syntax and semantics. The English language isn't all that easy for a new reader. Change the order of the words, and they take on a different meaning. The same can be said for the context of a word. Put the word bat or tear in a sentence, and it can take on an entirely different meaning depending on the words around it.
Grammar study using sentences in the literature and fun videos to teach those structures is a very effective way to learn. It is more meaningful because the student is interested in the story, and it applies to what they are presently reading. Copywork for older and younger students is valuable to reinforce syntax and semantics, as well.
- Do your children understand when a writer uses a literary element to express themselves figuratively? Do they have Verbal Reasoning?
Literary Elements are much easier to understand and remember when students are learning alongside the literature. Learning the elements, then seeking to find examples in the story and using them in their writing is more likely to stick with the student. That's why focusing on one or two elements per book is essential. This allows time for deeper learning and therefore improves comprehension.
- Are your children exposed to many different types of literature? Do they read fiction, nonfiction, and poetry?
Literacy Knowledge needs to include many different genres of literature. That's much easier stated than practiced with your children. That's much easier stated than practiced with your children. Often, they want to stick with one type of genre, which is entirely understandable. Personally, we don't often read outside our favorite genres, either.
Use open-ended questions to give your students a chance to consider and think deeply about what the author is trying to convey. These questions don't have a right or wrong answer. They involve what your student is feeling and their perception of what the author is trying to say.
All these combined, especially with purposeful conversations between the educator and student, will deepen and grow reading comprehension.
What are some resources that teach your students to become great readers?
We know so much about this subject and can say definitively that these methods work because we have spent years crafting literature studies that provide the framework children need to become great readers. Not only did we teach students these skills in traditional settings, but we also teach them in online settings through our language arts curriculum, Literary Adventures for Kids.
We combine all the upper strands of Scarborough's reading rope to create an online language arts curriculum that connects with the lower strand to form a skilled reader, or a great reader.
How do we do it?
Simply by incorporating everything we just mentioned above.
Each book club is a language arts curriculum based on and inspired by a book. As the student reads, they gain greater comprehension through:
- Rabbit Trails: In every online book club, we go on rabbit trails of discovery. We hop off the traditional roads of literature and meander down paths about pop culture, history, biographies, poetry, music, and more. We take deep dives into some of the subjects touched on in the book and broaden our minds with new adventures.
- Magic Dust: We also bring literature to life by sprinkling a bit of magic dust along the way. These hands-on projects take us into the book through science, art, games, and more. We will touch, see, feel and learn about the book through the activities.
- Vocabulary & Grammar: We include the chance to learn spelling and grammar through copywork and dictation. Students have the opportunity to expand their vocabulary and knowledge of grammar concepts through learning apps and other resources. We also discuss literary elements in the book and use our new knowledge for a month-long writing project.
- Questions to Ponder: These thought questions teach critical thinking and freewriting and help the student to think about characters and situations.
- Different Genres: Because we want students to engage in their reading, we make even the classics more interesting. We want to expose children to the different types of writing, even if they ultimately decide that's not one they prefer.
Ultimately, our goal is the same as yours -- to build great readers who continue to be independent learners through adulthood. Isn’t that what every educator desires for all students?
Dachelle McVey is the founder of Literary Adventures for Kids, a full language arts curriculum for preschool through high school. These online book clubs use rabbit trails and hands-on exploration to help students make connections to literature. In 2018, she partnered with Chantelle Grubbs to add high school online book clubs to the growing library. Literary Adventures for Kids continues to grow in the pursuit of creating a generation of great readers!