How to Teach Reading Comprehension

Embracing Motherhood How to Teach Reading Comprehension

My five year old daughter absolutely loves to read, and she’s really good at it too. (Here she is at 4 reading fluently. Check out my reading program to see how we did it.) But now we that we are moving past reading fluency and she is able to write fairly well, I wanted to be able to challenge her while she is home with me for the summer by teaching her more explicitly about reading comprehension. My favorite way to do this is casually through conversation while facilitating an intrinsic love of reading, but I have also incorporated some worksheets into our summer routine to explicitly teach some reading comprehension strategies and incorporate writing into the mix.

First a Bit About Reading Fluency

After children have decoded many words and committed them to memory, they can start to read sentences without having to sound out each and every word. As children start to read phrases and sentences without any breaks or pauses, this is known as reading fluency. Children that are fluent readers are able to read the punctuation, read dialogue, and be able to match their voice to the mood of the story.

Reading fluency is an indicator that children are good readers, but if a child is not a good reader, it is not something that should be worked on exclusively and in isolation to make him or her a better reader. In my opinion, children who are really choppy readers probably haven’t had enough exposure to literature to commit frequently read words to memory and/or don’t have a strong foundation in letter sounds. (Check out my blogs: Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs and How Children Really Learn How to Read to see how to do these things.)

What is Reading Comprehension?

Reading comprehension is being able to understand the meaning of what is being read. It is a complex skill that begins long before children are able to read themselves. It begins (hopefully) when adults read picture books, poems, and nonfiction books aloud to children.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

If you look up “Reading Comprehension Strategies” on the Internet, there are many different interpretations of which ones are the most important, but I like this list from Scholastic, because it does a good job of summing everything up in not super “teachery” language. This is more like what teachers use when teaching reading comprehension. I’ve adapted these ideas below in a way that includes my experience as an educator to encompass pretty much all there is to reading comprehension.

  • Activate Prior Knowledge: If a book is about baseball and the child has never heard of baseball, he or she will be at a loss. I like to pick books and reading passages based on topics that my children have background knowledge about and are interested in like dinosaurs, butterflies, outer space, music, and technology.
  • Set Purposes: Before you begin reading, it’s helpful to know why you are reading. Typically, when we read fiction, it’s for pleasure, and when we read nonfiction, it’s to learn something.
  • Make Predictions: I love, love, LOVE using this strategy with my children because it keeps them engaged throughout the story. I love reading the title and asking them to predict what will happen in the book, and I love pausing throughout the story to ask them, “What do you think will happen next?”
  • Decode Text: Now comes the actual reading. When I’m reading with beginning readers, I like to pause at familiar words, the last word in the sentence, or a word I think they can sound out to give them an opportunity to read. I never make them struggle endlessly to sound out one word at a time. As child become more confident and fluent readers, I like to have them take over more of the reading.
  • Summarize: This is a very, very, very important skill in the school world, but in the home world, it is hardly brought up. Being able to determine the important parts of the text to figure out the main idea and supporting details to succinctly summarize is a very complicated skill. Just ask someone long winded to tell you about their day, and you will wish that they had learned better summarizing strategies! Knowing the story elements of: character, setting, problem, solution, moral or theme and being able to sequence events really helps with summarizing fiction. Go here for some great summarizing worksheets.
  • Visualize: This is something that good readers do without thinking. In the absence of pictures, they are able to see the characters, setting, situation, and ideas even more vividly than any illustrator can capture.
  • Question: Asking good questions during reading helps to deepen the understanding and take it to a new level. By posing higher level questions that elicit more than just a yes or no answer, children will really understand what they are reading at way more than just a surface level.
  • Inference: There are lots of things that are implied during reading that aren’t stated explicitly. By helping children to figure out how to “read between the lines“, they will be able to comprehend the true meaning of the text.
  • Monitor Understanding: This is probably the most noticable difference between good readers and poor readers. Good readers are able to identify when they don’t understand something. Maybe a word was misread, a page skipped, a definition unknown, or something misunderstood, but when a good reader doesn’t understand something, he or she works to clarify it before moving on.

Using Picture Books and Read Aloud to Teach Reading Comprehension

One of my favorite things to do with the kids is to get huge piles of picture books from the library, cuddle up with children on my lap, and read. I love picking out books that are engaging and entertaining for all of us, and I really get into reading these books with expression. While I’m reading, I ask lots of questions that facilitate comprehension.

Before Reading

  • “What do you think is going to happen in this book?”
  • “Can you think of a time when you ________?”
  • “Tell me about what you see on the cover.”

During Reading

  • “Why do you think _______ did that?”
  • “What do you think is going to happen next?”
  • “Do you think _______ will ever _______?”
  • “Why do you think _______ did that?”
  • “Why did that just happen?”
  • “How do you think the story will end?”
  • “What would you do?”

After Reading

  • “What just happened?”
  • “What was your favorite part?”
  • “If you had to tell someone who had never read this book before what the book was about, what would you say?”
  • “What lesson did _______ learn in this story?”
  • “How did _______ change throughout the story?”
  • “What was the main idea?”
  • “Can you think of  time when anything like this has happened to you?”
  • “Does this remind you of another book or movie that you’ve seen?”

Using Usborne Books to Teach Reading Comprehension

Have you ever heard of these books? They are absolutely fantastic, and if we had the money, I would buy every single one. If you can find these books at your library, I HIGHLY recommend them! I’ve seriously concidered being a rep for these books because they are so so good. I credit them highly for helping to teach our children how to read.

how the zebra got its stripes 1

How Zebras Got Their Stripes

They are kind of reminiscent of the old Dick and Jane readers, but the stories are highly engaging while using easily decodable text all printed on thick paper that is surprisingly appealing to the tactile senses. I love how the early series starts out super simple and easy and gets progressively more challenging. These books are so engaging that a new reader will be begging to chime in!

how the zebra got its stripes 2

Introducing the Characters and Setting

how the zebra got its stripes 3

What the Text Looks Like

I also love the comprehension questions in the back of the easier books. They provide a wonderful introduction into reading for comprehension. If my children seem interested and engaged by the end of the book, we love doing the comprehension questions. But I don’t push it. I want reading to be fun, and if they’re ready for the next book, we’ll move on to the next book. What makes me super happy is to see my children reading these books on their own and doing the comprehension part on their own. So good!

how the zebra got its stripes 4

Comprehension Questions in the End

Check out my favorite “Just Starting Out” Usborne books here. I love these because they have one page for the adult to read and one page for the child to read. Also, check out these “Growing in Confidence” Usborne books here. These are just perfect for readers who are ready to start getting into books on their own. The company is based in the UK, but you can visit their USA website here.

Using Reading Comprehension Worksheets

Now, worksheets have a time and a place. As a teacher, I felt that at times they were highly overused as a way to just keep children busy, but when used intentionally as a specific learning tool, they can be highly effective.

When children are in school and they “show what they know” by filling out worksheets and taking tests, there is a certain “language” that is used. When children become familiar with this language, it makes accessing and showcasing their actual knowledge that much easier.

In addition, by using these reading comprehension worksheets, you are guided as the parent/teacher, and I think that that is even more important. Once you do several of these worksheets, you’ll see the jargon, the questions, and the format of things, and it will make it easier to use these skills/strategies in other books that you read with your children.

Reading Comprehension Worksheets in Action

I highly recommend Read Works for reading comprehension worksheets. (You will need to register to access the worksheets, but all you need to do is enter an email and a password. There is no cost.) If you go to “Reading Passages” and then sort by grade level (hit apply), you can scroll until you find a topic that would be of interest to your child.

I really like how all of these passages are leveled, have good questions, come with answer keys, and are engaging. I also like how many of these passages are nonfiction. We already do so much work with fiction with children from a young age because storytelling is so engaging. But even though getting into nonfiction can be a bit of an intellectual leap, the rewards are tremendous. Not only will children be engaged and working on comprehension strategies, but they will walk away with some new knowledge to boot!

Let me tell you about the butterfly worksheet my daughter and I did together. First of all, I know that she learned about life cycles in kindergarten and she loves butterflies, so she already had a bit of background knowledge about the topic. I had her read the passage to herself (she chose to read it out loud), and then we proceeded to do the questions.

comprehension worksheet

Ruby Doing a Comprehension Worksheet

As she read each of the questions together, we talked about what the right answer would be before we even looked at the options. Then we eliminated the wrong answers and circled the answer that was most right. Some of the questions she was able to figure out on her own, and some of the answers we had to go back into the passage to find.

reading comprehension worksheet about butterflies and flowers

Butterflies and Flowers

For the short answer, I told her to write it using as few words as possible. As a teacher, we always advised children to “use the question in their answer”, but this really only works well for longer answers and short paragraphs. I think it’s best to use pronouns and find just enough words to show the right answer.

short answer reading comprehension butterflies and flowers worksheet

Ruby’s Short Answer

Extend the Learning

After reading about how “butterflies drink from a tube in their head”, I wanted to teach her that this tube was actually called a proboscis. So we looked at some images and watched some videos, and she really learned a lot! Then Elliot came over and was curious to see what we were doing, so I told Ruby to tell him what she learned. “Did you know that butterflies drink from a tube in their head?!?” she exclaimed. Then Elliot wanted to watch some videos, and before we knew it, we were watching videos about proboscis monkeys and laughing at their silly big noses. I love that even though I saw the goal as teaching Ruby reading comprehension strategies, she saw it as learning content, and that is a WAY more interesting learning perspective for children.

In Conclusion

I think that we’ll only sit down and do reading comprehension worksheets every week or so, but I think that will be more than enough to prepare her for first grade. I really believe in giving children a strong foundation in the skills they will be learning as they enter each grade level BEFORE they enter that grade level. (Crazy, right?) By at least attempting to do this in as many subject areas as I can, I will ensure that my children are strong in their foundational skills so that they can focus on what’s really important as they get older, which is the content, not the process. By focusing on these reading comprehension strategies as children are young, their brains will make strong connections which will ensure their abilities to read and understand what they are reading will come readily and easily even as they encounter increasingly challenging text.

Additional Resources

  • ReadWorks – This is what I mentioned above that I used with Ruby. This is by far my favorite.
  • K12 Reader: Reading Instruction Resources – Plenty of free printable worksheets.
  • Super Teacher Worksheets – When I was a teacher, all of these worksheets were free. Now, only some are and you have to pay $20/year for a full membership. There are great worksheets for every level and every subject.
  • Literably – Literably listens to students read and generates a full running record with miscue analysis, accuracy, rate, and comprehension.
  • Read Write Think – Excellent resource for reading comprehension strategies and lessons.
  • Scholastic – This is just a great resource all around.
  • Razz Kids – My daughter’s school has a subscription to this and we love using it at home. She reads stories online and there are quizes afterwards. You can purchase it for $100/year. If you have the extra money, I’d say it’s a good investment. But if you’re strapped for cash, just get books from the library.
  • TumbleBooks – This is also a paid subscription ($90/year) that your child’s school or your local library might have a subscription for that you can get access through. I really like how they use real books. I would buy this over Razz Kids.
  • Starfall – As my children learn to read, this is pretty much the only online resource we use. It only costs $30/year and it great for all levels of learning. There’s lot of great decoding and comprehension activities as well as math activities and more. We buy this every year. We also buy all of the apps.