How to: check your child's comprehension

Author Diana Noonan explains how to know how much your child understands about that they’re reading.

When our son was a little one, he heard the refrain, “Let’s do up your safety belt in case we have an accident!” every time we hopped into the car. It wasn’t until many years later that he told us he had always thought the act of buckling up the safety belt was what ensured we wouldn’t have an accident!

It’s a different, yet rather subtle, take on what we were actually saying to him, and I share it with you for a reason. Unless we actually ask our children questions in order to understand their interpretation of a comment, a situation, or a story, we may have no idea that they are “getting it wrong”. In many cases this doesn’t matter. After all, we all get things wrong from time to time. But when it comes to reading, getting things wrong on a regular basis may mean our child is failing to comprehend what they’re reading– or simply not managing to read well at all – and that is a concern.

Regularly checking out your child’s reading comprehension, and asking questions about a story in order to promote reading comprehension, doesn’t need to be an arduous task. In fact, handled the right way, it can be a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and a together time based around a book. Here’s how to go about it.

Before the reading begins

With young children who are reading picture books, take a look at the cover illustration before the reading begins, and briefly flick through the pages. Ask your child what they think the story might be about, who the characters are in the story, and if they can think of any problems these characters might encounter. Discuss whether the illustrations suggest the story might be similar to another they have read, and if there is an opportunity, ask your child how the story might relate to their own family. This initial “guessing” comprehension prepares the child for the story to come, and elicits and eagerness to seek answers as they read. For anxious readers, it can also be an excellent way to settle them into the storytime.

Comprehension questions can also be a way to engage with your older child around the subject of a book. Ask them why they chose a particular book and why it appeals to them. Talk about the genre and why they prefer it (you may both be surprised, on further examination, to find the book is not what the child is looking for at all – and in some cases, it may not be suitable for them!). If the book is one in a series, ask your child what they enjoy about revisiting
the character.

A story is a story and, as such, does not deserve to be interrupted. Whether you are reading to or with your child, or listening to them read the story out loud, on their own, try not to interrupt unless it is to help with a word when this is obviously required. When the story is finished, make way for feeling-based reflection first before you attempt to gauge their level of literal comprehension. Finishing a story may be a time to laugh, or cry, or just think. When time has passed, gently check on comprehension by encouraging your child to sequence what happened in the story (that is, put the events
in order). Help them by suggesting they use words such “first”, “next”, “then”, and “at last”. Then, move on to more subtle aspects of comprehension, such as, “Why do you think (name of character) did that?” or “How did they feel what this happened?” It is not difficult to see where a child has “quite literally” got the wrong end of the story. If they have, ask yourself why. Have they simply misread words (if they are reading silently, you won’t have been able to pick this up)? Have they read too quickly? Are they distracted, or is the text too difficult for them (either in terms of vocabulary or in the
level of its sophistication)? If they are being read to aloud, are they hearing all the words or is it possible they have a hearing problem? If it is obvious to you that your child is having difficulty comprehending, and you can’t find a reasonable explanation in terms of the story itself, don’t be afraid to seek help. Visit their teacher and explain your concerns. It is likely the teacher will already be aware of this. Discussing a book with an older reader in order to gauge their level of comprehension (and this should always be informal and in the context of general discussion) is an invaluable opportunity to share feelings. Very often, your conversation will go well outside the bounds of the story itself and lead you and your older child into an intimate period of reflection, and a contemplation of life in general. It may also provide a wonderful opportunity to laugh together and share family memories. Most importantly, it can help you gauge your child’s developing level of understanding of issues, ethics, and relationships.

Winding down

After the reading of a picture book is finished, and you have done some basic comprehension questions, enjoy some time with your child by thinking back to the questions you asked before the reading began. Was the cover illustration a good one to be on the front of the book – and why? Was the story what your child imagined it might be when they were looking through the pages before they began reading, or was it altogether different? Extend the reading experience by asking the
child what might happen next (after the conclusion of the story). What new adventure might the characters go on? Does the book remind them of another they have read? Would they enjoy another book about similar characters or adventures?The same sort of discussion can be had with older readers, too. Will they, for instance, be looking for another book by the same author or in the same genre? If the book didn’t appeal, what would have made it more enjoyable? Whether you are speaking with older or younger readers, don’t rush the answers. If you wait patiently, you may be surprised by the depth of your child’s comprehension, and the fact that it extends far beyond the story itself, and into the wider world – which is exactly what we want all good reading experiences to achieve!

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