What is reading comprehension?
Broadly speaking, reading comprehension is the ability to comprehend, or understand, what you are reading. There are two main components to this; understanding vocabulary and understanding the text as a whole. Understanding vocabulary refers to simply recognising the words being used while understanding the text requires using this knowledge of its language to extract further meaning and form opinions, inferences, comparisons and predictions.
The 11+ comprehension involves a short passage of text followed by a number of questions. Students are expected to read and understand the passage in order to answer these questions correctly. Therefore, strong comprehension abilities are a must!
So what helps a child better understand what they read? The key is active reading. The text is something for them to engage with – whether that is forming inferences or opinions, questioning it, making predictions or comparing and contrasting it to something else. These are all skills that you can practice with them at home, to help encourage them to interact with the things they are reading and thus understand them better.
Here are seven of our top tips to help improve your child’s reading comprehension.
1) Encourage them to read aloud
Reading aloud forces a child to move more slowly through a text, thus giving them more time to process what they are reading. Reading aloud incorporates both visual and audio aspects to a child’s reading comprehension – this can help improve their understanding of trickier parts of the text and can help them to retain new vocabulary.
Taking it in turns to read out loud from particularly complicated, unfamiliar or long texts can help boost a child’s confidence in understanding and approaching them.
2) Create a reading routine
The best way to improve fluency and reading comprehension is, of course, to read regularly. This can best be achieved through a reading schedule. If your child is particularly reluctant to read, try setting small, achievable goals for them, such as reading for 15 minutes before dinner.
School-aged readers should begin their regular reading with texts that are not too hard for them. They should recognise at least 90% of the words they encounter without any help. Having to consistently stop reading to look up a new word can hinder their understanding of the overall meaning of a story and can thus be discouraging.
For more tips about what your child should be reading and how to encourage reluctant readers, you can read our blog post here.
3) Talk about what they’re reading
Encourage your child to engage with what they have read by asking them questions about it. This can aid their comprehension through verbal processing and by helping them to think through particular events and themes in their books.
Questions can be asked before, during and after they have begun a book. You might ask them something along the lines of “Why have you chosen this book in particular? What do you think is going to happen next? Is it going the way you expected it to? Can you give a summary of what just happened? Did you like it – and why/why not? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read?”
All of these questions are a good way to encourage critical thinking of the text. This is the next step in their reading comprehension abilities and will help them to progress from surface level reading to forming opinions, comparing and contrasting the text to other texts and making connections and predictions, which will set them in good stead to approach comprehension exam questions in their 11+.
4) Encourage them to write a summary of what they have just read
This is a great way to test a student’s comprehension of a piece of writing and can additionally be used in an exam setting to break a text down into smaller pieces that are easier to digest and thus analyse.
Summarising requires a student to decide what is important in the text and then put this into their own words. Summarising can be done by writing two to three words in the margins of a text next to each paragraph (which is an effective method of breaking up a difficult text in an exam setting) or by writing two to three sentences that describe a number of pages. At Eleven Plus Exams we encourage our own students to keep reading logs in which they summarise the pages they have read each night to demonstrate their understanding of them.
This method can be used in conjunction with discussing what your child is reading with them. Ask them for their summary of what they have just read and see whether they are able to firstly remember the text and secondly articulate their own understanding of it.
5) Encourage them to re-read texts
Most students may neglect to do this, as they believe finishing a text as quickly as possible is more important than understanding what they have actually read. Remind them that if they finish a sentence or paragraph and they realise they do not understand what it was trying to say, they should take the time to go back over it and re-read it until they do. If they see vocabulary that they do not recognise, and this is hampering their overall comprehension, then they should circle or underline it and look it up in a dictionary.
Re-reading texts they know and love is also an excellent way to build their fluency.
Fluency is defined as the ability to read quickly, accurately and with appropriate expression. In order to understand what they read, children must be able to read fluently. Fluent readers are able to read phrases smoothly with accurate intonation and expression. Fluency can greatly boost the motivation of a student reader – children who do not read fluently may feel that reading is too slow, laborious and awkward.
So, when a child reads a familiar, simple book, they can practise decoding words quickly, thus becoming more fluent in their overall reading comprehension.
5) Focus on improving their vocabulary
Having a good grasp of the meaning of the different words used in different texts is another hurdle to overcome when it comes to reading comprehension. The more words your child knows, the better their comprehension will be. However, the catch-22 is that improving vocabulary often requires a student to read regularly in the first place.
Fear not; there are a number of ways aside from reading that a child can boost their vocabulary to help build their confidence and fluency when it comes to reading comprehension.
- Keeping a vocabulary diary.
A vocabulary diary is a journal where children can write down new words they come across when they don’t understand what they mean. Every time your child discovers a new word, they should log it and define it and think of synonyms and antonyms for it.
- Greek and Latin roots
This is a vocabulary recognition method that may be especially useful in an exam setting. Greek and Latin words form the basis, or root, for many of the words we use in the English language. This is important because it can help us understand the meaning of words, even when we have never encountered it before. Understanding, for example, that the Greek root “hydra” or “hydro” means “water” means that we can decipher more easily the meaning of more complex words such as “hydraulic” or “hydroponics”.
- Games and flashcards
Repetition is perhaps the most neglected part of the process of learning new vocabulary. Children should continue to revisit the words they record in their vocabulary diaries in order to refresh their memory of them. Flashcards are useful for this. Flashcard games, as well as other games like scrabble, boggle and online games, can all be great, effective ways to help your child learn more words.
For more tips on improving your child’s 11+ vocabulary, you can read our blog post here.
7) Teach them to use context clues
Of course, students cannot be expected to learn every single word in the dictionary. That is why it is also important for children to have strategies for comprehending a text even when they don’t understand all of the words in it.
This is where using context clues is another important strategy to comprehension. Context clues refers to reading around unfamiliar words and phrases and using the words that a student is familiar with to help predict what the unfamiliar words might mean.
Students can use the thumb rule to achieve this. This involves covering up an unfamiliar word with the thumb and trying to think of synonyms that might fit in its place, using the general ideas of the sentence and the context to help.
We hope these 7 tips prove useful in improving your child’s reading comprehension! For more tips and information about the 11+ English exam, check out our blog post here.