Today, we’ll talk about the fifth element of learning to read, i.e., comprehension.
What is comprehension?
Comprehension is understanding the meaning—whether it is that of a conversation, a song, or a reading passage. Just like vocabulary, comprehension begins long before children learn to read. They develop listening comprehension before they develop reading comprehension. So, when you play ball with your children or sing songs to put them to sleep, you are laying the foundation for future comprehension skills. And when you read to young children, they listen, look at the pictures, and make the connection that the words you say correspond with the words in the book.
If you’re listening to our podcast, you’re probably a parent who is actively trying to understand how your child learns to read. I’m guessing that you’ve looked up stuff online as well. Did you come across the concept that reading is interactive and it must lead to comprehension?
What does it mean when we say that reading is interactive?
Readers must decode the words (say them out aloud or in their mind), link the words to something they already know, and arrive at an understanding of what they read. When a reader takes information from a book and connects it with prior knowledge in multiple ways, to understand it, we say that the reader is ‘interacting with the text.’
Quite often, parents tell their kids, “Read it aloud, so I know you really are reading.” This is an excellent strategy to know whether your child attends to the reading material and does not let his mind wander. Parents must go one step further—they must make sure that their child has understood the passage as they read it. Comprehension is not something that happens only after reading. We understand the text even as we read.
Do you remember that in the introduction, I said just decoding or saying the words aloud is not reading? The expected outcome for any reading activity is comprehension.
When a child reads a book and does not understand it, the purpose of reading is not achieved, whether for pleasure or to seek information. My oldest loved reading Harry Potter books. And I got a set in Hindi so that she could maintain her Hindi language skills. When our second daughter was old enough, I gave her the same exercise for the same reason. Mmm hmmm! When her sister started discussing the book, the middle one had no clue what she was talking about. She hadn’t understood it and took no pleasure in reading the books. We eventually opted to do something different to help her Hindi language proficiency.
When children don’t understand what they read, they don’t enjoy reading. And we all know at least one child who reads a passage but has no idea what it was about, don’t we? Many children do that. Reading something aloud doesn’t automatically mean the reader has understood it. So we must go further and teach the comprehension strategies.
I’ve heard parents ask, “Shouldn’t kids understand the text as soon as they say the words? What is all this about teaching strategies?”
You see, authors have a particular purpose when they write books — some books are written to entertain, others to inform, and still others to make you think about a problem. As a result, all books don’t have the same format. A storybook is written differently from a nonfiction book. Even within stories, a fairy tale’s structure is quite distinct from that of a folk tale. In some books, the information is given openly — it’s all out there for us to grasp. But in others, authors want us to find hidden messages. The reader must understand not only the information stated openly but also that which is implied or hidden. Information given explicitly or openly is easy to locate, and readers can understand this without too much effort.
Now, what do we usually do to verify if our children have understood the reading passage? We ask questions. Have you ever noticed what kind of questions we ask? Do the following sound familiar to you?
Why did Cinderella have to leave the ball at midnight?
What did the thirsty crow do?
What color did the jackal turn into after falling into the vat of dye?
Your children probably gave you the answers without any hesitation. The answers to these questions are easy to find in the story.
Cinderella had to leave because her fairy godmother warned her that the magic spell would end at midnight.
The thirsty crow put stones in the jug.
The jackal turned blue.
But that’s not enough, is it?
To be efficient readers, children must get information not stated openly in the text. What do they have to do? Readers must interact with the text to understand the following:
- Identify the Sequence of Events: What happened first, what happened in the middle and what happened last?
- Make Predictions: What will happen next ?
- Infer: Using details in the story to understand something not written in the text
- Identify Cause and Effect: What made something happen?
Are you wondering what does this ‘interacting with the text’ looks like? Let us suppose two children read the same story, Cinderella.
This is Child A, Radha’s very first time exposure to a fairy tale. The fairy godmother, the pumpkin turning into a coach, the ball, and the dresses — everything about the story enchant her. She doesn’t understand several words used in the book, but she’s delighted by the whole experience.
On the other hand, Child B, Rani has read other fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and oh, she has even seen the movie Cinderella. Rani can compare Cinderella with other fairy tales that have princesses. What does she do? She
- Discusses how the princesses are the same and different,
- Tells you which story she likes the most, and why
- Shares how her sisters are not like Cinderella’s sisters, and so on.
In the case of Rani, she uses what she already knows about fairy tales to extend her understanding of the story of Cinderella. She connects the story to her own life (her sisters are nice, not like Cinderella’s), to other books (Sleeping Beauty slept for a hundred years and there was no apple in that story, but Cinderella fainted because of the poisoned apple), and the world in general (when she compares it to the movie, “Oh Miss, in the book, it is like this but in the movie, it is like that).
That is what children do. When they read books, they are constantly making connections to events in their own life, to other books, or to the world in general.
What happens if the children don’t fully understood the reading passage?
Poor comprehension limits readers’ understanding of the text. If children don’t understand the story, chances are that they will struggle to understand other reading passages as well. This leaves a lasting impression on the child’s academic skills. That is why children must learn comprehension strategies through direct instruction. It is our job to teach these strategies to them instead of saying, “Oh, you read the words! You should know what it means!”
Next week, we will look at how parents can boost children’s comprehension skills at home.