Teaching Reading Comprehension – Key Steps for Young Readers

It was a little after 9a.m. when first grader Veronica bounced into the classroom with her big bright smile and charming personality.  “What are we going to be doing today,” she asked as she took her seat.  It is important to know that Veronica was one very smart little girl and she was accustomed to things just coming naturally to her. She was the type of child who would be reading words at three, riding a bike after just being shown how and communicating with friends as if she was a natural born leader.  As she took her seat at my table and I quickly explained that we would be reading words from a list to determine which reading level we should begin testing her on.  She smiled up at me with her half crooked smile and said, “easy peasy!”  I listened as she read word after word and not stumbling until she reached the fourth grade level.   I slid the first book over to her which was at a fourth grade reading level and she watched as I checked off each word that she read correctly, which evidently was every word.   After reading the story I asked her some questions about the story that she read and when she couldn’t answer them I just pushed it out of the way and moved her down a level.  After all this was a fourth grade book and that would be a lot to expect from any first grader.  I kept moving down one book level after another with Veronica reading perfectly and scoring 100 percent but never answering the questions.  I decided to take the first grade reader questions  with a different approach.  After reading the book I simply asked her, “can you tell me what the book was about?”  She looked at me with her big oval eyes and said very matter of factly, “it’s supposed to be about something?”

The very next morning I met with Veronica and asked her some simple questions about some of her favorite things.  She always seemed to answer in very short sentences or even one word replies which was very unusual for her.  It was at this moment that I realized I wasn’t the only one who was worried about yesterday.  Veronica was beginning to question how good of a reader she was and losing confidence was not something that she could afford to do at this young age.  I made sure to boost her confidence by telling her how well she did on the test yesterday and how impressed I was with the difficult words she was reading.  This seemed to calm her anxieties and she quickly started telling me that she just loved everything about Disney World, from the rides to the characters to the movies.  This was like music to my ears because not only was I a big Disney fan myself but it was definitely an easy topic to find reading material about.  Over the next several days I pulled Veronica to the back table during reading centers and we started making a list of everything that she knew about Disney and she filled me in on the times that her family went there and the rides they went on.  I also told her about some of my trips to the Disney parks and once I felt that we had built up a bond and were comfortably speaking about the topic I showed her some books that I had just happened to pick up at the library.  She began looking through the books which ranged in grade level material as well as genre. Finally when she picked up a book all about the Magic Kingdom she smiled and asked, “can we read this together?” 

Over the next several days I did read that and several other Disney books with her.  I always made sure to be asking her questions as we went.  Since she already knew so much about the topic she answered mainly from her own experiences so I began to ask very specific questions that she could only find in the pages of the story we had just read.  At first she seemed hesitant and unsure how to answer so I began to model for her how I would find the answers.  Sometimes when we got to a particular ride that she really enjoyed I asked her to close her eyes as I read and see if she could tell me about the part the author was describing.  I also asked her to draw pictures about the part of the story that I was reading so that I could see what she thought it looked like.  At times when the author had a different outlook on something than she did I would add my own drawing based on the author’s picture and we would discuss how they were alike and different.  I also explained that she had so many wonderful ideas but that sometimes it’s interesting to see how an author wants you to look at something.  We discussed at length about how the rides were all described as being fun and great but that some people don’t always agree.  I think that was the moment that the door to comprehension began to open for Veronica because she looked up at me and said, “so even though I don’t like the ride the author may like it a lot and want to tell people how fun it can be even though it’s not.”  I couldn’t hold back a small laugh as I said, “exactly!”  After that Veronica read many more books and during group time with other students she would begin to explain to them how the author is telling you a story and that you may not always agree with an author but you have to look at what they are trying to tell you.  I sat back and thought to myself Walt Disney used to say, “it all started with a mouse…but for Veronica it all started with an interest in a book about a mouse.”

As I reflect on my experience with Veronica I realize that the most important thing I did for her was teach her to love reading and to read with a purpose.  At first, I did this by finding a topic that she was truly interested in and had background information to bring to the reading. In effective teaching, we use a three tier system: I do, we do, you do.  First, you as the teacher model a desired effect, then the teacher and student do a task together which leads towards independence, and finally  the child will be able to complete the task independently.  I used this approach with Veronica by modeling for her what reading for understanding looked like, then working with her to discuss the different parts of the text, and finally having her be able to do it by herself and ultimately putting her into situations where she felt like she could share what she had learned with others.  Perhaps the most important thing I did with Veronica was teach her to use illustrations to remember key parts of the text.  These pictures became not only a reference point for her but also a springboard towards retaining information and making meaning from it.  The most important thing I realized is that Veronica was not the only student that day.  In her own way she taught me the power of a great teacher and provided me with the opportunity to reflect on my own teaching. 

-Suzanne Chiorando has her Master’s Degree in Elementary Education, Special Education, Literacy, and English as a Second Language. She is a teacher and author of the published short story, “Mateo’s Tale,” which is a modernized version of the story, “Aladdin.”

Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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