How to Make Sure Your Child Understands the Meaning of What They are Reading

Edward Wong The Educational Parenting Blog Leave a Comment

Otherwise, they may develop the habit of not understanding what they read.

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In my previous post, I told you how I ran away from phonics for my tutoring student who loved nonsense words but had weaknesses in comprehension in literature at his reading level. I described considering the meaning of all the words as the second essential habit in reading. Today I want to give Educational Parents ways to encourage your child to enjoy reading and to ensure your child understands what they read.

Before learning to read

Even before your child is learning to read, you can encourage them to consider the meaning of language. 

Ask a lot of questions even outside of books, about everything in their life! Sometimes, especially for very young children, it is also appropriate to ask leading questions or even answer your own question. Asking questions about everything is a powerful way to stimulate your child’s ability to comprehend not only their reading but the world around them. As this helpful blog suggests, you can start asking questions from the time your child is a baby!

Choose interesting books

After you child is ready to learn to read, choose books that are interesting to them. The quality of content is key because children are engaged when books are meaningful to them. Choosing the books they will read is your job as an Educational Parent. 

There are too many materials for your child to read even if they had thousands of childhoods. You can analyze children’s book for quality much faster than your child can. Therefore, until your child reads about one-third or one-half as fast as you can, you should read every children’s book cover to cover and select only very engaging books, before presenting them to your child. 

Good books for younger children have text that directs a mental movie in their minds. Some resources suggest you encourage your children to make “mind movies” of what is happening in books. But the task of “making mind movies” is mainly the job of the children’s author, not your child. After all, the author has control of the text.

Choose Books of the Appropriate Reading Level

In addition to the books being interesting, ensure your child is reading books appropriate for their reading level. Studies in child language acquisition show that children understand speech months or years before they can produce the same speech, from infancy. They also understand complex sentence patterns months or years before they can or will use them.  

If you are going to read to your child, the book should be harder, even significantly harder, than what they could read on their own. When reading on their own to you, they should be able to read almost all, but not quite all, the words on a page. Lastly, when reading on their own, without you being present, they are doing it for leisure and should be permitted to choose books that are as easy as they wish.  

I will post more detailed insight about appropriate reading level later, but here you have in a nutshell my strategy on appropriate reading level. 

Selecting books for your child to read entirely on their own while you are present so they are challenged by one or two words each page is itself challenging, but if you take charge of explicitly teaching your child phonics systematically, you will know how far they have come in understanding letter-sound relationships. After just a few lessons in phonics, I find I can predict with 85-90% accuracy which words in a book will be difficult. 

Of course, giving your child systematic phonics instruction is important anyway–especially for younger readers and older learners who have difficulties reading–because it is the only method of teaching kids to read that is proven to be effective for all children. You can read more about the effectiveness and necessity of systematic phonics instruction here and here.

Before opening the book 

After you have chosen a book, but before you open the book with your child, prime your child to think topically. You can do this by asking your child questions that prompt them to make predictions about the book. Using their imaginations will help them to engage more deeply with the book’s content. The aim is not for your child to expect or predict a certain event; this could lead to unnecessary disappointment and does not encourage an open mind. Rather, by making various predictions about a single topic or situation, your child is primed for whatever may happen with respect to what they are thinking about. For example “what might happen” is a better question than “what will happen,” although some children seem to prefer to answer only “might” or only “will” questions. In addition, “what else might happen” is gold, regardless of how they phrased their first prediction.  

Here are five more questions you can ask before reading: 

  1. “What do you think this book will be about? Why?” 
  1. “What is happening in the picture?”
  1. “What do you think is going to happen to this person?” 
  1. “What does the title tell you about the book?” 
  1. “What else might happen?” Encourage creative brainstorming! After they have come up with two or three possibilities, or more often, they don’t have two or three possibilities, you should offer at least one other possibility. For example if your child says “The boy might crash the plane,” you could suggest he might indeed crash because perhaps he runs out of gas, but also he might land on a ship, he might chase a flock of geese, he might race his friend in another plane, or he might give his dad a ride. Maybe his mom and dad don’t believe he can fly the plane.

As your child reads

After you have opened the book, as your child is reading, the goal is for your child to think about the meaning of every word they read until it becomes an automatic habit. Phonics education can plant the good habit of decoding unfamiliar words, but it is up to the caregiver to teach the good habit of meaning-making. 

What can you do as an Educational Parent to encourage your child to understand what they read? 

  1. Use the seven types of questions: who, what, when, where, why, how, and how many/much/fast/tall/strong/etc. For older children, modify the seven questions using “about” (for approximation), “might” (for speculation), and “if” (for conditional thinking) for almost 20 types of questions! 
  1. Ask questions immediately after a child reads an unusual word. For example, “what do you think ‘graze’ means?” 
  1. Ask questions immediately after a sentence where motion has taken place. “Why did she put her mom’s tools into her bag?”  
  1. Ask questions about matters not directly mentioned in the story. “How do you think the firefighters knew to come over to put out the fire?”  
  1. Relate what they read to things in their own life 
  1. Talk about ideas or actions that are implied by the story 
  1. Ask “does that make sense?” after each challenging sentence, especially if they read any of the words incorrectly (after correcting the words). 
  1. Explain words, concepts, and events by commenting on the story at the end of each page or when you ask a question, but your child doesn’t know the answer. 
  1. Ask questions about what might happen next. This can be good to sharpen your child’s skills at thinking about the consequences of actions, about cause and effect. That said, I am not a fan of questions asking a child to predict the next word when reading and listening. These tend to be a test of a child’s grammatical skills, without leading to an opportunity for systematic grammar education that increases comprehension. If a child makes a mistake, a teacher has little recourse except to repeat the sentence with the word the child suggested, make it clearly sound wrong, and ask “Does that sound right?” with the obvious answer being no. Skill with grammatical questions in second-language learners has been associated with logical-mathematical intelligence, not linguistic intelligence. In simple terms, if you are gifted at math you will do well on grammar questions because they are like a logic puzzle, but they do not teach how to read. (You may notice bright or creative children giving silly or inappropriate but grammatically correct responses to word-prediction questions. Praise their creativity and avoid asking more word-prediction questions.)

If your child does not understand 

When your child does not know the meaning of the story, it is important to determine whether it was simply a matter of individual words or sentences. For individual words: 

  1. Explain that you can often find out the meaning of a word using the words and pictures around a word. To me, this is more of a feature in good children’s literature than a skill. A good book does not send children to the dictionary, nor does it stick with only the most basic words. Rather, it repeats itself somewhat using different words so that children learn the meanings of new words. In my view, it is the obligation of a children’s author to do this, not the obligation of the child to guess the meaning of words from context when sufficient context just isn’t there. Thus, you should tell your child to do this for words they don’t know “when the book tells you what it means,” but not all the time. When it is not possible, a younger child’s best alternative strategy is to ask you. 
  1. If your child tends to be quiet and seldom interrupts, encourage them to ask questions if they don’t understand something. You can then either tell the child the meaning, or you can point them to the context clues that give away the meaning if such clues are present. 

If a child knows the meanings of all words in a sentence, but doesn’t understand the sentence, the problem could either be a lack of familiarity with the pattern of speech used in the sentence (in English, patterns like “Johnny used to show up” have dramatically different meanings than the words have when considered separately), lack of context caused either by not remembering what happened before or  not knowing what happens after. 

  1. Encourage your child to re-read sentences that do not make sense.  
  1. Ask your child if they remember what happened in the sentence before. If they don’t, the issue is likely there. 
  1. Ask your child to remember this sentence and read the next sentence. With three sentences in their working memory, they may have sufficient context to determine the meaning of the one in the middle. 
  1. Treat unfamiliar patterns of speech the same way as unfamiliar words above: they can use pictures and context “when the book tell you what it means” or they should be encouraged to ask you.

After reading 

After your child is done reading the book, your goal is to have the child reflect on what they read. You can do this by asking similar questions that you asked during reading. 

Conclusion

Educational Parents can encourage their children to always consider the meaning of each word before, during and after reading together by asking many questions. Choose interesting books so that your child will be engaged and make meaning as they read. Choose books of appropriate reading level, so that excessive difficulty does not interfere with comprehension.  

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About the Author

Edward Wong

Edward Wong is a primary tutor and the Senior Designer at English Cosmos. He teaches children how to read, coaches parents on education in the home, and has been passionate about reading education since 2019. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Juris Doctor degree and qualified as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA).

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