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My son is six years old, nearly finished with his first year of school. He reads pretty well, on par with his age I believe. What concerns me is he has difficulty answering basic questions about a sentence immediately after he reads it.

For example, "On his bed was a cuddly teddy bear." If I ask what was on his bed, he can't answer without re-reading it, then he answers in his halting reading voice, even though he knows perfectly well what a teddy bear is. It's like he reads the words without connecting them to the real world objects.

Is that normal for a child just finishing his first year of school? If so, when should I expect him to start comprehending what he reads? Is there anything I can do to help?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think that comprehension doesn't come until reading is more effortless for the child. Early on, they're expending all their effort just reading letters and figuring out the words.

As a point of reference, I noticed that my oldest daughter seemed to have very poor comprehension through Kindergarten and first grade. It seemed that in second grade the focus could start moving from just figuring out which words were on the page to attaching more meaning to them. She's in third grade now, and the comprehension seems to have increased dramatically.

Overall, I'd say you don't have anything to worry about yet.

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You say the 'first year of school', so I'm not sure if your son is kindergarten or first grade. Unless he has trouble answering questions about what you read to him, I wouldn't worry about comprehension yet.

It's important to understand that learning to read is a process that has distinct stages. They go together something like this:

Skills for pre-literate or preparing readers

  • identifying letters
  • associating letters and sounds
  • predicting text flow (left-to-right, top-to-bottom in English)
  • recognizing that words are units of letters, and that spaces separate them

Skills for beginning readers

  • hearing sound sequences in spoken language
  • seeing the predictability of order of letters in words
  • identifying initial sounds
  • using visual information to figure out simple words (often nouns and high frequency 'sight' words are recognized first)
  • one spoken word is one written word (1:1 correspondence), often demonstrated by pointing at words while reading

Skills for accelerating readers

  • breaking words apart to figure them out (both with phonetics and common chunks like 'ing', 'ed', 's' that may be added to familiar words)
  • using sentence structure and meaning to figure out words (does that word make sense there?)
  • increasing reading fluency demonstrated by smooth reading of phrases and appropriate vocal expression in reading
  • recognition of the implicit meaning of punctuation (stops, pauses, speech)
  • self-correcting

Your son won't demonstrate reading comprehension until he begins to accelerate, and it sounds like he is still working on some of his beginning skills. The best thing you can to do help him master those skills is to increase his volume of appropriately levelled texts and read with him. This will help him practice problem-solving new words, and build his confidence as he learns to see himself as a reader. He'll need to master those skills before he can really think about what he's reading.

Also, encouraging him to write (just a word or two, or let him dictate to you) will help reinforce the connection between sounds and letters, and start him down the path of using context and meaning to figure out unknown words. (Don't worry about the spelling as long as the idea is correct.)

When you start to hear a difference in his reading fluency, that's when you should expect that he is beginning to retain the information he is reading. You can encourage comprehension at that point by modelling retelling, summarizing stories, and making predictions about what might happen during a story (based on the pictures or even just the title).

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Even I have trouble sometimes comprehending what I am reading while I'm reading it, especially when I am reading aloud, and I'm 30. Often it can be easy to forget to focus on the actual meaning of the passage when reading aloud and just focus on the actual reading. I'd expect this to be even more true for a newer reader.

Some people might naturally pay attention to what they are reading while they are reading it and others might need to actually mentally think to focus on what they are reading.

I am no expert on teaching a child to read, and don't know a whole lot about expectations at this age level, so you might want to ask his teacher what she thinks and for some suggestions about helping your son. I'm sure she has plenty of experience.

Some things you might consider trying, though, to help him develop the skill of reading comprehension while reading:

  • Read through the book or passage yourself beforehand and then tell your son the question you plan to ask him before he reads the passage. This can help him to focus on the passage the first time rather than go back and might help train him to think about what he's reading while he's reading it.

  • Encourage him to look at the pictures in the story and try to figure out what is going on before and after he reads. This encourages him to focus on the actual meaning of the story, and then in turn the words. It's important for him to realize that the words are trying to tell him something concrete and that reading is about learning something, not just about actual reading if that makes sense.

  • You may want to give him some books to read that are slightly below his reading level and ask him questions about those so he gets used to reading for comprehension and fun without the stress of trying to read something difficult.

  • In all of this, I'd try to pay attention to how your son is feeling as you work on reading comprehension. You want him to enjoy reading. You don't want reading to be stressful. If you see that he is getting annoyed by questions or the reading is too much, take a break on the questions or have him read one page and you read the other or something similar.

  • Combining the previous two points, get him some books that are on topics he would enjoy and that he can read on his own. Your librarian or his teacher might be able to help you or there are tons of websites with book lists if you google. Give him some books like that and let him read them on his own. Then just ask what he thought of them, no specific questions, nothing like a reading lesson, but just like a normal conversation you might have, to encourage reading and make it something fun and enjoyable.

Here's an article that might be useful to you about ways to read to your child that encourage comprehension. It's more geared to pre-readers, but I think you could probably apply it to asking your son questions and also read to him that way to encourage his comprehension.

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