You may not have signed up for recess duty or chalk stains on your pants, but if you'd like to improve your child's reading comprehension skills, you should start thinking like a teacher—and using some of the same tools teachers use in the classroom. Teacher-trainer and expert on young adult literacy Hal W. Lanse says "parents must educate themselves about the strategies teachers use, because the preparation for reading needs to begin long before formal instruction commences."
Many effective comprehension teaching strategies come naturally to parents. Lanse explains that a simple encouragement like "Norah, tell Dad what we did in the park this afternoon," for example, builds "an early understanding of how narratives work." But other instructional techniques aren't as intuitive. Here are three classroom tricks to use at home.
Set Kids Up for Reading Success
If you were going to build a house, you wouldn't just grab a pile of bricks and go at it. You'd learn about the tools and materials you'd need for the job, go over the architectural plans you'd be using, and hopefully take a basic course in construction techniques! In other words, you'd gather all the information and training you needed before you ever picked up a hammer. The same principle applies to reading. Teachers call it "front-loading," and it means preparing kids for reading by giving them tools that apply to a specific text.
Before reading a book of ancient Greek myths, for instance, first talk to your child about what myths are. Describe how ancient cultures used mythology to explain natural phenomena. Spend some time on the Internet, looking up the names and characteristics of the major gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon. If you've bought your child a book about insects, look through the text for unfamiliar words like "antennae" and "wing case" and explain them before you read. Don't forget to activate knowledge your child already has, too. Talk about the insects that live in your backyard. Take a walk outside to observe them. Though it may seem like a lot of work, these preparatory steps can really pay off in deeper comprehension later on.
Think Like a Reader, Talk Like a Reader
Just reading to or with your children isn't enough. Teachers are experts at "think-alouds:" verbal explanations of the ideas, images, connections, and questions that go through their minds as they read. This might sound daunting, but it's easy to do once you get into the habit of paying attention to your own thought processes. Here's what a think-aloud might sound like:
It says here Luisa's face is turning red. That could mean she's feeling embarrassed or angry. I need to read ahead to find out. Ah! Here it says "Luisa wanted to disappear whenever her mom told the story about her getting lost at the zoo." That tells me why Luisa's face went red. It also tells me a bit about her mom—she might not realize how Luisa feels.
Lanse agrees. "Good readers," he says, "create a running video in their heads of the stories they're reading. Parents should take turns with their children describing the images they have in their heads as they read a story... the big secret to good reading comprehension is talk, talk, talk."
Turn Your Child Into the Teacher
The classroom technique known as "reciprocal teaching" sounds complex but isn't. The idea behind this strategy is for adults and children reading together to take turns playing the role of the teacher. As you read with your child, take turns summarizing, coming up with questions, clarifying confusing ideas, and predicting what will happen next. This is a sophisticated teaching principle that's really fun to execute: children love being put in the driver's seat and getting to say things like "Okay, Mom, summarize what happened on this page!"
Captain Underpants=Comprehension Success
Lanse has one last tip for parents. "The biggest problem in the struggle to read well," he says, is "boring materials. Boys are the most resistant readers and we must put books in their hands that they like: scary stories, science fiction, sports books, gross-out humor. Yes, I'm saying you should buy your sons Captain Underpants!"