Comprehension skills. These are the skills that enable people to think critically about their lives and the things that influence their lives. It’s personalizing, analyzing, comparing and contrasting, applying, creating, and evaluating (to name a few). Without these skills, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make informed and thoughtful decisions.

Gabrielle Miller, Vice President of Education and Literacy Programs at Reading Is Fundamental, says children develop comprehension skills by relating what they are reading, or what is being read to them, with the world as they know it. “This doesn’t change as people mature into older children and adults,” Miller says. “The more any of us (especially children) have the opportunity to relate elements of a story to something we have experienced or have knowledge about, the greater our comprehension skills.”

Many parents wonder, though, whether reading is the only way to develop their children’s critical thinking and comprehension skills. There’s a stigma associated with allowing children to watch television and play computer games, yet some of these games and programs are marketed as learning tools. Is it possible that they have little or no educational value? And what about movies? Can children develop comprehension skills by watching movies?

Douglas Clements, Distinguished Professor of Learning and Instruction at the University of Buffalo, is a nationally renowned researcher of children’s learning and educational toys. “ The research is clear that viewing appropriate TV with your child and talking about it increases the benefits of that viewing,” Clements says. “There is not reason to suspect that the situation is not the same with viewing movies.” Clements notes that the key is for parents to be hands-on and to talk to their children about their learning.

There’s a lot to be said for talking to children before, during, and after an entertaining and/or educational experience. It’s easy to understand why a trip to the zoo is not merely entertainment. When parents engage their children in a discussion about the experience (the specific animals they see and zoos in general), children have an opportunity to learn.

The same is true when watching a movie. There is no reason for a field trip to a summer blockbuster to be merely entertainment. Just be sure to discuss the movie with the kids. Use discussion questions to encourage children’s understanding of the movie and to prompt them to think critically about what they saw. By asking open-ended questions that help children make predictions, analyze, compare and contrast, summarize, and evaluate, you can be actively involved in building your children’s comprehension skills.

Get the most out of your trip to the theater—enjoy the popcorn, the show, and the conversation that follows! Here are a few tips on how to use summer blockbusters as a platform for learning:

  • Predicting: Talk to your kids on the drive to the theater and guide your kids to make predictions about the movie. (For example, “Based on the previews, what do you think this movie is about?” “Based on the title, what do you think the movie will be about? What makes you think that?” “What do you think the character might be like? Why do you say that?”)
  • Personalizing: During the movie (if you dare) or after the movie, ask open-ended questions to prompt children to think about the movie and make connections between their own experiences and the experiences of the characters. (For example, “How can you relate to the character in the movie?” “When have you experienced something like that?” “When have you felt that way?”)
  • Comparing and Contrasting: Ask questions to help children compare the film to other films they’ve seen, or to books they’ve read. (For example, “How is this movie like other movies you’ve seen? How is it different?” “How would you compare this movie to a book we’ve read together?”)
  • Generalizing and Applying: Ask open-ended questions to prompt children to think about how the film relates to the world. (For example, “Why do you think the filmmakers made this movie?” “How does this movie relate to what you know about the world?”) Be sure to ask specific questions related to the content of the film. Consider the film’s message (e.g., it’s not good to fight), and guide the kids to think about how that message applies to the world.
  • Evaluating and Summarizing: Use questions or prompts to encourage children to make judgments about the movie and tell the plot in their own words. (For example, “What did you like about the movie? Why?” “What didn’t you like about the movie? Why?” “How would you describe the movie to a friend?”)