Comprehension is the expected final outcome of any reading activity.
If a child reads a passage but doesn’t understand it, then the purpose of the reading activity—whether it is for pleasure or to seek information, is not achieved. Once the reader comprehends what is stated explicitly (openly) and implicitly (hidden) in the text, he or she can apply all that information to draw conclusions beyond the text.
So how does one work on this comprehension piece when you read with your child? Most of us ask questions. We ask questions about the information stated in the text, questions like:
“What is the girl’s name?”
“What is she holding in her hand?”
“What pet animal does she have?”
These questions target the child’s comprehension of information stated explicitly by drawing attention to the words in the text or something in the illustrations.
Is that all there is to comprehension? No, thank goodness! Otherwise reading would be one of the top five most boring activities.
What the reader knows and feels strongly influence what and how information in the text is decoded, processed, applied, and stored for future reference.
What the reader knows is termed ‘Prior Knowledge’, a very important factor especially in early childhood education. This is the reason for the emphasis on exposing children to different experiences and for the need to talk to them, play with them, and so on. Through these experiences children build a vault of references they access every time they are exposed to a something new, be it a word, an object, or a place. They connect the unknown to something they already know.
When children read they must first use their decoding skills to ‘read’ the words, access word meaning from their knowledge of vocabulary and use their prior knowledge of the topic (also known as background knowledge) to understand the given passage.
For example, if they are reading about tigers, they can relate the information in the text to what they already know about the tiger. This information is stored for future use as they learn more and more about tigers or to compare with other wild cats.
Comprehension doesn’t just happen as children decode words. They must be taught specific strategies to enable them to actively process the information to make meaning, as they read the text.
How can parents help their children develop comprehension skills? We will explore this in the following posts on reading comprehension.