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8 Tips: Homeschooling Reading Comprehension

Let’s talk about how to improve reading comprehension in our homeschools.

Comprehension is essential to reading, but it is often neglected in reading education. When we think of teaching children to read, we tend to focus on phonics—learning to recognize letter patterns on a page and to say them correctly. Important as this is, there is much more to reading than recognizing and pronouncing letters and words!

We must also impart reading comprehension to our children to build skilled readers. Reading comprehension moves us beyond phonics and word recognition to focus on understanding what a text says. Comprehension is ultimately what reading is all about. We read a text to understand what it is saying to us. Phonics and word recognition are merely preparatory skills that enable one to get to the heart of reading, which is extracting meaning from the text.

Like phonics, reading comprehension is a skill that must be learned. But do we devote time to building reading comprehension with our children? Too often, we teach children to sound out words and letters, then merely hand them reading materials with the expectation that they will be able to extract meaning from the text. However, if we have not helped them build reading comprehension, they may struggle. If anything, we should devote just as much time to reading comprehension as to word recognition and pronunciation mechanics. Let’s look at some ways to build reading comprehension!

What Are the Signs of Poor Reading Comprehension?

First, how do you know if your child may be struggling with reading comprehension? Signs of poor reading comprehension include:

  • When your child has trouble understanding what they just read
  • Difficulty following written instructions
  • Difficulty “reading between the lines” to grasp what a text implies beyond what it literally states
  • Ignoring punctuation while reading
  • Reading without expression
  • Frustration with reading assignments
  • Poor retention (i.e., your child does not remember the content he or she read)
  • Trouble reading out loud
  • Fluency but little comprehension (they can read fluently but can’t explain what the passage is about)
  • Word confusion (e.g., reading “theirs” as “there is” or “accept” as “except”)

If your child demonstrates these behaviors, he may struggle with reading comprehension. We have to be discerning here because, obviously, these behaviors can be wrapped up with other issues. For example, a child with dyslexia may also demonstrate some of these behaviors. In such cases, poor reading comprehension is a symptom of underlying issues.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

Reading comprehension can be improved with a bit of practice. Below are a few simple strategies you can easily implement to help build reading comprehension in your homeschool.

1. Vocabulary Building

While children are sometimes introduced to new vocabulary words in a formal sense (i.e., being told, “This is a vocabulary word; here’s the definition”), we underestimate how many vocabulary words children are introduced to merely by context. This occurs when children encounter an unfamiliar word and use the surrounding context to deduce its meaning. This happens constantly and is one of the fundamental ways children build their vocabulary. A student with poor reading comprehension, however, will find this difficult.

This is where vocabulary-building exercises come in. Examples of vocabulary-building exercises include:

  • Have your student circle unfamiliar words in a text and make flashcards of the words to practice,
  • Make a conscious point to use newly learned words in speech and writing,
  • Teach children to look up new words in a dictionary to review their definitions
  • Add a vocabulary-building text to your homeschool curriculum, such as the Word Mastery series by Erin M. Brown.
  • Use online vocabulary programs to assess vocabulary comprehension.

These sorts of exercises can be structured into reading assignments and go a long way toward helping children understand what they are reading.

2. Question and Answer

Reading comprehension is improved by reflection about what is being read. You can encourage this reflection by asking your child questions about the text or encouraging them to do so as they read.

For example, if reading a fiction book to your child, you can pause periodically and ask questions such as, “What is the setting of this story?” “How would you describe this character’s personality?” “What is the main conflict of the story?” These types of questions encourage your child to reflect on the text and may draw out observations and insights beyond what he or she would get from simply reading. This builds investment in the text and trains them to read reflectively—not only to read but to think about what is being read.

3. Identifying the Main Idea

Most writing—at least most good writing—follows a pattern of orchestrating information around main ideas (sometimes called “thesis points” or “topic sentences”). Usually, this will be the first sentence of a paragraph or section, especially for instructional media such as textbooks. Finding the topic sentence is not intuitive for children who struggle with reading comprehension. To them, the page can seem like a jumbled mess of content with no discernible organization.

It is, therefore, helpful to aid your child in identifying the thesis point or topic sentence. Teach them to look for the first sentence in a paragraph or section. Have them read it aloud, and then ask, “So what do you think this section will be about?” In textbooks, this is often found in a section header. Ask your child to read the section header aloud, then discuss how what follows will relate to the main point the header identifies. Then, you can go on to show them how each individual paragraph under that header often has its own topic sentence. This helps children construct an organizational framework for processing the information they read.

4. Context Clues

Reading using context clues is when children are encouraged to speculate about what is happening or being said based on key phrases or ideas within a paragraph. This is particularly helpful when a student is simultaneously introduced to many new vocabulary or concepts. When a word or phrase comes up that the child doesn’t recognize, read through the sentences before and after the phrase. Ask your child to speculate what the phrase might mean based on the clues surrounding the word.

For example, suppose we have the phrase, “John received the news with stoic indifference.” In this sentence, the word stoic is unfamiliar to your child. Then, have the child reread the sentences before and after this one and ask them to speculate on what “stoic” might mean from context. So, for example, let’s say the text says, “The news of his firing was delivered casually, by letter. John received the news with stoic indifference. He gave the letter little more than a passing glance before discarding it, returning to the tranquility of his book.” We then ask the child to use the clues from these sentences to infer what stoic means. Does he seem emotional, anxious, or troubled? Why or why not? Based on these clues, what does it mean to be stoic?

5. Write a Summary

Having your child write a summary of their reading is an excellent way to teach them to sort ideas. It requires them to think about what is essential in a text and put it into their own words. Because summarizing is time-consuming, it is sufficient to pick one section, chapter, or longer work and ask your child to summarize. Compare their summary with the text to see whether their summary accurately reflects the gist of the material. If it does not, review with them to identify the main points to help them refine their ability to get what a text is saying.

6. Reasonable Pacing

Children struggling with comprehension will need additional time to get through a book. Pacing is very important. Readings should be divided into smaller sections so students do not get overwhelmed. Whereas many students read by the time allotted (“I want you to spend 45 minutes reading”), students struggling with reading comprehension may find this too open-ended. Instead, give them specific pages or sections (“In your history book, please read the sections about Thomas More and Henry VIII”). This is easier to digest as they can see how much content they are responsible for covering and begin mentally breaking it down.

7. Narration

The first year I homeschooled, I followed Laura Berquist’s advice in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and used narration in teaching my young children Bible history. I would read a Bible story aloud, and the children would retell it in their own words. They would then draw a corresponding picture in their art sketchbooks. I continued to use this method in the following years with other texts. The idea was to ensure my children understood the pivotal points of the story. Also, by verbalizing what they hear, children use multiple senses to retain lessons learned through the story.

When one of my children required speech therapy, she was extensively tested to ensure there weren’t other developmental issues. She scored off the charts for reading comprehension. The teacher who administered the test was amazed this child could not only retell a story but could recall the smallest detail. When I told the teacher about our narration lessons, she said it was the reason for my child’s extraordinary performance. Narration was something I did just three days a week for a short time, yet it produced outstanding results.

8. Use Materials Designed to Aid Reading Comprehension

Finally, consider using curriculum materials or programs designed to build reading comprehension.

  • Charlotte Mason programs tend to focus heavily on reading comprehension (see here). For a Catholic CM program, see Mater Amabilis.
  • Homeschool Connections offers a variety of courses to help, including Introduction to Literature, which focuses on how to read, interpret, and speak about literature and literary themes.
  • True North Reading is a proven online program that builds reading comprehension into the reading lessons.
  • Homeschool Connections is creating new online courses for the 2024/2025 school year and beyond. These courses are based on Professor Brown’s Word Mastery series for middle and high school.

Many other supplementary resources exist for building reading comprehension, so you don’t have to do it alone!

Do you have tips to share? More questions about homeschooling reading comprehension? You can connect with other Catholic homeschool parents by joining our Homeschool Connections Community today.

This article contains affiliate links.

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