Activities that Enhance Comprehension

posted by Sangitha Krishnamurthi , February 04, 2021

How do we help our children dive deeper into the books they are reading? Reading isn't just about knowing how to read but also understanding a book, its characters, their motivations, the story, and more. Sangitha Krishnamurthi gives us a great list of activities that enhance comprehension.  

For most children, it is the stuff that we do without thinking about it that makes the difference.  With our interaction time decreasing at an alarming rate, it is worth revisiting this ‘without thinking’ to make sure some stuff gets done at least some of the time.  The hope is that this post gives you some actionable ways to boost comprehension. The words in bold are the skills/strategies we’re trying to establish- trying to walk the line between not being too technical while still getting some technical stuff through.

This post is a synthesis of what I have read, learned, and implemented in the past two years 

1.  The power of questions.

Questioning as a method of learning is as old as Socrates, helping in everything from understanding concepts to problem-solving.  Unfortunately, several of us look at questions only with exams in the background. I talk here of casual questions, not interrogations.  Also, the point is to get children to frame and ask questions and then answer them. This happens in steps.  First, it could be questions that lead a child to an answer, asked by a parent/adult in order to improve comprehension. The idea is never ever to embarrass or shut down questions. These questions could be something along the lines of: 

“What happened here?” – literal questions to ensure that children have understood.  The ‘wh’ questions are usual here – what, when, where, why, and who

How‘ is the sixth and non-wh sister to use.  These questions could be literal to start with before going on to the higher-order thinking skills like

“Wow, why do you think _____ (the character) said that?” – leading to getting the child to predict using the information he/she already has.

‘What do you like/not like about this story/character/plot/ending?’ to get the child thinking a bit more critically about the story and their own thinking about it.

f the child isn’t able to answer questions straight away, it might need to be broken up into smaller questions for them.  Children need to be given enough time to process and answer.  Since they can’t think with logic at the same speed as an adult who has had a lot of practice, this might be a bit more than what we think is normal.  Once they catch up, you know you’ll be running at top speed to just keep pace!  

Also, kids love to question adults.  Making it a game and asking them to frame questions that stump you would be a fantastic game on several levels.  First, they get to frame questions; two, they get to think originally in order to stump you; and three, you get to model good answers AND show them that it is okay to not know some answers, asking for help, throwing hands up and saying ‘wow, what a fantastic question! You got me!’.  Comprehension and life skills in one shot, good stuff this questioning game!

2.  Thinking aloud

Several learning goals in the education system go amiss.  We teach concepts but rarely teach skills.  Even those systems that teach skills may not adequately set out expectations and spell out ways of thinking well enough.  If we expect children to get to a certain point, they need to learn how to get there with examples before.  Does a teacher have the time to do more than maybe one example in class?  Two classes, maybe. Do you get where I am going?

Suppose I ask a child a question ‘why do you think Curious George did this to solve this problem?’ I should have asked a similar question and thought the answer aloud in an elaborate way before.  “Well, I see bananas in the picture, so maybe that could be used to pelt it in the bear’s face to help the children escape.  Or let’s see, they’re near some trees with roots hanging down, maybe the answer is to climb the trees to escape."

Think aloud the reasoning to give the child a window into your head.  You’ve had to do this without support, maybe. Why should they?!

3.  Making connections

A huge part of how we understand things is through connecting them to some prior knowledge or experience.  It could be as simple as connecting to something your friend said about something that was to happen and you remember and mention that to another when he/she mentions something similar.  When I read about going to the dentist, I could either connect it to my experience with a dentist/a similar doctor’s appointment or be creating the foundation for the subsequent experience of going to one.

Comprehending books and being able to put ourselves in others’ shoes can’t happen without a basic amount of life experiences – as children, this is simple stuff: playing in a jhoola park with other kids, sharing toys, visiting places, seeing movies/events in movies, etc.  Without seeing snow, we can read about it.  Without eating a scone, we have read about it (and personally, been disappointed by the big deal made but that’s a different story altogether!).

When we actually eat it, we connect to where we first heard/read about it. To help children make connections, they need ‘out of the book’ experiences.  Trips, experiences contribute to this comprehension.

4.  Visualizing

A significant way people comprehend is through making mental pictures of the content they read.  This is a huge reason for not liking a movie after reading a book – the way you imagined something is different from the director’s image.  Get the child the vocabulary to speak about their mental picture.  Adjectives get in as well as the habit of describing, a useful skill.  Drawing pictures of the book/story/character after reading is something children do naturally – encourage this and mention details: “I see that you gave Kumbakarna a nice mustache, he must be a man, not a boy, huh?”

5.  Revisiting the story

Retelling the story is another way to enhance comprehension.  The first step, the questions have got the child to do this in parts.  Putting it together is the next step.  If the child is exposed to listening to stories, then retelling it will get easier.  Asking the child to tell the mom a story that he/she heard/was told by the father is a good idea, as is taking the child to listen to storytelling sessions for a different, more dramatic take on a story.

Children could be given help in the beginning, being asked what happened in the beginning, ‘and then’ in the middle to ‘finally’ or ‘at last’ to show what happened in the end.  Kids practice sequencing here.  They have to pick out the important details and summarize the story, they learn what makes oral storytelling interesting – we all know how a blow-by-blow movie retelling is pretty painful, they’ll start there and parents will have to sit through it to keep their interest high in retelling and model themselves when they are telling the story with just the right amount of detail.  It might help to give each other a clue – ‘If I wanted a one minute story, what would it be?’ to help this process along.

This also helps with internalizing intonation, tone, showing the existence of a full stop, comma on the page through the voice, putting emotion into the words, all great foundation skills for stuff like identifying emotions, empathy, etc.

6.  The picture on the cover game

Looking at the picture on a book cover and guessing what the book might be about is a fantastic game.  Besides being super fun (when it is completely off is when it is at its most fun!), it is good practice for learning stuff like what the main idea/character is.  Children will internalize where an author’s name is, they’ll need it pointed out and explained – ‘The person who wrote the book is called the writer.  Another word is author….illustration means the pictures drawn to show what happens in the story, an illustrator is a person who draws these pictures’, et al.

7.  Picture reading

There are books that are only pictures – the whole story is told in pictures.  Simple picture books like this could be the first step when it comes to comprehension.  When a reader is a bit more advanced, they can be asked to pick out the details that are only in pictures or details that explain the actions, describe a setting, etc.  They can be asked to predict what happens next in a book they haven’t read before and should be able to pick up clues from the words, pictures, and situation.

8.  Deconstructing the story

This refers to actually giving names to the elements:  Title, Author, Illustrator, Introduction,  Beginning, Middle, End, Problem, Solution, Character, Setting, Plot/storyline, etc. 

For non-fiction, Table of Contents, Index, Facts, Glossary, and more.  The different genres that exist – fantasy, fiction, non-fiction, fairytale to start with, and then more stuff like comic, poem, mystery, etc.  Ideally, this should be done in little bits, casually, as part of giving the child the vocabulary to review the book later.

9. Book publishing

Teaching someone what you’re still learning goes a long way in making your concepts stronger – you have to find ways to answer someone’s questions, knowing you had them yourself!  What’s better than to get your child to ‘publish’ his/her work with his own illustrations and all?  Yeah, you’ll see some known stories with different names but soon you’ll see creative combinations and ideas you might be tempted to steal yourself.  Poems as well.

10.  Book reviews

Children could be asked to review books when they’ve read a few independently, there’s really no reason for them to be advanced readers to start this but they should have read a few to get a sense of what to comment on.  I would start them off with some pointers – some questions to get them started, small bits of modeling to make sure they don’t end up thinking only on the lines my mind can.  This step incorporates the most sophisticated skill of all –synthesizing.  Book reviews require us to connect to ourselves, esp. our opinions, link up to other works of this author and similar people in the genre, and making a call based on all this.

Of course stuff like having books around to read whenever the child feels like it, modeling reading as the adults in the picture, making sure we know the child’s interests, and get them to pick up books using this to start with – all this is important.  Hooking children on to reading is done differently for different children, is needed for all children, being a necessity in pretty much everything they undertake in life.

Conversations about books, parties on book themes with dress up – there are such fun ways to combine reading as a value with comprehension.  Also helps to make reading cool among peers – when peers do something, there’s an invisible sign that says ‘COOL’ that’s attached to it….why not engineer it towards reading?!

First posted here


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