How to Help Children Understand What They Read


How to help children understand what they read

“You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend.” — Paul Sweeney

This is probably the top complaint I hear from parents and children, and arguably, understanding what you read is the most important part of reading.  Who would want to sit and stare at meaningless words for hours?  In order to grow to love reading and to get good at it, we have to understand what we read.  It can be a complex issue because it could be caused by a number of factors.  However, with just a little “detective work,” you can easily discover why your child is struggling and unlock the love of reading for them by helping them understand what they read.

Note: I will use the term “reading comprehension” in this article to explain the idea of understanding what one reads.

Young Children (before mid-year first grade)

When a child is very young and still developing the ability to “sound out words” to read, their focus is on figuring out what the word says.  This makes it very difficult to spend any mental energy on thinking about what the words mean.  This is totally normal for this age.  As a matter of fact, experts call this the “learning to read” stage, indicating that comprehension is not of utmost importance when they are reading words themselves at this point.  This is another reason it is so important for your child to have the opportunity to hear you read to him/her too.  At this age, listening comprehension is extremely important.  (This is the ability for someone to understand what is read to them.)

When you’re reading to your children, your instinct may be to ask them questions that can be answered by paying attention to the book.  For example, if the book says “Kitty went to school” your question may be “Where did Kitty go?”  Although these are questions you can ask to make sure your child is paying attention and listening, much more valuable questions are those in which your child has to think about the book and apply it to his/her own life.  Using the above example again, a quality question may be “How do you think Kitty felt when she went to school?”  These questions give your child the opportunity to think about how they felt when they first went to school, and apply that understanding to how Kitty may feel.  Practicing these types of questions will help build networks of reading comprehension in their sweet little brains that will pay off forever!

Mid-Elementary Children (end of first grade through third grade)

This is the age that students are transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”  Depending on the book they are reading, they may fall in one camp or the other.  Because reading skills are still rapidly developing at this age, it is very important to have children practice reading books they are interested in.  If they are reading a book of interest, they already have some background knowledge on the topic which will help them understand the book.  If they spend a heavy amount of time (at least 20 minutes daily) reading a book of interest, it will help them to develop pathways in their brains to understand other books that they read that may not be of interest.

When your child is reading a book on a topic that may be too complicated for them, take a second to talk about some of the words and concepts before reading.  This helps them to develop an understanding of the topic before trying to read it, which leads to better comprehension and memory of what has been read.  Again, a key at this age is to practice reading and having discussions about books.  As mentioned above, make sure that when you are reading with your child, you are asking questions that allow them to apply the book to their own lives or to something they have seen or heard before.  Another example is if you are reading a book in which a character wins a race, but you have recently seen a movie where the main character loses a race, you could say “How is this book different than the movie we saw?” and have a discussion about how the characters felt in each situation and how the different endings affected the story.

Upper Elementary (third-fifth grade)

This is the period of time in which reading comprehension really matures.  Students may be asked in school to read passages or textbooks and recall or study information for tests or class projects.  This is the age that I first introduce taking notes in the margins of reading for this purpose.  (If it is a book that you cannot write in, sticky notes are perfect.)  I tell students at this age that when they are reading something very carefully, they stop every 3-5 sentences, ask themselves “What was this part about?” and write a few words in the margin (or on a sticky note) and put it next to those sentences.  This is valuable for a few reasons.  1) when they have finished reading, they can review all of their notes and have a pretty well written summary of the text, which can help if they are asked to summarize the text.  2) If they need to locate something that happened in the story, they can look back through their notes instead of having to re-read the entire passage.  And most importantly 3) if they are unable to write a few words about what the sentences they read were about, they likely didn’t understand it, and this signals to them that they need to re-read.  The beauty of number 3 is that often, children grow up being very comfortable with reading words that they don’t understand, finishing the passage or story, and having no idea at all what they just read.  If we don’t correct this bad habit at this age, it will continue to be an issue all the way through college, and it will cause deeper and deeper problems with reading.  It is so important for children to recognize when they are confused during reading and practice fixing it. If you tell a child at this age that if they are not able to write a few words about the sentences that they read, they need to re-read it more slowly and make sense of it, or ask for help, they will learn to read more carefully and their overall understanding of what they read will improve.

Middle School/High School

In most cases, reading becomes much more functional and less of a hobby at the middle school and high school ages.  Students are asked to read in order to gain information, and when they read fiction it is for the purpose of analyzing it for deeper understanding.  The latter is where those conversations you had with your children when they are young about how their reading applies to themselves or something they have heard of or read before really help.  Whether they are reading fiction or non-fiction, for the purpose of analyzing or learning new information, it is very important that students are comfortable with taking notes as they read.  If you haven’t already, read the section above about writing in the margins or on sticky notes every few sentences.  As students get older and more skilled, they can expand this to taking notes every paragraph or at every section header.  Again, if they are unable to think of what to write, they need to stop and re-read it more slowly to make sense of it, or ask for help. Kids at this age do not naturally enjoy this note taking because it feels like more work, so you have to be the best salesman you can be to convince them that it’s actually less work in the long run, and more efficient.


Many times, students do not realize that they struggle with reading until they are in college.  I fell into this category my freshman year when I was given loads of reading assignments, and no matter how much time I spent reading, I wasn’t able to answer questions about it later.  Everything in high school had come so easily to me, I never had to put forth the effort to take the steps outlined above for note taking during reading.  I had to learn these systems and once I did, I became a much more efficient reader and better student. So again, the answer here is in the bold letters above.  And again, as a student becomes more comfortable with this process, they can begin to take notes on entire paragraphs or sections as they go.  I recommend this far above highlighting.  Students at this age are tempted to mindlessly highlight as they read because it makes them feel like they have some type of documentation of reading, but because highlighting simply brings out the words already written in the text, it doesn’t simplify it for the reader like taking notes on the reading does.

Important side note

The age groupings above are generalities. Unfortunately, I have known several college students who needed guidance in comprehension on the upper elementary level, and even some elementary students who were ready for instruction on the high school level.  I recommend reading the entire article to determine where your child fits best, even if it isn’t in their “age” category.  If you are a parent of a young child, I recommend reading the entire article with this in mind: Helping your children now by having book discussions and asking abstract questions will help them later on when they are trying to understand more complicated texts as older readers.  What you do now makes an impact on tomorrow!

I would love to know if any of you try these ideas! Please leave a comment if you accept this challenge and let me know how your child has grown as a result!


Happy Reading!

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