6 Essential Skills for Reading Comprehension
Some people think of the act of reading as a straightforward task that’s easy to master. In reality, it’s a complex process that draws on many different skills. Together, these skills lead to the ultimate goal of reading: reading comprehension, or understanding what’s been read.
Reading comprehension can be challenging for kids for lots of reasons. Whatever the cause, knowing the skills involved, and which ones your child struggles with, can help you get the right support.
Here are six essential skills needed for reading comprehension, and tips on what can help kids improve this skill.
Decoding is a vital step in the reading process. Kids use this skill to sound out words they’ve heard before but haven’t seen written out. The ability to do that is the foundation for other reading skills.
Decoding relies on an early language skill called phonemic awareness. (This skill is part of an even broader skill called phonological awareness.) Phonemic awareness lets kids hear individual sounds in words (known as phonemes). It also allows them to “play” with sounds at the word and syllable level.
Decoding also relies on connecting individual sounds to letters. For instance, to read the word sun, kids must know that the letter s makes the /s/ sound. Grasping the connection between a letter (or group of letters) and the sounds they typically make is an important step toward “sounding out” words.
To read fluently, kids need to instantly recognize words, including ones they can’t sound out. Fluency speeds up the rate at which they can read and understand the text. It’s also important when kids encounter irregular words, like of and the, which can’t be sounded out.
Sounding out or decoding every word can take a lot of effort. Word recognition is the ability to recognize whole words instantly by sight, without sounding them out.
When kids can read quickly and without making too many errors, they are “fluent” readers.
Fluent readers read smoothly at a good pace. They group words together to help with meaning, and they use the proper tone in their voice when reading aloud. Reading fluency is essential for good reading comprehension.
To understand what you’re reading, you need to understand most of the words in the text. Having a strong vocabulary is a key component of reading comprehension. Students can learn vocabulary through instruction. But they typically learn the meaning of words through everyday experience and also by reading.
Sentence Construction and Cohesion
Understanding how sentences are built might seem like a writing skill. So might connecting ideas within and between sentences, which is called cohesion. But these skills are important for reading comprehension as well.
Knowing how ideas link up at the sentence level helps kids get meaning from passages and entire texts. It also leads to something called coherence, or the ability to connect ideas to other ideas in an overall piece of writing.
Reasoning and Background Knowledge
Most readers relate what they’ve read to what they know. So it’s important for kids to have a background or prior knowledge about the world when they read. They also need to be able to “read between the lines” and pull out meaning even when it’s not literally spelt out.
Take this example: A child is reading a story about a poor family in the 1930s. Having knowledge about the Great Depression can provide insight into what’s happening in the story. The child can use that background knowledge to make inferences and draw conclusions.
Working Memory and Attention
These two skills are both parts of a group of abilities known as executive function. They’re different but closely related.
When kids read, attention allows them to take in information from the text. Working memory allows them to hold on to that information and use it to gain meaning and build knowledge from what they’re reading.
The ability to self-monitor while reading is also tied to that. Kids need to be able to recognize when they don’t understand something. Then they need to stop, go back, and re-read to clear up any confusion they may have.