How to Improve Reading Comprehension for Elementary Schoolers

When my kids were little, some of our happiest moments were spent cuddling together with a favorite picture book or two. These shared moments became less frequent when they began reading independently.

I assumed, in my mistaken optimism, that I had successfully fulfilled my part in teaching them how to read. Far from it!

The real challenges with reading started in elementary school when my older son began taking tests to assess the depth of his understanding of the texts he read in class. I found my third grader struggling with the reading comprehension exercises and strategies discussed in the classroom. Most alarming to a book-lover like me, his delight in reading also began to wane.

After talking to his teachers, other parents, and with much trial and error, I found five steps that helped recapture my son’s interest in books and allowed him to keep up with his schoolwork.

1. Find books that interest your child.

It sounds like a no-brainer to pick out books that speak directly to your child’s passions, but for a while, I was making the mistake of bringing him books that I thought he should read instead of the ones he wanted to read. Once I realized that he would devour any book that featured dragons, dolphins, or magic, things became much easier.

I’ve learned that, while you need to let your kids lead when it comes to choosing books, it also helps to introduce a variety of formats. Here are some categories you can explore:

  • Picture books intended for older kids
  • Graphic novels
  • Nonfiction books, atlases, children’s encyclopedias
  • Digital books for the iPad or laptop
  • Magazines like National Geographic Kids or Highlights

A fantastic resource for book lists by age, grade level, and topic is the Pragmatic Mom blog. Whenever I’m looking for great books related to a specific topic — for instance, books about birds, life on a farm, or science fiction for kids — I check the blog and rarely come away disappointed.

2. Read aloud.

Once my kids moved from picture books to chapter books, I found it tiring to read longer texts aloud. Besides, I figured they could read on their own now, so what was the point of reading to them? My son’s teacher helped me see the many benefits of reading aloud to older children:

  • Older kids love being read to as much as younger ones do! It is easier for kids at the end of a long school day to have a loving parent read to them so they can relax and simply focus on the story.

  • When you read together, you can stop from time to time and engage in meaningful discussion about characters and plot points. This will allow your child to spot the defining moments in a story. You can expect some wonderful and surprising conversations to emerge from these exchanges.

  • Your child can also stop you and ask for clarification when you read together, instead of making incorrect assumptions about difficult words or situations.

3. Listen to audiobooks.

Audiobooks offer similar benefits to reading aloud, especially when you make it a family activity. We use audiobooks in the car on road trips, or even when running errands around town. Aside from giving parents a break from reading aloud, some benefits of audiobooks are:

  • To introduce complex books, like older classics with great storylines. We listened to Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” multiple times on a recent road trip. I know my kids would not have the patience to read through the complex sentences in old-fashioned English, but the beautiful prose makes for wonderful listening.

  • Kids learn the correct pronunciation for new words. Many audiobooks are read by actors with crisp enunciation, and kids can learn how reading with expression brings a book to life. When you purchase an audiobook online, not only does it include a synopsis of the content, but it also has a review of the narrator’s reading style, which allows you to get an idea of what the book will sound like.

Some parents I know are concerned that kids will get so used to listening that they won’t want to make the effort to actually read. This can be remedied by having kids follow a print version of the book along with the audio.

If you are looking for some great titles for the whole family, check out these 11 recommended audiobooks to enjoy as a family.

4. Talk about what you read.

This is it! Discussion is the key to great reading comprehension skills. It is also the most time-consuming activity, and requires parents to commit the time and effort on a regular basis. We’ve started a weekend book club at home with an hour (sometimes more) dedicated to discussing what we read. It has not been easy, but the resulting improvements have been obvious.

The more you and your kids talk about the books they read, the better they will understand what they read. The following are useful points to touch on in your book discussions, as suggested by my son’s language arts teacher:

  • Discuss how the book makes your child feel
  • Compare and contrast the main characters in the story
  • Draw parallels between characters and real life situations faced by kids
  • Draw parallels between characters in the story and those in books read previously
  • Discuss “what-if” scenarios and make predictions about what happens next
  • Discuss “what would you do if this happened to you?” scenarios
  • Talk about what a character did and what it tells you about her

5. Try reading comprehension exercises.

You can have your child do some reading comprehension exercises to practice making inferences from short passages. Discuss the answers afterwards to make sure she understands them. Reading comprehension exercises are available online through free sites like ReadTheory. You can also buy comprehension workbooks at your child’s grade level from local or online booksellers.

The U.S. Department of Education says that helping your child become a reader is the single most important thing you can do to ensure her success in school and life. It has not been a quick and easy process for us, but one whose results I see in my children’s embrace of reading as well as their schoolwork. Reading has provided me with a lifetime of pleasure, and I would certainly wish the same for my children.