Many of us forget that learning to read is not the same thing as reading comprehension.  There is no doubt that there are thousands of great books out there and reading for enjoyment is a fantastic passion to foster in your child, but there is a big difference between active and passive reading.

Passive vs Active reading

Many of us think that just because our child reads a lot, he/she should be good at all literacy-related tasks, but the truth is that reading can be a little like watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie; we let it wash over us without having to think too much.  Reading more will increase our fluency and speed, but it won’t always help with our level of understanding.

I realise that this might be a controversial view as most of us assume that reading increases our vocabulary bank and this, in turn, helps with understanding.  The mind, though, is a wonderful thing.  It will compensate for not understanding words here and there by defining a context and allowing us to continue with the thread of what we are reading.  Unfortunately, a single word can vastly alter our ability to understand the author’s intent.  Consider the following sentence;

His maniacal laughter could be heard throughout the house.

Obviously, without understanding the word maniacal, we can still proceed with the story, but the sentence loses its intended meaning.  In the context of school-based assessment, where a passage needs to be broken down and analysed in detail, this makes a big difference.

How to help

So then; let us assume that you have a child who enjoys reading (I will leave the topic of how to get children to read for another post!).  How do we get them to understand more of what they have read?  One way for you to help is simply to talk about what they are reading.  If they are enjoying the book, it might be a good way of striking up a conversation about something they are interested in at the dinner table, instead of the standard; “So, how was school today?”

The trick is to know what to ask.  This will depend on the age of your child, the type of book and a range of other factors to really know what to do (it’s why us teacher-folk get paid the big bucks – I wish ..) but here are some starter questions for you.  Keep in mind that on the first try you might get the typical mono-syllabic response that teens usually offer, but persevere and it will pay off.  You might ask;

  • What is the story about?  Ask questions about the sequence of events – what happened first, next etc.
  • Who are the main characters?  Which one do you like best?  Why?  What are their personalities?  Are any of them like you?  How?
  • What’s your favourite part so far?  Why?
  • What do you think is going to happen next?
  • Is this one like any other books you have read?  How?
  • Would you have changed it if you were the author?  How?
  • For older students, ask them if it was believable in the context of the story.  For example, sc-fi or fantasy novels often exist in a world that has its own rules but then events sometimes don’t make sense.  It is what sets successful series such as Star Wars apart from the plethora of other novels and movies.  Getting your child to be critical of what he/she is reading is often one of the best ways to see if they really understand it.


Hopefully as time goes by you might find that your little one might actually start to come to you and ask for help with things they don’t understand about the books they are reading.  That’s when you know you’re really making a difference!  At this point try to keep things relevant.  Rather than giving a ‘dictionary-style’ meaning, put the word/phrase into a sentence that describes a recent event.

Keeping everything as relaxed and relevant as possible should aid in the discussion process.  Who knows; as well as helping boost your child’s comprehension skills, it might also give you some insight into what your child likes and open some doors to meaningful communication!

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