How to Improve your Comprehension Skills

Reading comprehension is the sum of a constellation of subskills. In order to understand what we read, many different processes and skills must be working together. If any of the pieces are not in place, comprehension will suffer. Find the weak areas, strengthen them, and improve comprehsnion. Here are some strategies:

1) Comprehension depends on attention. In order to understand what is read, readers must be actively engaged in the process. Just as listeners who are not attentive can let messages “go in one ear and out the other,” so too readers can allow text to “go in one eye and out the other” in a manner of speaking. Assess attentiveness by trying this experiment. First, have your reader read a passage of text in the usual way. Ask some basic questions about the content and see if the student can answer them. Now, use a new but similar level text and present the questions before the reading. Remind the reader to look for answers to the questions while he or she processes the text. Was there a significant difference in performance? Attention to reading may be one comprehension issue.

To combat inattentiveness, give the reader a task to accomplish while reading. This can be searching for answers to questions, creating an outline of the material, or even visualizing details of the story that are not explicitly stated, such as the color of clothing that a character is wearing or how much traffic was on the nearby road. You can help children to do this by assigning these or similar tasks. You can help yourself by utilizing a study method such as the popular SQ3R, which instructs readers to first survey the material and generate applicable questions, then read, review and recite the answers.

2) Vocabulary is a foundation for comprehension. Little will be understood or retained if the words are unfamiliar. For an adult, nearly all words should be known when reading most fiction as well as newspapers or popular magazine articles. A child’s vocabulary is dependent on age and grade placement. If a reader does not know more than three or four words per page of text (even when said aloud), then vocaublary may be an issue for comprehension.

Build vocabulary skills by using more language. Try crossword puzzles, word games, and word-a-day programs from the internet or the bookstore. Words must be used many times before they become a part of the working vocabulary, so be sure to pepper your conversation and writing with your new linguistic treasures. Pay close attention as you read and notice the words that you do not recognize. See if the meaning can be gleaned from context, or jot the new word down for a later check in the dictionary. To help children improve vocabulary, read aloud to them from books that are beyond their present reading skill. Don’t be afraid to stop and talk about what new words mean, either!

3) Fluency is vital for comprehension. Efficient readers do not read word-by-word, but rather take in whole phrases or even sentences at one time. If reading is hesitant or stumbling, comprehension will suffer. Students who laboriously sound out many words or consistently misread small connective words will not be able to understand and recall the material. To assess fluency, try the “Five Finger Method.” Choose a sample of text from the middle of the book, on a page with few or no pictures. Read aloud, and put one finger on the table for each word that is difficult to read or that is unknown. If more than five fingers are needed, then the text is too difficult for fluent reading. You can use this method to get a rough reading grade level score for yourself or for your child. Simply choose text with a known reading level (many are indicated on the back or spine of the book for children’s literature), or type the passage into your word processor and check the reading level (in MS Word, running the “grammar and spell check” under “Tools” will yield a reading level).

Several problems can cause difficulties with fluency, including poor phonics skills, poor syllabication skills, or poor visual tracking skills. A person with phonics problems may cue on the first letter or letters of a word, then take a guess about its identity. A student having difficulty with syllabication may consistently have trouble decoding longer words or words with suffixes or prefixes. A person with tracking problems may skip words or lines, or may read text several times.

One method proven to build fluency is called Neurological Impress Method (NIM). It is free to try and requires no training. All you need to invest is a bit of time on a daily basis. To use NIM, find a book that is at a level where reading is easy for the person having difficulty. Pair the struggling reader with a reader who is fluent at that level. Place the book on the table in front of the readers sitting side by side. The fluent reader should be on the struggling reader’s right hand side. The two of them should read in unison while the fluent reader points to the words with a finger. The fluent reader will naturally be a word or two ahead of the student, and should continue reading even if the student makes an error or hesitates. When the struggling reader feels confident, he or she should tap the table to signal the fluent reader to stop, then continue reading alone. However, if the student makes any error, hesitates, or stumbles, the fluent reader should join in once again and read for several more paragraphs until the student taps the table once more. As the student progresses, the job of pointing to the words and setting the reading pace should shift to the learner. Practice in this way on a daily basis for six to eight weeks, and you are quite likely to see significant progress. The usual time period that is recommended is twenty to thirty minute sessions.

It is possible to improve reading comprehension with practice and attention to these three areas. Whether you are concerned about another person’s reading or wishing to improve your own comprehension, a quick check of attentiveness, vocabulary and fluency will give you guidance about where to focus instruction and practice. No matter how old a person is, doors open when reading improves. It’s never too late to build these skills.