Comprehension help

Is your child able to read, but still struggling to answer essay questions and assignments? Here's how to check their comprehension and help them improve.

At a glance

  • Good comprehension is important for every subject.
  • Even good readers can experience difficulty with comprehension in high school.
  • Successful readers continually monitor if something "makes sense" to them and re-read sections.
  • Different strategies will work with different types of text.
  • Education.nsw.gov.au contains links to third-party websites and resources. We are not responsible for the content of external sites.

As kids progress through primary and into high school, they face a whole new set of comprehension challenges that can be difficult even for kids who ‘read well'.

Every subject relies on students having the ability to understand what they're reading and then use the information in a certain way.

Without good comprehension skills children struggle. It may not even be obvious to you – or your child's teacher – that your child is finding comprehension difficult.

It's also helpful to understand why your child may be having difficulty – this will help you be patient with them and to recognise the signs that your efforts are working.

Why is comprehension harder in high school?

Obviously, the work becomes harder in secondary school and students are expected to be more independent.  Annalies van Westenbrugge, Senior Literacy Advisor says "the nature of reading changes significantly in secondary school" and comprehension is challenging for many high school students, early on.

"Depending on what the subject is and why the student is reading it, they'll need to use a range of new strategies to comprehend the information and use it properly," Annalies says.

"Are they simply skimming through research information, for example, for clues of whether it's  going to help them with history assignment? Or are they carefully reading poetry and need to be looking for literary devices like alliteration and metaphors? Different subjects require very different strategies, and those strategies are probably new to your child."

What do 'good readers‘ have in common?

Have you ever read a paragraph of a book and thought, "Wait, that doesn't make sense."? You probably went back, and reread the section, more slowly and carefully this time. You may have flipped back to the index page to see if you missed an important chapter or to see if it's explained in more detail later on in the book.

Coralie Janssens, a learning difficulties advisor for NSW public schools says this is an example of 'self-checking‘, something good readers do continually. "Some children who have difficulty with comprehension ignore that what they have just read didn't seem to make sense, and just plough on, " she says. "They often think that being a good reader means not having to go back and reread things, but the opposite is true."

"Good readers continually ask themselves 'did it make sense?'. If it didn't they go back and reread it, and slow their reading speed accordingly," Coralie explains.

It's important we tell our children that being a good reader isn't about speed or getting all the words right the first time. Good reading is knowing when you have to stop and try different things to help you understand the text.

Three things you can do right now to help

Ask your child to explain the text to you.

When children put what they have read into their own words, it helps in two ways:

  • Firstly, as a parent, you know they have understood what they have read.
  • Secondly, putting it into their own words actively helps them to comprehend and remember the information.

Verbalising and paraphrasing what you read is like bringing all the information together in the one place in your brain, and then putting it in order. This information can then be more quickly retrieved for us to use again later.

Coralie Janssens

Ask them questions

If they can't explain the text to you, break it down by asking them questions like:

  • What do you think this paragraph/story/page is about?
  • What do we already know about the subject or characters? (Where is it set, who is in the story, what are they like?)
  • What else might help us understand the information – are there pictures or diagrams that provide clues?
  • Are there any words here that you didn't understand? (Then help them to look the word up in a dictionary or through an online search.)
  • What do you think the main points were? (Perhaps underline them if the book is yours, or make notes. Some kids might even prefer to draw quick sketches if they are very visual.)

Wait – take a breath, and let them answer in their own time

When we ask the above types of questions, the temptation is to rush in and answer, or to point a finger at the answer on the page. Don't.

Learning is a process. Your child needs to make the connection from A to B to C in their own brain in order to be able to repeat the process later. If you point to "C", they haven't created this pathway in their own brain, and so they haven't fully comprehended the text.

If your child seems to be taking a long time to answer, wait. Silence can be frustrating for a busy parent, but it's actually a sign your child is trying to make the connection from A to B to C in their brain. Give them the time to successfully find their own way there.

If they still don't have an answer – and any answer is a sign they are doing the work and trying to make the connection – calmly ask a slightly different version of the question.

Literacy advisor Annalies van Westenbrugge says simply rewording a question can create a breakthrough for your child.

"When you eavesdrop on a group of students discussing a problem, they ask the question several different ways, and then explain themselves in several different ways," Annalies says.

Often just changing one or two words suddenly makes the answer obvious.

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