How to naturally increase reading comprehension

Reading comprehension can seem to be a complex process—and for many new homeschool grownups, it can feel intimidating to teach. However, it becomes a natural skill when students have become familiar with and, eventually, internalized the common elements of all stories. 

Not sure what that means? You’re probably more familiar with them than you think. These common elements are also referred to as story structure. What do I refer to when I say story structure? All stories have a setting, characters, goals, obstacles, attempts to solve the problem (rising action), and, at last, a final resolution. Most of the action elements are considered the plot of fiction. Every story has the same components, yet each fiction story is unique. The more your child reads—and these elements are discussed in what is read—the more natural it will be for details to be understood in these terms. With engaging conversation, a video (yes, that counts as a “story!”) will also encourage this mental map to take shape and solidify for your child. 

Story structure is most easily understood by children who have grown up talking about stories—beginning from the time they were able to sit in a lap. When good books are enjoyed in a non-academic setting, the love of words and a natural grasp of the elements of all fiction is the result. But don’t worry—even if you haven’t developed this habit from your child’s early days, it is never too late to begin!

As you read to or with your child, take the time to have a relaxed conversation about what a story entailed. Relaxed is the key term here—this is not a Q&A drill or test. Point out interesting things about the setting. Could the same story problem have developed if the author had used a completely different setting? Could the character have lived oceanside? Throw in some “what-ifs” as you talk about what you liked and what you found most interesting. What surprised you? Has your child ever experienced a similar problem as the character? (If they haven’t but you have, share your experience! How did you feel when you were in that situation? What did you do to solve your problem?) The idea is to teach and demonstrate to your child how to grasp the most important details of the story, not to just recite back a series of random details.

This technique also teaches your child how to make personal connections with stories. Brain researchers have shown that we focus better and remember more if we are able to connect new information to what already has been learned or experienced. If the book refers to places you and your family have been, talk about memories, likenesses, and differences between what your experiences were and what is in the story. 

Here are some simple ways to help your child reinforce connections with what they read. Try them all with your child over the next few weeks to see which technique they enjoy and engage with the most!

Journaling

Journaling can also help to solidify these connections. When a child journals in response to a fiction piece, they can also make strong personal connections to the character and his or her motives and decisions. This is a wonderful opportunity for readers to connect with what they would have done in a similar situation, making judgment calls based on their beliefs, and comparing or contrasting with the story character.

Retelling

If your child has an understanding of story structure, it will help guide them as they retell the story to you or another person. Have you ever heard a child (or adult) get lost retelling a million details but miss the main point of the story? They didn’t have a way to focus on the most important ideas and got lost in “the weeds.” As a listener, you probably were wishing you could say, “Get to the point!” By practicing retelling from a young age, your child will learn to hone in on what matters and what is detail.

Cartooning

Use the structure to help with a creative activity such as cartooning. Similar to journaling, cartooning strengthens recall and connections but also helps build their skills at visualizing the details. How does your student imagine what the character looks like or where the setting is? Limiting their cartoons to just a page or two will also help them focus on the story structure as they prioritize what they should draw. For example, one frame could show what the character wants to achieve or what their goal is. Another frame would reveal at least one problem the character faced. The last frame could show how the problem was solved and the goal was reached. 

Creative storytelling

All literature, classical or modern, provides a recognizable plot format, useful for creative storytelling. As your child becomes comfortable with story structure, encourage their creativity. For instance, you can feature characters from a story you have read and change the setting, plot, or resolution components. By using the literature framework, your child can enjoy creating something brand new while rehearsing the tried and true elements of all story writing. Even the wackiest make-believe fantasy can have characters in a setting with a goal or problem they want to solve. 

We have discussed multiple ways to improve a reader’s understanding, all with the goal of internalizing the common glue—story structure. Most important though is having a parent or grownup who is engaged and able to convey the joy of reading and the pleasure of experiencing all kinds of amazing literature. Now go have fun!

Joan Benson, MSE in Curriculum + Instruction
Joan Benson, MSE in Curriculum + Instruction

Joan is a freelance writer, a blogger, a speaker, a retired educator/reading specialist, a wife, a mother of four adult children, and a grandmother to eight precious grands. She holds a MSE from the University of Kansas with a specialization in reading curriculum and instruction. In addition, Joan continues to write for educational publishers (K-12), including fiction, nonfiction, teacher’s guides, and assessments.

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