Why are comprehension skills important for school success? It’s because children who truly understand what they read will be able to make vital connections for learning, such as linking a text to their personal experience, or to knowledge that they may have picked up in the past.
In contrast, children who lack comprehension skills could experience chronic school anxiety, as they may not be able to keep up with classroom discussions or build on prior knowledge.
Understandably, many parents are keen to help their young children develop strong comprehension skills. Some have even started their preschoolers on assessment book practice, in order to prepare them for primary school life.
However, you can also foster these skills in your children by reading quality books and discussing the stories together — highly recommended, as this is a holistic and enjoyable approach towards learning. Read on to find out how you can do this!
Can your child identify a story’s primary idea?
A basic comprehension skill that a child should develop is the ability to state what a story is generally about. At the same time, he or she can also learn to distinguish between a story’s important and less important elements.
For example, in this video story, titled “Carlos Goes To School,” other than the title, the text does not explicitly state that Carlos is preparing to go to school. Try the following activities with your child:
Before playing the video for your child, let him or her know that a story’s title often provides a clue as to what a story is about. After your child has watched the video, ask, “What is this story about?” (If your child is unable to answer, you can provide two or more options — e.g. “a backpack,” “Carlos’s sister,” and “Carlos is preparing to go to school” — and ask your child to select the best option.)
For advanced learners: play the video for your child, but skip the title screen. When the video is over, ask, “What title would you give this story?”
If your child is distracted by the different story elements, and is unable to identify the story’s main idea, relate the story to real life. Ask your child, “When you pack your bag in the morning, change into your school uniform, and have your breakfast, what are you getting ready for?”
Does your child keep up with changes in a story’s setting?
Some preschoolers can get confused when a story’s setting changes, such as when a character moves from one location to another. If this is the case for your child, you can look for books where a protagonist interacts with different settings, such as this e-book titled “Where Is Lulu?”
In the story, a girl named Lulu hides from her mother in different locations within her home. Eventually, she stops hiding, and heads out to the library with her mother. Your child will find it fun to spot Lulu’s hiding places, and you can also ask your child, “Which part of the home is this?”
Does your child know what is happening in a story, from the beginning, to the middle, and the end?
If your child has trouble recalling or making sense of a story’s order of events, you can have him or her practise the skill of sequencing in daily life. For instance, you could ask your child to list everything that he or she has done in a day, from morning to night. Or, you could ask your child to list the steps that are necessary for carrying out a familiar activity, such as “Mummy preparing lunch.”
To download free teaching resources, google “story sequencing worksheets” or “story sequencing cards.”
Does your child understand the new words in a story?
Many of the new words and phrases that your child will encounter will be associated with emotions. One way that you can help make these words more accessible for your child is by using a feelings or emoji chart, and asking them to pick out the most appropriate emotion conveyed by a word.
In general, the best way to help your child build his or her vocabulary is to use new, and even complex words in daily conversation, as preschoolers who are exposed to rich vocabulary (and explanations of what these words mean) will pick up more words than those who are not.
Can your child make predictions about a story?
Making a prediction about a story’s outcome is an intermediate skill that is good to expose children to, especially if they already have basic reading and comprehension skills. You can invite your children to make predictions as you are reading stories aloud, by pausing to ask, “What do you think happens next?”
You can also watch animated stories together, on free sites such as Storyline Online, and pause a story at appropriate moments to query your child.
When asking your children to predict what might happen next in a story, remember that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. Rather, this is an opportunity to listen to your child’s guesses, and to talk about whether or not they are plausible, and why.
Can your child identify the moral of a story?
This is an advanced comprehension skill, most suitable for children who already have a solid foundation in reading and comprehension.
After you’ve read a story together, ask your child, “What can you learn from the main character in this story?” Alternatively, ask your child at specific points during a story, “Do you think that what this character did was wrong? Why? What could he have done instead?”
You could share your opinions about the characters, and ask your children if they agree. Alternatively, provide your children with two suggestions about a story’s moral lessons; ask them to pick the one they feel is most suitable, and explain their choice. You could also begin a sentence and trail off to let your children fill in the blanks. (Example: “I think he was brave because…”) As such questions can be complex for preschoolers, do proceed with patience and care.
The above tips were adapted from a workshop on building comprehension skills for preschoolers, organised by the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) at their Preschool Seminar 2019. The presenters, Vera Tai and Shakthi Bavani Sathiasilan, are both preschool educational therapists with the DAS. Find out more about the DAS and its services here.