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5 Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension


At the heart of academic success in high school, college, and success beyond academics all comes back to one core skill: reading comprehension. While that’s the case, I’ve found there is a big misunderstanding about what really constitutes reading comprehension.

In elementary school between second and fourth grades students are expected to make the shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading to learn means both reading for pleasure and making connections between what they’ve read and learned. What I’ve seen, and what you may be seeing in your kids, is that most students go from learning to read to reading for school only.

As students go from book reports in elementary school to essays in middle school, they should make the jump from reading for understanding to greater reading comprehension. That doesn’t happen though. Instead, assessments students take in elementary, middle, and even high school reward reading for basic understanding. For parents who are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, you’ll know remembering and understanding are at the very bottom of the learning pyramid. Those skills reflect a basic understanding only. To really understand something, it’s about developing fluency in what you’ve read. (Bloom’s Taxonomy is so important that it really deserves an entire blog series on its own!)

As schools continuously reward our students for remembering, understanding, and regurgitating, the joy in reading is lost. If your child has stronger reading comprehension skills they will perform better in every way from their 4th grade classroom to advanced topics in their major in college. Approaching reading differently from how it’s approached in school will help your student excel in papers and essays in middle school and high school, and will set them up for success in college.

While it’s always best to start early, it doesn’t matter how old your child is, these five things will let you ensure they are improving their reading comprehension ability and continuously reading to learn.

Start here tonight.

1) Identify an area of interest for your student

Often parents ask me if their student must be reading the New York Times by 8th grade, I would only say yes if their child is interested in what’s happening in current events worldwide. Reading is far more fun when we are engaged in what’s written on the page. Reaching “reading to learn” requires us to start with entry level stuff—and I don’t mean beginner, I mean accessible. Studies have shown that students in middle school can read and comprehend video game guides written at a college level (read more here); that’s just because they’re interested in the material. A good place to start is Barnes and Noble’s magazine section or the local library’s periodicals section. What magazines is your child drawn to?

2) Find some magazine or articles online about the topic.

If your child is reluctant, make sure it’s something they like and, remember that it doesn’t matter how short the readings are to begin. If students are incredibly resistant to your offer, consider using a teacher, a coach, or community leader: an objective third party—even bearing the exact same message—can help a message get sticky.

3) Read the article and ask your child to read the article.

This is the hardest step in the process, and the part that most parents struggle with. (I love hearing from parents about how they got their kids to read, let me know.) You know your child best and you know how to engage them in the reading. Some students respond to “let’s read this together”, others like a recommendation. Use something to tie the article to your child, like a podcast, a story you heard on the radio during a commute, or even a movie your family saw recently. The first time may be the hardest, but with the next step, you can ensure that future recommendations are more fun. And, remember, the goal of these five steps is to move away from reading as another assignment just to answer questions.

4) Discuss the main ideas of the article.

This is where schools go wrong. In school your child has to discuss a book or interesting document, however, schools ask what happened, like the dates and details. This forces your student to read for a quiz or a test. Unlike schools, your goal in this process is to discuss “what’s it about?” without limiting yourself to “what happened?” No matter how old a child is or what they’re reading, this can be done. What’s important about what’s happening in the reading? What’s the point of what’s happening? Can your child infer or make predictions based on what they’ve read? What is the theme? What is the tone? What is the author’s point of view? This is where your dinner table conversations get a lot more fun—you’re not talking about what they read, you’re discussing something because of what they read. Fiction reading for pleasure should be a part of this, but remember to take the conversation beyond what just happened. The best way to set up your child for success in high school and college is with nonfiction readings.

5) Repeat and observe.

Over time, your child will graduate from basic articles to opinion articles and essays; and from fiction to non-fiction books. What did they like about the author’s argument? What would they have changed? How would they refute it? Your child is now forming arguments about things they are interested in based on what they’ve read. They are now miles ahead of the pack.

There are plenty of tools that make reading more accessible to students with learning differences or processing issues, too. Often students with dyslexia will work through the challenges with audiobooks and open source text to speech software. And, this framework of using a child’s interests to develop their interest in reading and reading comprehension doesn’t change.

If you have a story about your child’s reading comprehension development, please share. I love hearing success stories about reading comprehension and how you made it fun and interesting for your child.


Ramit Varma  

Helping parents navigate the politics and the jargon. Math. Test Prep. Learning. I co-founded Revolution Prep with the goal of profoundly improving students’ lives.