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Growing Reader

What You Can Do If
Your Child Doesn’t Understand the Words They Read

by Melissa Taylor

Photo credit: Science Photo Library, Science Photo Library/Getty Images

“What do you do if a beginning reader can ‘read’ words but has no idea what the words mean?” asked a Brightly reader. Decoding words, or saying the words, is clearly not all there is to reading. The goal of reading is to comprehend. With the reader’s question in mind, I gathered my favorite comprehension activities that parents and teachers can do at home or at school to help their children comprehend what they read.

Remember, there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to the brain’s ability to read. Kids need to do many things simultaneously: recognize letters, decode sounds, read the words fluently, and comprehend using thinking strategies such as visualization, connecting to background knowledge, and more. What makes reading and reading instruction tricky is that it’s not a linear process; there are so many things going on in the brain all at once. The activities below can help your child focus on one strategy at a time to improve reading comprehension.

For some children, reading is harder because of a learning disability like dyslexia. You may want to read this article about what parents and teacher might notice when there is a learning problem.

Lastly, you’ll notice that I’m not addressing phonics or decoding in these activities. In this situation, the child is skilled at decoding words. However, if you are interested, you can find decoding activities here.

Emphasize monitoring meaning.

I think the most important strategy is for a child — the one you work on first — is to know when they do understand and when they don’t understand. Here are some exercises you can try with your child:

  1. Read aloud an easy picture book story to your child. Throughout the story, ask the child, “Do you understand what’s happening?” Have them explain to you what’s happening in the book. Give each other a thumbs up when you both know the child is understanding.
  1. After mastering this, read aloud a more difficult picture book story, perhaps without showing the illustrations. Ask the child to notice if they get confused and to immediately stop you with a thumbs down. Praise this effort! It’s important that the child knows (and stops reading) when they are confused. This is a good thing. When the child is confused, go back and reread, stopping to explain questions when necessary, showing the illustrations, and clarifying any new vocabulary words.
  1. Once you’ve gotten the hang of monitoring meaning in picture book read-alouds, apply this strategy in the child’s own reading. Require them to stop after each page or two for a meaning check (“Do I understand?”). Ask them to tell you what they just read, in their own words. This will either reinforce the meaning OR let you know if they’re still not comprehending. Use thumbs up and thumbs down for a quick check.
  1. Finally, it’s important to teach kids what to do when they’re confused. Write down these steps on an index card so they can remember (and, of course, practice doing these together!):
  • If you are confused, STOP READING.
  • Stop until you understand. Continue only when you are not confused.
  • Reread the page.
  • Ask for help.
  • Change books to something easier.
  • Listen to someone read the part to you. Then reread it to yourself.
  • Use the picture clues to clarify what’s happening. Reread.
  • Pick a familiar story to read instead.
  • Try one of your thinking strategies (visualize, connect to something else, or ask a question).

Practice visualization (or creating sensory images).

Explain to the child that readers can see the movie of what’s happening in their minds. You can call this visualization. Or mind movies. Or creating sensory images.

  1. Whatever you call it, practice this strategy in a story you read out loud to your child. Talk about what you see, smell, taste, etc. For example: “I see a big hairy monster with brown fur who smells like rotten eggs.” Tell your child that visualizing, or making mind movies, is a good sign that you understand. (Thumbs up!)
  1. Encourage your child to practice visualizing while reading a book themselves. Go slowly — a page or two at a time. Stop and ask if your child can see a mind movie. Ask them to share what it is.
  1. Remind your child that if they’re not seeing a movie about what’s happening in the text, they are probably not understanding. And that means it’s time to STOP. Get out your index card with suggestions of what to do next.

Try connecting the text to your life.

Make personal connections with the text to help comprehension and long term memory.

  1. Use the stem “This reminds me of…” to show your child how you make personal connections as you read aloud. For example: “This reminds me of when we went to the beach.” Or “This reminds me of your last birthday party.” You can make connections to your life, another story, a friend, or anything else you think of. This generally comes naturally to kids (“My friend’s dad is named Bob, too!”). Celebrate these connections.
  1. After you read a book aloud to them for practice, help your child practice making connections while reading on their own. See if they can find one or two personal connections in the text they’re reading to share with you.

Make predictions and ask questions.

Make predictions to set up what the story might be about. Questions do the same thing. If you’re curious about what might happen or what information you might learn, you’re setting yourself up for comprehension.

  1. Before you read a book, show your child how to do a book walk. Here’s how:
  • Look at the title page. Make observations about the title and the illustration.
  • Thumb through the pages, noticing the illustrations there, too.
  • Use your observations to make an informed prediction on what the book will be about.

A book walk sets up comprehension success because your child will have an idea about the plot before they start reading. (“I think this book will be about a cowgirl and her mischievous dog who runs away.”) As always, practice this a lot.

  1. Ask questions before you start a story. Then read to find the answers. For example: “I wonder if the girl is going find her lost dog?” Model this for young readers by asking your own questions before you start reading.

Practice responding to text.

Some kids struggle to hold information in their short-term memories. Frequent responses can help these kids get the information of what they read into long-term memory. Also, for some kids, responding may be more fun than reading. At least for now.

  1. After your child reads a section of text, ask them to stop and respond. Responses include: tell you about the story, draw something from the story, or write about the story.
  1. Make reading social. When you read together, talk about what has happened in the book before, during, and after your reading session. Text a friend about what you just read. Skype with grandma and tell her about the book. Anything you can do to spark excitement and interactivity with the book can help, especially after reading.

Good readers use many strategies when reading text. While they’re reading, they’re monitoring meaning, visualizing, predicting, revising predictions, asking questions, connecting to their lives, and synthesizing information — just to name a few. Again, these strategies aren’t isolated in our brains in a linear process. (I wish!) But we can teach and reinforce individual thinking strategies one at a time so as to not overwhelm our beginning readers, especially those who are struggling.


Do you have any questions about how to help your child overcome reading difficulties? Let us know in the comments below!