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My husband and I are both compulsive readers so it was a matter of celebration when first one child then the next started to read. My hope is that my kids will experience like me, the magic of armchair travel into all sorts of imaginary worlds throughout their lives. I do find however, that the growth of reading comprehension skills in my boys, and the transition to chapter books is not quite the organic process that I thought it would be. I have to work at it with them on a daily basis, somewhat to my surprise.  Here’s some of the issues we have encountered and some methods that we’ve tried out successfully to combat them. 

First off, why am I so focused on reading comprehension? Going beyond the pleasure, reading with good comprehension is a skill that is essential for academic success and career success at every stage:

  • Reading comprehension is an important part of the language curriculum in school, with good reason. The abilities to filter out important information, draw inferences from a text and relate it to our experience and knowledge of the world are important life skills.
  • Even a student who is good at math and the sciences needs good reading skills to understand instructions and solve word problems correctly.
  •  All standardized tests even at higher academic levels such as the SATs, GMAT, and GRE include a reading comprehension section as an important component
  • This is not a skill that can be built overnight. It takes persistence and sustained effort.

At the Start
At elementary school, I find my son being tested for fluency while reading out loud, decoding unfamiliar words, and the ability to answer questions based on inferences from the text. Some strategies to help your kids build confidence to perform better in class and read with better comprehension are:

  • Read with your kids on a daily basis. Schools suggest about 20 minutes of reading for a child.
  • Practice reading out loud:
    • Have them take turns. I read alternate pages or have siblings read to each other. Sometimes, my four year old will read a story to his favorite teddy bear. Sometimes we will take on a different character each and read in funny voices.
    • I try to listen without too many interruptions especially when the mistakes don’t affect the overall meaning of the text. I remind myself to always appreciate their effort.
    • Some things to try when they get stuck on a word – “Try and sound it out”, or “What do you think it could be?”
  • Discuss the books with your kids! Relate the stories to their lives and ask them to draw connections to their own lives as well.
  • Ask them direct questions about the characters or the situation in the book. Was it scary or funny? Why do you think the character behaved in a certain way? What do you think will happen next? Teach them to ask themselves at the end of a book they have liked – “How does this book/character make me feel?”
  • I found my son often resisted a discussion right after reading the book so I would sometimes turn the tables and give him an opportunity to question me about the story. This made him feel like he was in charge – even thinking about questions related to the story requires a child to review it in his head. To avoid making it seem like I was testing him, we would sometimes discuss characters in a casual conversation during a totally unrelated activity like walking the dog or watering plants in the backyard.

Transition to Chapter Books
When my boys started reading their first words in preschool, they were overjoyed and read out loud from menus to street signs to just about any printed words in sight. This was most thrilling to see. However, as my son grew older, I felt his enthusiasm flagging. He developed all kinds of issues in the 1st and 2nd grade:

  • His progress through reading levels seemed to stagnate and he grew more reluctant to have our little book discussions.
  • He also seemed to prefer non-fiction books almost exclusively to fiction.
  • He did not seem to be able to make the transition from picture books to chapter books, while all the girls around us seem to have developed into prolific little readers!

I started to research how we can keep up the enthusiasm for reading in our kids, especially among boys – results from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) shows that girls outperformed boys in reading in all 33 participating countries –  so I took heart that my child may not be alone, but was nevertheless concerned.  After speaking to his teacher and doing some more research I introduced some changes to my approach.

Things that worked for me:

  • Choosing books based on topics of interest. I found that my nature and animal-crazy boy would read almost any story that featured animals. Charlotte’s Web was a huge hit with him. He’s read it a few hundred times. I chose the books carefully, mixing in classics like easy reading versions of Black Beauty and Moby Dick with more modern Puppy Place and Kitten Club books.
  • I continued reading to him aside from the times he read by himself. We focused initially on shorter chapter books with more illustrations so that he was less intimidated. I also would read the initial chapters of books I knew he would like until he got hooked to the story line and took over reading it himself.
  • Mixed Picture books with Chapter books. I continue to bring my eight year old picture books from the library and don’t rush to transition over completely to chapter books. Picture books play an important role in the appreciation of books and their artwork, firing children’s imaginations and their ability to interpret a story using visuals and minimal text and should not be discarded in a hurry. Nowadays older kids and teens also enjoy graphic novels.
  • I stopped worrying about his seeming obsession with non-fiction. A lot of boys I know seem to prefer facts over fiction. Non-fiction books also build comprehension skills – and a lot of “Make and Do” type of books such as cookbooks, craft and building books, or Lego related books require kids to focus and follow a complex series of instructions. This need not be discouraged, just mixed with enough fiction to balance their reading material.
  • I try to mix in some action. I encourage my boys to act out stories we read. The top bunk of their bed often features as Captain Hook’s ship. They hunt moose and camp in the living room as they enact a Lewis and Clark expedition. We hope to do more theme-based activities such as artwork and visiting museums related to their reading over the summer vacation. This obviously takes more planning and effort to be a meaningful learning experience.

I’ve listed some beginning Chapter books that we’ve enjoyed below. You can also buy them from our US Learning Store or our India Learning Store:

  • Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, which feature plenty of action and historical facts through time-traveling kids, are not very long and have some illustrations.
  • Elmer and the Dragon and the subsequent books – My Father's Dragon and the The Dragons of Blueland by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Again, not lengthy, the books have a little boy who cleverly helps out and then has adventures with a baby dragon.
  • If your kid loves sports, stories by Matt Christopher such as The Lucky Baseball Bat and the Soccer Cats series might do the trick!
  • Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant is a sweet series that girls will enjoy. It is about three cousins who spend summers with their aunt Lucy while their parents travel with the ballet.

Reading together with your kids is a journey to be treasured rather than a chore or a target to be accomplished. It adds forks and new paths into my own reading journey and builds memories that my kids and I will keep through our lives. I am hoping some of the tips here will help you feel the same way.

For websites to help build reading comprehension skills, see our article

For some of our classic favorites to read with for kids see our article

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