It feels great when your child reads aloud to you from a thick chapter book, right? You’re so proud of the way that he or she can read even multisyllabic words with relative ease.

First Dr. Seuss, then Patricia Pollaco. Before you know it, you’re laughing together at a Judy Blume book that you remember fondly from your own childhood. What a reader! Look at how she’s plowing through those pages!

I understand your excitement. Having been a teacher of first through fourth grade for almost 20 years now, I’m lucky enough to bear frequent witness to the palpable thrill a child feels when they’re really on the road towards becoming an independent reader. She feels capable, proud, and ready to explore this new world of books that has opened up before her.

It’s exciting when a child discovers a favorite series or a new author and curls up in the classroom library on a beanbag, enraptured. It’s wonderful to be a part of the journey as a child develops the stamina and skill to read for longer periods of time and to decode even the most difficult of words. It’s here that I offer some advice. Decoding new words is one part of being a reader. Fluency is another. Comprehension is another part, and the bulk of your time with your developing reader is wisely spent delving into comprehension.

What is “close reading?”

Comprehension is where it’s at in the Common Core Standards, and, much more importantly, comprehension is where it’s at in life. Without comprehension, time spent reading the words on the page is wasted. These new standards are changing the way reading is taught in America, and one of the biggest changes for kids is the “close reading” of texts.

Close reading is a key part of the new standards. What it means is that children are expected to attend more closely to the intimate details of a text than ever before. Your child is being asked to bring a critical eye to what she is reading – to examine what’s on the page in terms of its meaning, structure, details, or patterns. Close reading is about readers coming back to a  passage or text again and again.

The opposite of close reading is simply reading the words through, not thinking about or discussing what they’ve read, and then abandoning a book after it has been read one time. Use the time when you’re reading together to share observations and thoughts about the structure of the book, the author’s choice of layout or words and the little features on the page that they notice or find interesting.

How to help your child increase reading comprehension

There are several children in my class who, when I ask them to bring their book over and read with me, decode difficult words and then skip right over them, not asking what these words mean or how a new word or phrase might be influencing the meaning of the sentence. I coach the children by slowing them down and asking if they know what the new word or phrase means. If they don’t, I provide them with strategies so they can figure out the meanings of new words and phrases with growing independence.

At school, your child’s teacher will be asking questions as your child reads, modeling good reading behavior alongside your child and sharing in the reading. You can do this at home, too. Ponder the meaning of new words and phrases aloud. Show your child how you look for root words within words, clues in the sentence around the unknown word or phrase, and examine what kind of word it is. Is it an adjective or a noun, an adverb or a proper noun? How do we know? Talk about new word meanings, or show your child how to use a children’s dictionary to find the meanings of words.

If your child is reading in another room, have them jot down new words or phrases on a homemade bookmark or on a post it note as they read and then you can discuss their new words with them later when you are free.

How many times have you read a passage in a book yourself and left feeling uncertain about what you just read? It happens to me all the time. Reading with presence requires our full attention and concentration, and of course, this is the same for children. Rereading difficult passages is often the key to greater understanding, as is talking over what you’ve just read with someone else. This holds true for adults and children alike. Three key steps are:

  1. Ask your child to reread when something is unclear or hard to understand.
  2. Ask him questions that go beyond the literal and encourage your child to infer, reason, and explain their thinking.
  3. Ask your child her opinion and encourage her to back up her ideas and opinions with evidence from the text. This is a particularly good question to ask as the Common Core Standards place huge weight on having kids explain their thinking by referring to evidence in the text.

Read the “right” books

In my third grade classroom, children often read to me from books that are too complex. They may be able to read each word, but the plot, structure, or content of the book are not fully accessible because of the child’s reading ability or the developmental appropriateness of a text.

You can help your child identify if a book is too hard for him at this point in his reading life. If a child struggles to decode five words on one page of a chapter book, the book is likely too hard for your child to read independently. When a book is too difficult, fluency is interrupted and comprehension suffers. Taking a little bit of time to match your child to a book which is “just right” for them will yield many benefits – including confidence and enjoyment of reading. Ask your child’s teacher to help you find a “just right” book for your child if you are having trouble finding one.

Of course, the most important thing of all, when it comes to any kind of reading, is that the reader is making sense of what they’re reading (having fun when reading is obviously very important, too). Sometimes, we as readers have to read for a purpose other than pleasure. We may have to read for work, for information, or for an exam. This kind of reading can be arduous when vocabulary is specific to a topic and unfamiliar.

When you read books for fun with your child, this is an opportunity for you to empower her with strategies for finding meaning that they can use on their own when they’re doing a less enjoyable kind of reading. Ask your child to summarize or retell the paragraph, page, or chapter they just read. What just happened? What was the big idea or theme? What do you think about this book? Why?

But don’t take it all too seriously…

Here’s the thing. You’re not a teacher, you’re a parent. Which means that you get to do the fun stuff – reading in your jammies by the light of a flashlight and reading silly, crazy books in silly, crazy voices. Reading with your child should not feel like a lesson and it shouldn’t feel like hard work. It should be fun, there should be ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and laughter and giggles and joy in the simple pleasure of reading together.

The ideas above are simply things to think about; maybe something will strike a chord and work within your reading routine, maybe it won’t. If reading with your child feels like an inquisition, is exhausting, or lacking in enjoyment, then it’s time to change tack. Read with your child daily, have fun together as you read, and laugh.

As the great Dr. Seuss says, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go!” Just enjoy the ride with your young reader every day, and the Common Core Standards will simply take care of itself. Really.