Many parents of children with special needs are working to increase reading comprehension with their child. It is not uncommon for children with special needs to struggle with understanding what a story, or even a paragraph, is about, who the main characters are, what the setting is, what the problem or moral is and/or what the function of a story is. There are hundreds of strategies that can assist your child to gain a better understanding of fiction. In this article I am going to discuss the five strategies that I have found to be most beneficial in increasing reading comprehension: breaking the material into very small chunks, connecting the story to a real life situation or emotion, making reading multisensory through audio books, DVD’s or by being read to, connecting to literature through art and the need for repetition. Working on reading comprehension requires you to be much more present and interactive than simply reading a story before putting your child to bed.
Children who have issues with short-term memory, concentration and/or getting the “big picture” are rarely able to comprehend a whole story for younger children or a whole chapter for older children. It is best to stop reading after 1-2 pages to discuss was has happened so far, who is in the story, where the story is taking place and what he/she thinks might happen next. If the story is a picture book, you can use the pictures as clues. Ask your child questions to evoke responses. If they do not know the answer or seem confused, point to the text and/or pictures that will help them answer your question. As you are going through the story or chapter, stop often and ask new questions as well as questions you have already asked to check for retention. If the retention is poor, flip back to where you first discussed that item. With this method, you may only get through a small section of the chapter or book, but that is okay if you are working on comprehension rather than fluency.
If you can help your child connect to something in the story through a real life situation or an emotion they have felt they are much more likely to comprehend and remember the story. Many of us who read fiction, look for how it relates (or does not relate) to our own life. Ask questions such as, “What does that remind you of?”, “Do you know anyone who has done that/felt that way?”, “What happened last week that made you feel like that?”, “Have you ever been to (the setting)? What did you do there?”, or “How do you think (a character) feels? Why do you think (he/she/it) feels that way?” These types of questions can help build the bridge to better understanding because there is a personal connection.
Many children with special needs learn best in a multi-sensory format. Children who struggle with reading comprehension, even if they can read the text, are better off listening to a story than reading it to themselves. For some children listening to an audio book while they follow along is very helpful because they are getting the visual input from the text , and pictures if there are any, and they are hearing the text auditorily. Many children’s books are also on DVD and seeing the text acted out may draw another form of connection for your child. Check with your local Library or your school Librarian about what they have in stock.
If your child enjoys art-coloring, drawing, using clay or play-dough or crafts-creating things along the way or as a final project can also increase their comprehension. This is another multi-sensory strategy that helps many children connect the content of the visual book through the tactile senses. I have had children of all ages do tactile projects as a way to summarize text. Many children also find this much more engaging than simply discussing a book or writing about a book.
Repetition is critical in the learning process of many children with special needs. How many of us when we are reading ourselves have to go back and reread something because we were distracted or tired or simply need more time to process the information? Most, if not all, people do this on occasion. If your brain is somehow impaired by your special learning needs this needs to happen multiple times for retention to occur. With my early learners, I reread the same book every day for an entire week to help them integrate different concepts. A few children will comment that we have already read this book, but most are happy to go back through it and it helps them connect to the text. For more advanced learners I always ask them to do a summary of what has already happened in the story before we move on to new content.
What reading comprehension strategies have you used to help your child connect to fiction? How have you supported your child in gaining an understanding of the text he/she is reading in a way that is meaningful to them?