Before They Know How to Read

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A guide to building comprehension in preschool children by Cathy Puett Miller, TLA, Inc.
Before They Know How to Read

Recently, while training a group of kindergarten teachers, I was amazed to hear one make this statement: “I thought we weren’t supposed to teach comprehension until the children learned to decode.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.   Whether you are a preschool teacher or a parent, the foundations for reading success are built before your child goes to kindergarten.

Let’s look at the most common strategies children learn to use in 3-5th grade to help them better understand what they read.  Surprisingly enough, all of them cam be applied with pre-readers as well, in a conversational, back and forth sharing of a book.  Even preschool teachers can use these strategies in their classroom when interacting with a group of children or an individual child.

  1.  Making Connections.  When you and your child read together, or when you are just teaching her about something new, make connections from what she knows already to what she doesn’t know.  For instance, if she knows what a horse is but doesn’t know a zebra, you can talk with her about the fact that they are both members of the same family but a zebra always has stripes and a horse never does.  If you are reading a book about puppies and it is one of your child’s favorite things, you can relate it to other stories you have read together about puppies.  Make a few comparisons – what is the same; what is different?
  2. Asking questions.  Everyone who interacts with a child knows that questions are a part of every day life.  When your child interrupts for the twentieth time to ask a question, don’t scold.  Answer his question in a conversational way; it will only take seconds, and it is an investment in your child’s future, his potential, his growth.
  3. Visualizing, making mental images.  There is a more extensive outline of how to do this at (RUTH PLEASE LINK TO MY ARTICLE FROM THIS MONTH ON VISUALIZATION)  but suffice it to say that using imagination is especially important for young children.    It helps them learn to think beyond the here and now, in more abstract terms.  Very young children tend to relate on to the concrete, what they can see (think about playing peek-a-boo; the child believes you are gone when you disappear behind the blanket).  You can help move your child to a higher level of thinking by talking about the images you make in your head when you hear certain words and help your child learn to make those connections mentioned earlier in the story-reading time.
  4. Deciding what is important.  As readers, we filter out the unnecessary and remember the critical.  Children can learn to do that too, even before they are readers.  A good question to ask is,

    if I asked you to tell me what this story is about in just a few words, so I would know the most important part, what would you say? 

    Young children may need you to talk to them about the central idea and help them see how it was more important than a tiny little detail that has little to do with the outcome.  Let your child practice retelling so he can share the story with Daddy when he comes home.  When you let your child retell a story, you are helping her learn how to tell just the high points.

  5. Monitoring and repairing understanding.  When you talk about what is happening in the story you read together, you open your mind to show your child how you question and think to make sure you understand what is happening, what the author is trying to tell you.  You also correct misunderstandings or assumptions as you move through the text.  At first, your might think Poof by John O’Brien is a book about Halloween because the characters on the front of the book are dressed as a wizard (in what might appear to a young child to be a costume for Halloween).   In fact, it is a story about wizards who try to get out of work/responsibilities with hilarious consequences.

Try a few of these “big kid” comprehension ideas with your preschool child.  You’ll be amazed at how well the young brain works.  You’ll also be building skills that will make it easy for your child to succeed in the more academic world of school.
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