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Do Young Kids Understand What they Read?

Reading Comprehension in Young Children

One common question I get asked often is can young children understand what they are reading? This question comes from parents that have seen videos of my children reading books at just 3 and 4 years old, and also of videos of other very young children that learned to read early using my reading program. It's a legitimate question, because when you see a little 3, 4, or 5 year old reading entire storybooks by themselves, you'll probably wonder whether these children really understand what they are reading. I sometimes see my children and students giggle by themselves, and upon closer observation, I see them hunched over a book. When you look closely and pay attention to the child, you'll often notice the expression of their feelings when reading - smiles and giggles during funny parts or frowns and tension during exciting and tense parts.

I think this is as clear an indication of reading comprehension as any!

But of course, you cannot judge how well a child is able to comprehend by their expressions! So does a young child really understand what he or she is reading? My answer to that is this: "If the words read by the child are within this child's vocabulary, then yes, the child will be able to understand what he or she is reading." You see, reading comprehension is largely a function of 1) decoding and word recognition ability (reading fluency), and 2) vocabulary and knowledge. If a child is able to decode and read words on the fly with little to no stuttering or pause, and if the words are within the child's vocabulary, then the child should understand what he/she is reading.

Let's use the following sentence as an example:

"The red dog barks at the honking car."

If the child knows what a dog and car are, and knows what barking and honking means, then it's reasonable to say that this child understands what the sentence means - if he/she was able to read it fluently. Fairly straight forward. But if the child comes across a complex passage with a lot of "big" words, he/she will have limited understanding.

A good example of this would be my oldest child Raine reading the long passage in the Technical Analysis book in the video above (starts at 1:05). Although she can read the entire passage, there are just so many words in there that she's probably just seeing for the first time ever, and the concepts in the passage are probably quite alien to her, so her understanding of it will be very limited. But of course, how often do you see a small 5 year old child read a text book of that level? Simply being able to read through the entire passage is a feat for such a young child. Suffice to say, Raine does not even know what the stock market is, and she has no idea what support and resistance levels are, or what reversal points are where former resistance becomes support or former support becomes resistance. In fact, it's probably safe to say that most adults will not quite understand these technical analysis concepts, unless they've dabbled with trading - at least semi-seriously.

Children that learn to read early will be years ahead of their peers in terms of reading/spelling skills, vocabulary growth, and also in their comprehension abilities. If we look upon reading as a simplified two step process where we first must be able to recognize the squiggly text and know what words they represent (decoding and reading), and the second step is where we try to gather meaning from what we've read (comprehension), then children that have difficulty with reading and decoding will experience difficulties with their comprehension. For a child (or anyone) to have good reading comprehension, they must be fluent readers. If too much time, focus, and brain power is put towards word recognition and decoding, the young reader will have limited understanding of what he/she is reading.

What I have noticed over the years with my children and young students I've taught is that children that learn to read early will develop incredible decoding skills along? with amazing reading fluency early on. More importantly, these young kids develop superb reading comprehension skills, and yes, they definitely understand what they read. A simple method I use to do comprehension checks and to help enhance students' comprehension of what they've just read is to have simple discussions about the story after reading. Asking simple questions of who, what, when, where, how, and why not only allows you to check for their understanding, but it also helps to enhance their understanding as well. So after your children has read a story, discuss the plot, the setting, and the characters with them.

To help your child develop exceptional reading comprehension, we have to master the first step - that is, develop fast and fluent decoding and reading skills. This process of word recognition and translating text to sound must consume very little brain power, to allow the child to use their mental energy to analyze and understand what it is he or she is reading. Children who are still learning to read or just starting to read will expend most of their focus and energy on decoding and reading, and early on, this process requires some serious effort and energy. It is through repeated practice that this first step of reading and decoding becomes an automatic process, where the child is able to simply read on the fly. To help improve your child's reading comprehension, the first step is to help your child become a fast and fluent reader.

By the time other children are still learning to read, children that developed their reading skills early on are already able to read to learn due to their far superior reading and comprehension abilities developed in the earlier years.

You can help your child become a fast and fluent reader. If you would like to learn more about our super simple, logical, and sequential system of teaching reading, please click here to watch a short video explaining our teaching methods.