Early Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is the ability to understand written text and use that information in meaningful ways.  It’s a skill that can be difficult for many children, including those with hearing loss, but it is an important one to master.

 Around third grade, children move from “learning to read” (decoding print-sound relationships, cracking the phonics code) to “reading to learn” (gaining information from written text), and children without reading comprehension abilities can quickly find themselves frustrated and left behind.

How can we help to support emerging reading comprehension skills in our students with hearing loss?  First, we have to ensure that their AUDITORY comprehension is good.  Remember, reading is just an AUDITORY process (spoken language) recorded by a visual means (print).  Mastery in the former set of skills (listening and spoken language) is a very strong predictor of success with the latter.  How do you work on auditory comprehension of spoken paragraphs?  Let’s start with an example using a simple paragraph with an illustration.


One (1)Monday morning, (2)Ben and Abby were baking (3)cookies with their mother.  They used (4)flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and chocolate chips.  (5)Ben’s job was to crack the eggs.  (6)Abby’s job was to stir the batter.  The cookies had to bake in the oven for (7)thirty minutes.  While the cookies were baking, Mommy read (8)”The Three Bears” to Ben and Abby.  When the cookies were ready, Mommy used an (9)oven mitt to take them out of the oven to cool.

The numbers above represent various questions that a parent, teacher, or therapist could ask about this pargraph.  First, let’s discuss some general strategies, and then, I’ll break down each question, with suggestions on how to scaffold a child into success.

First, consider the child’s present level of performance.  What prerequisite skills does a child need to understand this paragraph?

  • Can the child hear well enough to access what is being said through audition alone if this paragraph is being read aloud (even if he does not understand it 100%)?

  • Does the child have auditory memory for sequences of items (e.g. “Pick up the brown circle, the red square, the blue triangle, and the green oval”)?

  • Can the child answer questions?  Does he understand the meaning of who, what, where, why, when, and how questions in everyday life?

  • Does the child have a good vocabulary?  This is a constant sticking point for children with hearing loss.  If you don’t know the words you’re hearing, it’s easy to get hung up on the mystery word and miss the rest of the sentence, or even the whole story.  For example, in this story, if a child doesn’t understand flour, batter, oven mitt, etc., he is missing crucial information.

  • Does the child have the life experience to tie to the story?  This is not to say that you have to have gone on a safari to understand a story about one, but if a child is from a low-talk, low-stimulation environment, it is less likely that he will have had the life experiences to tie to what he reads.

Once the prerequisite skills are established, what can we do, right off the bat, to “cut down” the difficulty of this task for a child who is new to, or struggling with, auditory comprehension of paragraphs?  PRE-TEACH and PREDICT.

  • Pre-teach the task, “Now, I am going to read you a story about this picture.  Listen carefully, because when I’m finished, I will ask you questions about what you’ve heard.”

  • Pre-teach self-advocacy, “If you don’t hear something, or you hear something you don’t understand, you can ask me questions whenever you need to do so.”  But don’t read the child’s mind on this.  If he looks confused but doesn’t ask… don’t repeat!  The natural consequence of bluffing is that you miss information.  Better to learn that now, in a practice situation, than when it really counts.

  • Predict what will happen.  Show the child the picture.  Encourage the child to use what he already knows about the world to formulate predictions about the story.  “What do you think those children are doing?  Have you ever baked cookies before?  What did you do?”

Then, read through the paragraph and ask the questions.

1. When did the story happen?
2. What were the children’s names?
3. What were they baking?
4. What five ingredients did they use?
5. What was Ben’s job?
6. What was Abby’s job?
7. How long did the cookies have to bake?
8. What story did Mommy read to Ben and Abby while the cookies were baking?
9. What did Mommy use to take the cookies out of the oven?

Pre-teach.  Predict.  Review.  Re-read.

In a perfect world, the child would answer those questions 1-9 in a flash… but what if that doesn’t quite happen the first time around?  REVIEW AND REREAD.

  • If the child says, “I don’t know?” ask, “What do you think?”  Everyone, even people with “perfect” hearing, misses information at one time or another.  It’s important to be able to make an educated guess.  The child’s guesses can also yield valuable information.  If a child’s guess for a “when?” question is a word that has to do with time, you gain information that, while he didn’t understand/recall the story, at least he understands the appropriate response for this type of question.  If a child’s guesses are completely out of the ballpark, perhaps it would be a better use of your time to go back to some foundational auditory memory and question-answering tasks.  Another benefit of asking the child to guess is increasing his confidence.  Some children are hesitant to offer a response unless they are completely certain that it is correct.  Perhaps, “I don’t know” really means, “I’m not 100% sure.”  Always praise attempts, with phrases like, “I like how you thought about that!”  “Good guess, two minutes is a time, but it’s not the time I said in this story” or “You go it right.  See?  You are doing a great job of listening!”

  • If the child still gets the answer wrong, don’t give him the answer.  Instead, review the question, and reread the pertinent start of the story.  For example, “Okay, listen again.  The question is, When did the story happen, so we are listening or a time word.  The story says, ‘One Monday morning, Ben and Abby were baking cookies with their mother.’  When did this story happen?”

  • Use acoustic highlighting as necessary when rereading.

  • The more times you can link the question to the phrase from the sentence that is the correct answer, the better.  Try sandwiching it.  “When did the story take place?  One Monday morning, Ben and Abby were baking cookies with their mother.  When did they bake the cookies?  On Monday morning.”

  • If the child still doesn’t get it after you’ve tried all of the previously mentioned scaffolding techniques, try offering options.  Re-read the pertinent part of the story and ask, “Did they bake cookies on Monday or Tuesday?” and see if the child can get it from a field of two.  At that point, though, a correct answer is really no more than a matter of chance, and it is probably best to go back to more foundational skills.

Does this sound too easy?  Is your child ready for the next step, learning to read and comprehend independently?  Check out my advice for Advanced Reading Comprehension.

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