How to Help a Child with Reading Comprehension Problems

How to Help a Child with Reading Comprehension Problems

Sarah Major

Sarah Major, M.Ed. is passionate about working in harmony with a child's immaculate design to support their learning strengths. As a Title 1 Program Director and Designer, Sarah earned awards for creating her own multisensory educational resources that have now been sold in all 50 states and over 150 countries. Sarah has designed comprehensive strategies for children to successfully overcome reading comprehension challenges.

If a person reads and does not remember what they read or doesn’t understand what they read, then they have not comprehended.

What are some issues underlying lack of comprehension?

The child might be working so hard on trying to sound out words that they cannot focus on what the words mean.How to help with reading comprehension


The child might be fluently reading words, but still have no clue what they just read.


How to help fluent readers with poor comprehension

The child might have a vague general notion about what they read, but details are completely missing. For example, to your question, “What did you just read about?” their answer might be just, “A dog.”

 How to help readers who have limited comprehension

The child might have come to believe that “reading” means correctly calling out words or correctly sounding out words. They might need to be told exactly what reading is! That words carry meaning and tell us lots of things.

Another “culprit” is the constant stream of media our children are exposed to. Think about it. When children are watching TV or playing video games or engaging in apps, much of the content is delivered to them in pictures with words playing a minor role in communication. Two things are happening here: pictures that convey meaning are made FOR them, so their brains don’t have to visualize, and they are losing the ability to visualize from lack of use. So much about TV, movies, videos, games, and apps actually stunts the development of a “language sense” because content is delivered to often passive children. Kids engaging in media don’t even have to think. Just take in mindlessly. I know this is somewhat over generalized, but in broad strokes this happens with over exposure to media.

What is required for reading comprehension to happen?

  • Children need to be taught explicitly to make mental images as they are reading.
  • They need to be able to read words instantly so they are not focusing on the work of sounding out.
  • They need to practice seeing a mental image when they hear a word, then a phrase, and then a moveable mental video as they are reading a passage.
  • They need practice with conversation, reasoning through situations, cause and effect, and prediction, among other thinking skills.
  • Practice, practice, practice is needed to develop this mental skill. Thankfully, the brain is plastic, meaning it is changeable. What we practice and repeat becomes easier and more developed with time. So starting small is ok!
  • How to solve reading comprehension problems:

  • Engage the child in the process. Explain that words carry messages and that is why we read. They need to recognize words quickly (on sight) so they can really be paying attention to what the words are saying.
  • Use fun activities that begin small. All of us in learning a new skill appreciate baby steps! Just remember that your daily practice will result in more and more neural pathways developing that. What follows are ideas you can use to help with reading comprehension.


    Working with sight words (because sight words make up most of what children read):

    1. Show the child a word. For example, “TAKE.” Ask, “What does TAKE remind you of, or make you think of?” Let them tell you what TAKE makes them think of.
    2. Prompt the child to “see” TAKE in their head. They might see a child taking a picture, taking a bite of a donut, taking a nap, or taking a dog for a walk.
    3. Depending on the child’s preferences, ask them to act out what they see in their head or draw a picture of what they see.

    COMPREHENSION PYRAMID – oral activity to do on the go:

    1. Ask your child to choose an object or animal for this game. Let’s use FROG for this example.
    2. Say FROG and prompt your child to “see” a frog in their head.
    3. Next, say GREEN FROG and ask your child if they can see a green frog in their imagination.
    4. Next, say GREEN FROG with WARTS and ask them to visualize that.
    5. Continue adding more details such as:
    • A green frog with warts sitting on a rock.
    • A green frog with warts sitting on a rock croaking.
    • A green frog with warts decides to hop away to hide under some big leaves.
    • A green frog with warts is hiding under some big leaves because he saw a dog running toward him around the corner of the house.
    • Keep going until you feel it's time to start with another object or animal.

      COMPREHENSION PHRASES – oral activity to do on the go:

      In this activity, you will say a phrase and your child will visualize it in their head. You can say the first part of the phrase and have them visualize that first, then add the second part for them to add to their mental picture. The dashes in the phrases divide between first and second parts.

      Ideas for phrases to use:

      • A big yellow balloon – floating in the air.
      • A girl in red shorts – rolling down a hill.
      • A square kite – that is red with purple dots on it.
      • A dog digging a hole – to bury the bone he’s got in his mouth.
      • A sailboat with a bright orange sail – leaning into the wind.
      • A huge bear standing on his hind legs – at the edge of the woods.
      • A robin with a worm in its beak – leaning down to feed the baby birds.
      • A snowman in the front yard – with a real carrot nose – and a black hat.
      • A boy with a baseball mitt – reaching up to catch a fly ball.
      • A tall, skinny man – in a purple suit – carrying a pot belly pig under his arm.
      • A red pickup truck – with a load of goats in the back.
      • A girl on a swing at the park – wearing a rabbit suit with long pink ears.
      • A huge watermelon cut in half – sitting on a picnic table – at the park.

      SENTENCES TO READ and use to PRACTICE COMPREHENSION – tactile activity:

      1. Use Sight Words in Sentences as a resource for sentences already done for you that are chock full of sight words. (Our 306 Kit includes both SnapWords® and Sight Words in Sentences)
      2. Have the child read a sentence (after having studied the sight words in the sentence), then picture what is happening in the sentence, and finally ask the child to draw a picture of what is in the sentence.
      3. Here are examples of sentences from the book with possible illustrations:

      Use Sight Words in Sentences to help build reading comprehension  Sight Words in Sentences for fluency and comprehension

      Start With SnapWords® and have the child add the sentence.

      1. SnapWords® are cards with pictures embedded in the sight word that help a child not only remember how to read the word, but how to spell it and also what it means.
      2. Show the child a SnapWords® card and ask them what is happening in the picture.
      3. Once they have talked about what is happening in the picture, encourage them to write a little sentence talking about it. Here are two examples:

      Use SnapWords to build comprehension in reading 



      Use SnapWords as writing prompts and build comprehension

      Working With Passages and Comprehension:

    • Once you and your child have worked through some of these ideas for building visualization skills, move towards reading a story and stopping frequently to allow time for visualizing what is happening.
    • Here is an example of a story that you might use. Notice the visual Y that will serve as a prompt for the child to stop and visualize.

      Long ago, a young man came into a poor little town. All he had was a soup pot and a spoon. Y

      The man was very hungry.

      The young man stopped at a house and knocked on the door. Y

      "I am cold and hungry," he said. "May I have a bit of food?"

      "We don’t have any food, I’m sorry," said the woman. Y

      Now the woman had some beans but not enough to share.

      The young man knocked at the door of another house. Y

      "I am cold and hungry," he said. "May I have a bit of food?"

      "We don’t have any food, I’m sorry," said an old man. Y

      Now the man had some meat but not enough to share.

      The young man knocked at the door of other houses. No one shared food with him. Y

      So the young man came up with a plan.

      First he made a fire in the middle of town. Y

      Then he filled his pot with water and set the pot on the fire. Y

      Last, he put a nice, round stone into his pot of water. Y

      "This soup looks good", he said very loudly. "Soon it will be ready to eat!"

      All the people came to see what the young man was doing. Y

      "What are you doing?" asked all the people.

      "I’m making stone soup. I’ll give you some when it is ready. Y

      There will be plenty for all of us. The soup is good, but it would be better with a few beans."

      The lady ran home for some beans to throw into the pot of water. Y

      "This soup will be so good," said the young man. "But it would be better with a bit of meat."

      The old man ran home for a chunk of meat which he threw into the pot of water. Y

      Soon a woman came with carrots to add to the potY

      Next, a boy brought potatoes. Y

      A man brought some corn. Y

      All the people ran home and brought food to add to the pot of water. Y

      "Now the soup is ready to eat," said the young man.

      He served soup to everyone. Y

      "Mmmm," said everyone as they ate their soup. Y

      "Thank you!" everyone said to the young man.

      3. The next step in this process is to begin to spread out the Y prompts so that they appear after each paragraph.


      The more practice you take time to do with your child, the stronger their visualization “muscles” will become. Soon, visualizing will be a habit, and one that will help tremendously with reading comprehension every time they pick up a book.

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