Reading Comprehension and Decoding Strategies

Learn how to support your developing reader during this exciting learning period.
By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Reading Comprehension and Decoding Strategies

The time between 6 and 7 is when a child learns to “really read.” Congratulations! The world of learning is open to your child in new and fantastic ways! You have a tremendous role in supporting your developing reader*. 

Trying to find a book that is the right level for your child?
There are two reading levels you want to know for your child: his or her independent reading level (the level books they can successfully read and comprehend completely on their own), and their instructional reading level (the level books they can read with support and guidance from you or a teacher). 

School Reading Levels:
In a school environment, the expectation is that children will read independently at virtually 100% accuracy, 100% comprehension. Instructional level reading would use the 95% rule: for any 100 words, your child should not struggle to read/understand more than 5, with 80% accuracy on independent comprehension questions (also called the 5-finger rule). Any lower accuracy would be described as being at your child’s frustration level, where minimal new learning could happen. 

At-Home Reading Levels:
However, in a home environment, where you are reading one-on-one with your children, and your support is on them exclusively for the entire reading time (and thus you can support their comprehension throughout), you may find the below demarcations more useful.

To find their at-home independent reading level, use the 95% rule. Early phonic readers often have only a few words per page. Thus, your child should be able to read (even slowly or carefully) most of the book, although they may need reminders from you to use their decoding and comprehension strategies. Again, they must also be able to give you a retell with most of the details of the story and show 80% accuracy on (independent) comprehension questions. 

To find their at-home instructional reading level, you still want them to understand most of what they read, and to be successful at getting larger chunks of text. It does not benefit young readers to always struggle to decode words or decipher meaning. Thus, your child will learn more at a supported level of reading, as opposed to a struggling level of reading. Don’t forget the confidence-building that comes from reading books with ease! Thus, you can use 90% accuracy in reading and 80% accuracy in comprehension as ballpark figures when supporting instruction in at-home readers. If your child is struggling to read, find a different book, or play some sight word/phonics games to build his decoding skills. Be sure you are drawing on a variety of strategies, as opposed to simply asking your child to sound out a word. 

There are many benefits to children choosing their own books, even those above their level, for “reading” or taking picture walks through. If your child is motivated, they deserve to interact with the book however they might like! It is simply important to know what your child’s skills are in relation to choosing texts that they can “really read” alone, or with support. 

When you find a good book or series, use the Scholastic Book Wizard “book alike” finder. Click on the “Similar Books” tab and you can select a book that is the same level, harder or easier than the one you liked!

It is expected that children this age will struggle at times in applying letter-sound understanding to actual words in a real story. 

Instead of simply telling him to “sound it out,” try these tricks:

  • Say nothing. Give him a chance to figure it out.
  • Say, “Look at the picture.”
  • Say, “Let’s get the first sound.” 
  • Say, “What would make sense?” Even if he gets the wrong word, you can say “Yes, it’s a kind of house, but the author chose a different word. Look at the first letter and see if you can get it now.” 
  • Say, “Chunk it.” Are there smaller words in the bigger ones (e.g., ‘going’ has the word ‘go’ in it)?
  • Say, “Let’s reread.” Before you tell your child the word, see if he can re-read the sentence and get it with a “running start.”
  • Say, “Close your eyes. Now look again.” Have him close his eyes, open them, and see if his brain can just “get” the word as a sight word, without trying to sound it out.
  • Say, “Say it like a word.” Decoding will only take you so far. If you know how to make the sounds come together like a word you know, it makes reading so much easier. It’s not about saying the sounds faster; it’s about saying them like a word. Country can be sounded out as “cow-n-try” or “count” “try.” But if they “say it like a word,” they are more likely to get to country. You can use a slinky to help them literally “see” what it looks like when they say stretched out sounds. Have them collapse the slinky as they “say it like a word.”
  • Skip the word and come back when they have the context of the sentence (be sure they do). 
  • Look at word families. If your child knows ‘at’, they will more easily be able to identify ‘hat.’ 
  • Get the main word first, then add on prefixes or suffixes. You can use your finger to cover up parts of the word while your child gets the main word. 
  • Tell them the word. You do not want to hinder the comprehension of a story by belaboring a single word. Instead, give your child the word and have her re-read the sentence so that the word sticks in her mind for the next time she encounters it! 

If your child misreads a word:
Ask yourself:

  • Does it matter? Saying ‘house’ instead of ‘home’ or misreading a character’s name won’t change the meaning of the story. Let it go. 

Tell her to:

  • “Check it:” Does it look right, sound right, make sense? 
  • Make a picture in your head.” What word doesn’t fit?”
  • “Flex it.” This is the way to tell your child to try the other sound the letter makes (e.g., long vs short a, or ‘j’ for g, as in giraffe).

Ask him:

  • Does it fit the picture/story?”
  • “Does that sound like a word you know? Say it like a word.”
  • What is happening here and how does this sentence fit in?”

To facilitate comprehension/thinking strategies, have your child:

  • Ask a question about what he has already read (to themselves, or to you).
  • Infer what is going on or might happen, based on what they already know and what they have read. 
  • Make a connection:
    • Make a text-to-text connection where he relates this book to another he has read.
    • Make a text-to-world connection where he relates the book to an experience going on in our world (e.g., truffula trees being chopped down and our own struggles with deforestation).
    • Make a text-to-self connection where he relates the book to himseld or an experience he has had (e.g., remembering a time he was not listened to, even when he knew better than the other person).
  • Visualize: Encourage your child to create a mental image or play the scene like a movie in her head
  • Evaluate: Determine the importance of characters, events, or details. 
  • Synthesize information means taking information you learn along the way and combining it with the information you know. 
  • Other tips:
    • Make a prediction.
    • Take the character’s perspective or relate to the character’s feeling.
    • Read it like a sentence. If your child reads haltingly, have them re-read the same sentence to get the fluency (and confidence!) aspect of reading. It’s hard to comprehend disjointed sentences. 

A wonderfully fun way to support some of these skills in children is to use the Akinator online. To play, your child simply thinks of a character and answers a series of questions about them, after which the Akinator will magically reveal the character’s name and picture. Your children will be amazed how often it is right! 

*If learning to read is hard for your child, he needs support. The newest research on literacy development in children emphasizes the importance of providing reading interventions as soon as possible. For more information on how to recognize if your child is struggling, as well as tips for what to do, see this article on struggling readers.

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