As children move from toddler to school age, they will learn about a variety of reading and writing skills, including print concepts, letter knowledge, phonics, and vocabulary. But if we could tie all of these skills together, they're really designed to help children learn one thing: how to look at print and understand what it says.

Comprehension, or understanding what we read, involves a set of skills and strategies that begin early in life and that continue to become refined and deepen as the years go by. The earlier we can support children on the road to understanding, the better. With your help, children can begin to develop strategies early on that will help them use text as a bridge between themselves and the world.

Provide a Language-Rich Environment

Simple activities go a long way. Toddlers and preschoolers learn new words at a phenomenal rate when they are in a language-rich setting in which they are read to, talked with, and have plenty of time to interact with their peers. To develop basic concepts about objects and events, young children need opportunities to explore, manipulate, sort, and use materials in a variety of ways.

Build Background Knowledge

Comprehension of text is based on knowledge. Children translate squiggles on a page into concepts they know a lot about. To comprehend what they read, children must continually draw on their own experience. Having a solid information base is a vital part of becoming a skilled reader. Therefore, the best way to support children's comprehension skills is to provide varied and interesting experiences, while supporting their understanding of basic concepts and vocabulary.

One way to support children's knowledge base is through field trips to a local farm stand, neighborhood shops, an aquarium, or a zoo. You can maximize children's learning by reading a relevant book or showing them a video beforehand. These activities enable children to construct preliminary ideas about what a place is like and what goes on there. Also, by giving children some vocabulary and information in advance - for instance, what animals they are likely to see at the zoo - you will heighten their attentiveness during the trip. You can invite children to predict what they will be seeing and hearing, and record and revisit their ideas later on.

You can also help children link new information and ideas to what they already know and understand:

  • Ask questions that encourage children to notice, compare, and put things together. For example, "Have you ever seen an animal that looks like this?"
  • Make use of similarities and connections in giving children new information. "Alligators and crocodiles look alike but one has a longer nose than the other."
  • Encourage children to recollect and apply past experiences to a new situation. "Let's think about what we read about bears and what they do when the weather gets colder."

Use every opportunity to help children actively construct, internalize, and refine their knowledge and concepts. By doing so, you will help them begin to build comprehension skills and important "text to life" connections - essential skills for reading success.