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Reading Comprehension Strategy #5: Determining Importance

The reading comprehension strategy of Determining Importance builds on the other four strategies we have been helping our kids develop: Visualization, Background Knowledge, Asking Questions, and Drawing Conclusions.  These first four strategies favored the reading of fiction.  Determining importance of what we are reading will more typically be applied to the reading of informational text or non-fiction reading.

We are surrounded by information, but to be a successful learner we need to determine what information is important!  Which information do we need to pay the most attention to?  Once we determine which information is important, we can analyze and organize it and then it can become knowledge.

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How to Teach Reading Comprehension Strategies

We talked in our last four posts about the steps involved in teaching our children the different reading comprehension strategies we have discussed.  So I won’t go into detail about these steps now, but here is a quick review:

  1. Have a conversation…be intentional in explaining to your child that you are going to practice finding the important information in the text.  Use some of the key words below like “hints”, “format”, and the names of the parts of the book during your conversation.
  2. Model how to use these strategies as you read aloud to your children.  Talk about what you are doing using key words.
  3. Prompt kids to use these strategies when it is time for them to start using the strategies on their own while they read.  Use the key words to prompt them.
  4. Praise any use of strategies to keep your children motivated to use them.

Determining Importance Before Reading

Before your children start reading any book or article, you should all decide on your purpose for reading. 

If the purpose is for the pleasure of reading a good book, then the first four reading comprehension strategies will guide you.

If you all decide your purpose is to gain knowledge, then you are going to need to approach the book differently.

Maybe you are about to read a history book and want to learn some specific history that you will plug in to your greater knowledge of the history of the world. Then you will want to spend some time activating and maybe building your background knowledge before you read.  You will want to place that book in time and place first and recall what else you know about that time and place.

Or maybe you are reading to learn a new skill...maybe how to code in a new language or fix something on a car. You will need to be ready to pay attention to the steps involved and the key details you will need to know. Quick sidenote: you may be thinking you would probably watch a YouTube video to develop those skills.  A lot of the strategies in this post can also be used to comprehend informational videos so keep reading!

Regardless of what knowledge you are looking to gain, you will want to start by coming up with a few questions to help guide you through the reading.  You will likely add to or change these questions as you go, but at least start with a few to get you into the material.

You may even find that once you start a book that it is not going to answer the questions you have.  That may mean you need to find a different book!  This is a good time to teach your kids that it is okay to decide that a book is not going to meet their needs and to find a new one instead of wasting their time on the book they thought they might read.

Once you all know your purpose and have some questions to guide your reading, it is still not quite time to dive into the text…

Become Familiar with the Format

After you know your purpose and have a few questions you would like to answer, show your kids how to look at the parts of the book to see how the information is presented before they start reading.

This includes looking over the table of contents.  The table of contents will show you how the book is organized.  Some books have a few parts and then within those parts are chapters.  Read over the chapter titles to start to get a sense of whether the book will answer your questions.  If you are reading an article, show your kids how to look at heading and sub-headings for this information.

Next, see if the book has a glossary, index, sidebars, charts and graphs, and/or pictures and captions to enhance the information you are reading.  If you are introducing your kids to non-fiction for the first time, read over Help Your Children Understand Non-Fiction Books.

Finally look at the first chapter and see if it is just one piece of continuous text or if the chapters are divided further.  There might be subheadings or just some kind of line or graphic that breaks up sections.  Point these out to your children and tell them this is a clue that the next section will likely cover a different detail or topic than the section before.  When we talk about organizing information next week, these breaks will help your children.

Determining Importance While Reading

Now it is finally time to start reading, but we are going to continue to look for clues and hints that help us find the important information.

Formatting will continue to help us while we read.  In the picture below, you can see the word “linkages” is in boldface and then there is a definition of the word in the left margin.  This clues us in that this page will talk about what linkages are.  When we finish reading the page, we should be able to explain linkages.  That is the important information!


Finding the main idea of paragraphs will help us know what is important, too.  Looking at the first sentence of each paragraph to find the main idea is a skill that has been taught to children for decades.  However, not all paragraphs are built with this simple structure.  It is a good starting point, but it can also lead a reader astray.

Teaching kids to find the main idea shows your children how they should intentionally think about each paragraph and think “what is this paragraph trying to teach me?”  Just make sure they understand the answer to that question won’t always lie in the first sentence.  Let’s look at two examples…

From <em>Explore Simple Machines</em> by Anita Yasuda...

“Linkages are all around you.  Your bicycle uses linkages.  When you squeeze the brake lever, a series of linkages sends the force to the brakes on the wheels.  Now that’s working together.”

The sentence “Linkages are all around you.” should cue the reader that they are about to be given real life examples of linkages.  At the end of the paragraph they should have a better understanding of linkages.  But whether or not they remember the exact example is not as important.

An example from A New Nation of how second sentence actually changes what you thought the main idea was…

From <em>A New Nation</em> by Betsy and Giulio Maestro...

“The Articles of Confederation had worked well enough to get America through the war and the treaty signing.  But now it became clear that under this set of laws, the United States government was not strong enough to lead the nation.”

In this example, the first sentence will likely make you think the paragraph is going to be about how well the Articles of Confederation worked in America.  But the word “but” at the beginning of the sentence cues the reader to think “Oh wait a minute.  We are going to go in a different direction here.”  Continuing on with this sentence lets the reader know that the text is about to explain why the Articles of Confederation were not strong enough to continue working for the United States.  Help your kids find words like but, however, instead, on the other hand, etc. and show how those words are clues that the author is taking an idea in a new direction.

When your children learn to start looking for hints while reading to show them what is important, they will find them all over the place.  Another common hint that books often give us is telling us how many important pieces of information to look for such as “Memory. Symbol. Pattern.  These are the three items that…” from How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.

See if your children find any other types of common hints while they read.  You may want to keep a list of common hints on hand and add to it when you find new ones.

If Your Child is Struggling…

Your child might be overwhelmed with the amount of information in a text and have trouble sifting out what is important.  In that case, give them a very specific task to simplify things.  For example, you can tell them while reading a chapter to find four facts they think are important.  Then praise them for any four facts that they find.  You can then talk about which of the four facts is the most important and why to help them learn the difference between important facts and details.

One way to help them determine the importance of the four facts is to have them see which ones answer the questions you thought of before reading.  You can also look at the hints that might have led them to pick those four facts.

For older kids, you may give them guided notes to help them locate important information.  An example would be biography notebooking pages.  These are pages that have sections for kids to fill-in while they read a biography about an individual.  You can download a sample here:


Next week, we will cover analyzing and organizing the information we determined was important.  So make sure to come back for some concrete strategies.

If you enjoyed this post then you may be interested in reading 7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!

7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!
  • Zimmermann, Susan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 07/22/2003 (Publication Date) - Harmony (Publisher)