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Reading Comprehension Strategy #7: Fixing Reading Comprehension Problems

We have been making our way through a series on helping our children develop their reading comprehension skills.  The posts have been full of concrete strategies you can use at home.  But what if despite all your hard work, you find your child is struggling to understand something they are reading?  That is what today’s post is all about!

Pinnable cover for post titled Reading Comprehension Strategy #7: Fixing Comprehension Problems showing a black and white image of an animal reading a book with a question mark above his head.

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Two Types of Reading Comprehension Problems

Using the first six comprehension strategies with your kids should reduce the amount of times they are lost in a book.  But when kids DO have trouble understanding what they have read, the underlying problem typically falls into two categories.

One is the reader has forgotten to pay attention to what they are reading.  I know this happens to me where all of a sudden I realize I have “read” a few pages and have no idea what I have read. 😊

The second type of problem is the reader doesn’t understand something they have read.  It might be an unfamiliar vocabulary word, a complicated sentence, or a concept they just aren’t grasping.

The first step to fixing ANY problem, including reading comprehension problems, is realizing you have a problem. 😉

Know WHEN You Have Comprehension Problems

Many kids might read along for several pages without noticing that they have lost the thread of what is happening or have tuned out all together.  We need to help them learn to notice when they have gone astray. As with many of our strategies in this series, starting with a conversation and naming the skill you want to build is the first step.

Have a Conversation

You can share examples of when your mind has wandered while reading, how you noticed it, and what you did about it.  You can share the following signs or clues with your children that can tip them off that they stopped paying attention to what they were reading.

  1. The camera turns off in their head.  Our first strategy in our sereies was about making a movie of what is happening in the book.  If the movie has gone dark, that is a sign that a reader has stopped paying attention and needs to stop and go back.
  2. The voice in their head turns off.  Our third strategy was to ask questions while we read.  If a reader finds they have stopped interacting with the book by asking questions and wondering things, then they likely have stopped paying attention.
  3. They notice other thoughts in their head.  Sometimes kids will know they have been thinking about something completely different than the book.  If they notice they have other thoughts in their head we want them to realize they need to stop and reread.
  4. They cannot tell someone else what they read.  One strategy in our post about organizing what you read is to narrate back to someone what you have read.  If children are unable to do this, then it is a sign they did not comprehend what they read.  A good practice to get into is for a reader to stop at the bottom of each page and tell themselves what they read. (Note: There could also be language processing reasons for difficulties with narration, which we will cover in another post in the future.)
  5. They don’t remember an important piece of the plot.  A reader may think they are reading along just fine and then all of sudden there is some character that makes them think “Where did this person come from?” Or maybe the reader is left wondering why the characters went to a particular place in a book.  I know this happens to me when I set a book down and then come back to it.  This should serve as a sign to your kids that they need to stop, go back and figure out what they missed.

As you talk through these signs, your kids may realize right away that some of these things have happened to them in the past.  If not, decide on one or two signs they can be on the look out for the next time they read.  You could have them put a sticky in the book when they realize they stopped paying attention to make this awareness concrete. After they read, check in and see if they noticed their attention drifting.

Model Finding Reading Comprehension Problems During Read Alouds

We also mentioned above that sometimes comprehension problems are truly due to a problem comprehending what was read and not due to inattention.  Vocabulary, a lack of background knowledge, and grammar are usually the culprits here.  And these are all problems that you may encounter during a read aloud.  Or at least “pretend” to encounter for teaching purposes. 😉 When they occur you can model becoming aware of the problem.

  1. Unknown vocabulary words…sometimes you encounter an unknown vocabulary word and it is not crucial to understanding the story so you can keep reading.  Other times, not knowing the word really makes the story hard to understand.  Model for your children when an unknown word is important and how not knowing it is making the next part of the story confusing.
  2. Lack of background knowledge…maybe a place, concept or event is described in a story and a reader just cannot grasp what is being described.  The movie in their head may stop.  During a read aloud, tell your children if this happens to you. Or if you think they might not understand something check in with them.  If they are struggling let them know that they don’t have the background knowledge to understand it fully, yet.
  3. Complex grammar…as books increase in difficulty level, they use longer and more complex sentences.  Sometimes these complex sentences can confuse our readers. Stop after a complex sentence during a read aloud and see if your kids understood it.  Or did they tune it out because it was complex? In this example a reader needs a certain level of language skills to be able to answer basic questions about the sentence…
From <em>Talking Leaves </em>by Joseph Bruchac...

“They went all that way out to what they hoped would be a new home far away enough from the Aniyonega to be allowed to live their lives undisturbed.”

Know WHAT TO DO About the Problems

So once a child learns to recognize they are having reading comprehension problems, what should they do?  If the underlying problem is they stopped paying attention while they were reading, then going back and rereading the last few pages is an easy solution.

If they realize there is an unknown word tripping them up, they can take a minute to see if the text around the word can help them figure it out.  If not, they can look up the word or ask someone else to help them understand the word.  Once the reader understands the word, they should be able to continue in their reading.  Here are some more ideas on vocabulary.

Sometimes reading ahead a little bit can be helpful.  The other day we stopped during a read aloud to discuss an unknown word and then as we started to read again, I realized the next few sentences explained the word for us.

If it is a larger concept that a reader does not understand, then they may need to stop reading and expand their background knowledge of the topic.  Looking up the topic in an online encyclopedia, like Kiddle, or watching a YouTube video about it can be helpful.

Complex Language

If the structure of a sentence is complex and therefore confusing, then helping kids think of questions and then answers to them can be helpful.  Below are some example questions for the example sentence we used above…

From <em>Talking Leaves </em>by Joseph Bruchac...

“They went all that way out to what they hoped would be a new home far away enough from the Aniyonega to be allowed to live their lives undisturbed.”

Where did the people go?…to a new home.

Why did they go there?…there are really two levels in the sentence to answer this question.  One: To move far away from the Aniyonega.  Why?…to live their lives undisturbed.

And a final question could be…Did they know it would be far enough away? No, it says they hoped it was.

You may need to practice this “sentence dissection” with your children many times before they can do it independently.

Sometimes, it is how several sentences link together that a reader may have trouble following.  Recently, in one of our Adventures Through History, the text introduces that a problem that occurred.  Then, it talks about the Coyote who often causes problems in Shoshone folklore and the narrator linked that to the problem her husband caused.  It is very easy for students to miss those links and think the Coyote caused the problem.  At these times, it is important that we reread the parts of the text that are confusing and do a play-play describing to our children what the author was doing with each sentence or paragraph.

Note: If your children often run into reading comprehension problems with the above three areas, then it may be good to choose slightly lower levels of books for them.  This will allow them to have more positive reading experiences without having to fix-up so many comprehension problems.  As they build skill and confidence with lower level books, then they can increase their reading level again.  Some kids can decode words very well and “read” well above their language and knowledge level, but not comprehend what they read.


As you can see, attention and language skills are important to the reading process.  Thinking and engaging with the text as well as rereading are important solutions.  Making sure our kids have enough time to engage in all of the reading strategies we have discussed is important.  It may mean less pages are read each day, but that deeper knowledge is gained.

If you enjoyed this post then you make sure to check out the other six posts in this series.  And 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)