Developing Young Children’s Comprehension

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The focus of initial reading instruction is primarily on teaching the decoding process. However, the ultimate aim of reading is to actually understand the text. Therefore, early instruction should also encompass language comprehension, including oral language comprehension. This should involves developing a child’s vocabulary, understanding the structure of language, fostering verbal reasoning skills and increasing knowledge on a wide range of subjects.

Cabell (2023) suggests the following strategies to which I have added some additional ideas:

Back-and-forth conversations

  • Engage in frequent conversations on a range of topics.
  • Actively use more complex vocabulary and sentence structures as the child develops.
  • Ask questions to provoke curiosity – why questions are particularly useful for developing verbal reasoning.

Interactive read-alouds

  • Read stories that contain vocabulary and sentence structures above the child’s current reading level as this exposes them to text they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
  • Include conversations about the stories before, during and after, with a focus on making connections between the different parts of the text and linking to the child’s own knowledge and experiences.
  • Read multiple texts on the same topic and compare and contrast the information provided.

Vocabulary instruction

  • Explicitly and systematically teach vocabulary using child-friendly definitions.
  • Connect new words to known words.
  • Encourage children to use the words. Children can wear the word on a lanyard or it can be placed in a prominent position in the room as a prompt to use the word.
  • Mrs Wordsmith’s Word of the Day books are an excellent resource:
  • Foster a curiosity about words and the world.
  • Actively use synonyms in conversations: It was a big, large, enormous, gigantic, immense, hefty creature.

Content knowledge instruction

  • Spend time learning about science and society and the environment in deep and meaningful ways.
  • Allocate time to discuss these topics.
  • Where practical, provide opportunities for hands-on learning (e.g., experiments, watching a particular process, visiting an environment, etc.).

Explicitly teach comprehension strategies

  • Use ‘think aloud’ strategies where you verbalise how you make sense of what you are reading and make connections to different parts of the text and to your own knowledge.
  • Teach a model for summarising the key components in a text by helping children identify the protagonist (or subject), the place (time, era and physical location), the key components etc. and combining this information into one sentence.


Cabell, Q. (2023). Helping young children read for understanding. The Bulletin, 59, 2-3.