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How can I boost my child’s English comprehension skills?


Chris Pearse is a qualified Primary School Teacher with 10 years' experience in teaching. He started Teachitright in 2006 to provide support for children taking secondary school exams and is passionate about helping children achieve their potential whilst enjoying education.

One of the key components in most 11+ examinations is comprehension. This involves reading a short passage and answering a series of questions (predominantly multiple-choice). This blog shares key strategies and techniques to develop this essential English skill.

Comprehension exercises typically test the student’s ability to read between the lines (inference*), extract information and use their own judgement to form opinions. In addition, questions can test the student’s knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and literacy techniques. The texts selected for comprehensions might be factual or fictional.  Some extracts may be from classic texts such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy or George Orwell novels. These may contain language that children have rarely encountered before. Thus, reading books from different eras is important to prepare for comprehension tasks.

What are VIPERS?

VIPERS is an acronym to aid the recall of the 6 key reading areas as part of the UK’s national curriculum. Children need to know and understand these in order to improve their reading comprehension.

VIPERS stands for:

 

Vocabulary
Inference
Predictors
Exploration
Retrieval
Sequence or Summarise

 

This method ensures students are able to respond to a range of questions. It also allows their teacher to track the type of questions asked and the children’s responses to these, which allows for targeted questions afterwards.

 

 

Example questions

Vocabulary 

Find and explain the meaning of words in context.


Find a word that is closest in meaning to……?
Which keywords best describe how a character feels?
Find a word or phrase which shows/suggests that…

 

Infer

Make and justify inferences using evidence from the text.

 

How do these words make you feel as the reader?

What impression from the text do you get about a specific character from these paragraphs?
Find and copy a group of words which show that…

 

Predict 

Make predictions on what will happen based on the details given or implied.

 

What will happen next in the story?
What does this paragraph suggest will happen next?

Do you think the choice of setting will influence how the plot develops?

 

 

Explain

Explain how the content is related and contributes to the meaning of the whole text. Highlight how the themes and patterns develop across the text. 

 

 

What is the purpose of this text feature?
How does the author engage the reader is this sentence/paragraph?
Which piece of text was the most interesting/exciting part?

 

Retrieve

Be able to retrieve and record accurately information from fiction and non-fiction texts.

 

What can you learn from this section?

Find one example in the first paragraph.

The story is told from whose perspective?

How would you describe this story/ text?

Summarise

Provide a summary on the whole passage and also be able to order events correctly.

 

What the first thing that happened in the story?

Can you summarise the opening, middle and ending of the story?

What happened after..?

 

A very common question associated with comprehension is ‘what is the best starting point when presented with a piece of text and series of questions?’

Firstly, it is important to read the title before tackling the main text. This will hopefully provide clues on the topic and allow you to draw upon any prior knowledge. For example, if the title of the passage was the ‘Amazon Rainforest’ you might know the type of habitat and animals that live there. This can often reduce any anxieties you have as you know something already about the topic area.

Educators often suggest highlighting or underlining key facts or phrases to help pupils retain the information read. This can be useful but should not impact the fluency of the reading process. So, the key question is therefore ‘what should be underlined?’  

  1. Statistical facts – such as dates or figures which could be incorporated into the questions which follow the passage.
  2. Literacy devices – any evidence of specific literacy techniques used e.g. alliterations, personification, similes, metaphors or onomatopoeias.
  1. Emotions – If reading a story, questions can often relate to the emotions of characters. Therefore, selecting keywords which describe how a character feels.
  1. Settings – underlining any locations or settings will be useful when referencing back to the text.

Another vital factor when approaching a comprehension task is reading at a good pace. What does this mean? In an 11+ exam the exercises or sections are timed. Hence the importance of reading the extract at a brisk speed, but without compromising the understanding. To help parents identify reading speed there are websites which calculate your child’s words per minute (WPM). A student in year 5 or 6 should aim for approximately 150 words correctly per minute.

Once your child has read through the text once, they should move straight on to the questions and not waste time rereading it in hope of absorbing more information. The wording in the question always refer to some part of the text. Identifying the meaning of words and phrases, synonyms and antonyms, activating related words and concepts and understanding the effect of word choices. Unfortunately, many students try to answer the questions without looking back at the passage. The five-point plan below can be a well-structured way to approach any comprehension:

 

Five Point Plan

  1. Read the passage carefully (don’t forget the title).
  2. Underline key facts and phrases.
  3. Skim read the story, passage or poem as you work out answers to each question, using clues and evidence from the passage.
  4. Use elimination when answering multiple-choice questions to help limit their choices.
  5. Check each answer carefully.

In summary every child should be encouraged to read widely. This will help them become familiar with many different types of language and writing. Sometimes the information in the text is very clear, for example, it was snowing and easy to understand. However, texts are often a bit more complicated and may require inference to properly understand. When approaching a comprehension try to be systematic and not cut corners. Read all the words and stop to pause, internalise what you have read. Do not expect to remember every detail and refer back to the text to clarify your thinking. The main way to develop a strong comprehension knowledge is about discussing books and looking at word choices. Therefore, talk about what your child has read and ask what they would do in certain situations encountered, what they think characters might be thinking/feeling? What might happen next? Share the reading experience; read to your child as well as listening to your child read, enjoy doing word puzzles together. The key to your child’s reading skills progressing is enjoying the process together!

*Inference: is where some information is left for the reader to read between the lines. They need to make sense of details that are not stated clearly. For example, instead of it was snowing, the text might say, ‘Daisy felt cold flakes on her cheeks and a crunching beneath her feet’.