Reading comprehension is one of those things some of us struggle to help our kids within Malaysia, and especially if you have a child on the Autism spectrum or with language and intellectual challenges, the journey takes even more patience and perseverance.  There is a practice that you can try that helps increase your child's language development and comprehension and in the midst of it also may strengthen the bond between parent and child(I personally think the latter is more crucial than the former).

It first dawned on me how powerful this concept is while teaching at St. Christopher's School in Penang.  I attended an inset carried out by a phenomenal teacher, Neil Bowker.  He is somewhere in the world right now teaching a class of very lucky students.  Those of you who know Mr. Bowker, you know what I'm talking about.  He is one of those teachers who could pull off the perfect balance of fun and structure.  Every time I entered his class to support a child, I found myself thinking over and over again, "Oh my, that was BRILLIANT!" Every time. Anyway, all that to say, he conducted an inset about guided reading and one of the things he said struck a chord with me and changed the course of what I aim to achieve.  He emphasised how important it is to get children to love sitting with a book.  He highlighted the importance of getting them comfortable, excited and feeling like it was a privilege. So wait, as an adult, one of our main focus should be to help our children to LIKE and SEE MEANING in the important tasks they are meant to carry out?  Yep.  That was an "Aha!" moment for me.

It is such a simple yet profound truth.  How would many of us in Malaysia (it's difficult for me to speak for other parts of the world) say that our children love sitting down with a book?  How many of our children can say that they have a favourite book? If your answer was a 'no' to both, or you felt a rush of anxiety just thinking about books and your child, then you're the audience I am talking to.

Everyone loves a good story.  Whether it is watching it, reading it, or hearing someone tell it; stories are compelling, and we are drawn to want to know what happens next (that's how Korean dramas, TVB and Netflix hooks you and doesn't let go!!).  What we may not realise is that consistent exposure to great stories deepens our understanding of language and develops it.  There are just so many elements at play within a story - different characters, different emotions, different intentions, different problems - all of that helps a child put words to happenings (especially when it is in books).  From there, language and understanding develop.

Even children with intellectual and language learning challenges benefit from being exposed to stories and language.  As a parent, you just have to learn what books meet them best at their interest level.  Don't go too low with older non-verbal children (a mistake I've made before) because I am seeing non-verbal children respond and engage with intriguing stories of interest.

So here is the practice I am hinting at.

The Task: Read regularly with/to your children

Reading is important, yeah yeah, we know that.  I make my child do reading comprehension exercises on a daily basis.  

Yes, good, but that's not the main point.

It is not so much WHAT the practice is that I am trying to draw your attention to, but HOW the practice is carried out. So let's go deeper. Set aside a time to read with your child for enjoyment - something apart from their homework.  Before you start reading with/to your child, your focus should be:

  1. To build a positive, fun impression of books in your child.
  2. To build (and in some situations, to heal) a relationship with your child. 

The setup

Whether we like something or not largely depends on how we felt during the experience.  Some of us really look forward to certain things like going to McDonald's, or going on car rides "kai kai" because of the positive memories we had in that experience.  My "Aha!" moment led me to realise that though often we prioritise academics, BUT we sabotage and destroy all the factors that contribute to a child wanting to engage in anything schoolwork related.  For some of our children, homework time is a dreaded time and part of it might be because of how it is set up and what happens during homework time (unpleasantries perhaps?).  I realised that an argument is that we can't wait around for our children to LIKE homework, they will never get there, so we get it done by force and discipline.  Self-discipline is something we build in our child, and while it is so important (and self-discipline is a mark of our culture I proudly boast about), we should pause and ask: Are we finding ways to motivate our child to love learning?  To be curious?  To see a purpose and make connections between their interests and their academic homework?

So the set up is an integral part of the learning.

If we want our child's comprehension and language and reading to increase, it would be helpful to set it up so that the experience is positive, enjoyable and a confidence booster. Again, for this particular experience, it is NOT meant to be part of homework time and the goal is NOT to test their reading comprehension. The goal is to help your child develop a positive connection with books and build your relationship with them. Here are some suggestions:

1) Find a time

Find a time when there are no distractions and you are most relaxed. For some, it may be before your child goes to sleep. For some, it may be in the middle of the afternoon. Either way, find a time when you know you can have a block of about 15-20 minutes to read with/to your child. Maybe it's snuggling on their bed, or at a reading corner, or on the couch, on a nice table outside on the balcony or patio, find a place with no distractions that works for the both of you.

2)  Choose a book your child would like

You may let your child choose. You also know your child's interests best. Find a book on a topic that would hook them in. Or a book with great suspense and a strong storyline. Some children I have read with did not find the cover of the book I chose appealing at first, but as we got into the book, they were drawn into the story.  I will list a few suggestions to get you started.  I'm sure many readers would be able to give some fantastic contributions as well.

3)  Find a comfortable place

My suggestion is to NOT use the same area where your child does their homework. That place may indicate to them that "this is work" but your intention is to introduce books to them in a way that does not imply "work" but "fun".

4)  Engage with your child

This will probably be the trickiest part because a large part of the success of this practice, lies with us, the adult. In order to engage with our child, we will need to understand what that consists of, reflect on it and practice it to get better at it. I would suggest the following:

  • Ask the child whether they want to read or have the adult read. A great option is to take turns so you and your child can share active parts in the story. If your child struggles to read or is non-verbal, you can read to them but get them to engage by pointing to certain words and acting some of it out.
  • Look at the cover of the book and talk about what you see. Ask them to guess what the story will be about. Create suspense!
  • Discuss where you think the story is set (eg. in a school, in a forrest, in a house…etc.). Point at specific things that show clues where the story takes place.
  • Discuss the pictures, what you see. You can also incorporate in the 5 senses. Be silly and pretend to see, touch, hear, smell, taste or feel an emotion.  Use actions if your child is non-verbal. But put words to your actions so that they have words to link to the actions they see.
  • Think out loud. "Hmmm…. I think the bear might be hungry", "Maybe he is thinking of a plan" "Looks like they have a problem".
  • For children who are non-verbal, ask for their opinion and have them point to out specific things in the book. Also, it would be great to use a communication device to support communication during this reading time.
  • If there are characters, really get into character using different voices, actions, facial expressions. Unleash the Drama Queen / King within! Get them to also show you facial expressions (always hilarious!) Great way to engage children who are non-verbal this way. 
  • Laugh together. Be silly. Accept their silliness. Make them laugh. Allow them to make you laugh.
  • Enjoy your child. Say things like, "You make me so happy" "I love spending time with you" "You have the cutest laugh, I love hearing it".  I know these are "western" things to say, so you change it to how you feel is natural to say but find a way to let them know you enjoy them, that they make you happy and try to make it as specific as possible. Try going beyond "Well done","Good job" or "Clever".
  • Ask them questions - you may ask the "who, what, where, how, why" questions, but during this time, don't focus on whether they get the answer correct or wrong, just let them share what they think. Praise them for sharing their ideas. You are free to tell them your ideas.

**If you find yourself getting frustrated that they are answering the questions "wrong", slowly stop the reading time before you get upset and continue another day.  Remember, your goal is to bond with your child and help them have a positive experience with books.

  • Open up opportunities for them to come up with their own ideas.

5) Have a small library of their favourite books, easily accessible. 

However, if you are creating suspense with a certain book, keep that one hidden until reading time together! When you are done reading that book, it can go into the library.

 

A few things about the book you can discuss to heighten language development and comprehension:

The places where the story is set

The characters in the book

The intentions of the characters

The emotions of the characters

The problem in the story (if any)

Ideas of what they think might happen

Link any of these things to their experiences

What is funny and why it is funny!

Suggestions of things to say when they aren't getting the answers "right":

  • "That's a different way of seeing it"
  • "I see you're really thinking about this"
  • "Great try, you have many thoughts"
  • "That's a different idea from mine. Can I tell you my idea?"
  • "You are really looking at the pictures and enjoying the story"

Again, I realise that these are very "western" things to say.  Nevertheless, these are to give you categories in your mind to change and make it natural for yourself.  I think for a Malaysian it might sound something like this, "Wahh, I really like your idea la. You ah, can really see things differently from me la and I really like it lo when you tell me what you think."  It is important to encourage them to gain confidence to share what they think.

For a lot of us, this is going to take some practice and getting used to.  I know personally, it did not come naturally to me but something I had to expand in my life.  Good news is that it gets easier with practice.  For certain parents whose main language is not English but your child is, it can be challenging, but you will learn as you go along, and don't lose heart.  I have personally gained so much language reading children and adolescent books (seriously)!  This practice can also be done in different languages, of course, just applying the same principles.

Here are a few books you could start with.

  • Chica Chica Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault (1-4 years)
  • Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems  (2-6 years)
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (5-7 years)
  • You Are Special by Max Lucado (4 years and up) - A great book that reminds them that they are enough just being who they are (my ultimate favourite!)
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl (8 years and up) - Great story, lots of humour and short for a chapter book.

Do you know of any more books you could add on to this list?  If you have read a book that your child/teen really enjoyed, please share the title and author of the book below in the comments.

I hope that this was helpful to you and gives you things to think about.  My hope is also that through this practice you will discover your child in new ways.  My hope is that they will surprise you and delight you.  And my final hope is that you would share beautiful moments together while expanding on language, communication and comprehension.  Thank you for being partners in your child's development and education.  Your impact goes a lot further than you realise.

Let's learn together,

Eileen.