If my child reads slowly, he can pronounce almost all the words correctly, but he understands almost nothing. If he reads faster, he mispronounces many words but he seems to understand a bit. Which do I go for—accuracy or comprehension?

Accuracy. But let’s backtrack a little.

At what stage of reading is your son? Is he reading passages matched to his reading level? If a child is plodding laboriously through text, the text is too difficult for his reading level. He is not achieving fluency. I suggest you go back to easy readers which he can read accurately and with understanding in order to give him confidence.boy reading book

If he is in third grade, for example, you might find some first grade reading for him. Ask your librarian for help. If he can read sight words and CVC words at a good pace, with word accuracy and with overall comprehension, you know he is reading at least at an early first grade level. Gradually increase the reading difficulty. You want to maintain the child’s confidence, so increasing the difficulty level should not happen in a matter of days but rather over weeks or months.

Some problems to listen for:

  • If a child is stumbling, word to word, he is not phrasing within sentences.  For example, all the words in a prepositional phrase go together and should be said as a unit; the subject and it’s modifiers should be said as a unit.  Practice reading aloud with you modeling how to say a given sentence, and ask your son to phrase words so that they make sense.
  • If a child is reading in a flat monotone, his reading lacks inflection.  Some languages lack inflection (Korean, for example), and children from that background might feel foolish saying some words louder and some words softer, or saying part of a word louder than the rest of a word.  If you can read with inflection, let the child listen to you and then ask him to repeat the words the same way.  If you cannot read with inflection, a child can listen and read along to books on tape.
  • If a child is bulldozing longer words rather than sounding them out, he could have problems with phonics, or be dyslexic,  or  be an impatient personality.  Cover suffixes and prefixes, discuss the root word’s meaning and the meaning of the suffixes and prefixes, and then reassemble the word.  Reread the sentence and ask the student what the word means in the context of that sentence.

Some manufacturers have a reading level on the back cover of children’s books. “RL 2.2” for example means reading level second grade, second month. Other books are color coded by the library, and still others show reading level with a lexile score. In my public library, one long wall of books contains easy readers for children learning to read. You might find an author whom your child likes. Ask your librarian for help so that your child is reading at the correct reading level and gaining confidence.

As your child progresses to higher reading levels, he will probably read with less accuracy and at a slower speed unless you actively intervene. Ask him to read aloud. When he pauses or stumbles, let him try to figure out the difficulty himself, but if he can’t, stop him and help him. Perhaps you will notice he doesn’t understand a concept in phonics; or that prefixes or suffixes confuse him; or that he doesn’t know where to make the break in multi-syllable words so he pronounces words wrong; or that a secondary meaning of a common word baffles him. Teach him how to solve his problem. Then let him continue reading that sentence or that paragraph. Now ask him to reread it. If he continues to stumble at the same spot, you know that he needs stronger intervention on a particular skill.

At the end of paragraphs or chapters, it’s important to ask your child what happened (in fiction) or what is the main idea (in nonfiction). If he talks around the idea but cannot nail it, he was focusing on individual words and missing the meaning of sentences or paragraphs. The reading was too hard. If he can retell the story or explain the main idea, he is comfortable at that reading level, and should try a slightly higher reading level.

What I see with many of my students is that they begin to have difficulty with reading once they have mastered the basic rules of phonics. It’s not a decoding problem; it’s a vocabulary problem.  As the reading level increases, so do the number of words they don’t understand. It’s not a matter of pronunciation usually; it’s a matter of having no idea what a given word or an idiom means. This is particularly true for ESL students.

That is why I say accuracy is important. If a child cannot read a given word accurately and know what it means, then understanding a sentence or a paragraph—with lots of unknown words—becomes impossible.

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