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Why kids have trouble understanding or remembering what they read

By Ginny Osewalt

This article is part of

Take N.O.T.E.

A simple, step-by-step tool to help you figure out if the struggles you’re seeing might be signs of a learning and thinking difference

The act of reading is complex. Kids need a bunch of skills to both understand and remember what they’ve read. Here are some reasons they might have a hard time with reading comprehension .

Reading speed: Do they read slowly? The longer it takes to get through a sentence or paragraph, the harder it can be to “hold on to” and think about the meaning of what they’ve read.

Vocabulary: Do they understand the meaning of most of the words in the text? Think of each paragraph as a house and each word as a wooden board. It’s hard for the house to feel sturdy if there are big holes in the floors or walls.

Interest: Are they bored by the topic? It’s hard to pay attention if you’re not interested in what you’re reading. When kids are engaged, they may work harder to get meaning from what they read.

Stress and anxiety: Are they stressed out? When kids are worried, it can be harder to concentrate and absorb the material.

Any of the above can affect how well kids understand what they read. But there are ways to work around these challenges.

Dive deeper

The importance of active thinking

Good readers are active readers. They often ask themselves questions as they read, like “What will the character do next?” 

Active readers also keep track of how well they understand what they’re reading. They pause and ask themselves, “Did that make sense?” Then they re-read the confusing part of the text. They do the same thing if they don’t understand one of the words. Instead of continuing to read, they pause and look for context clues (words or definitions in nearby sentences). 

Kids can become more active readers by asking questions like these. But they need to be taught these skills. Families and educators can model asking themselves these questions when they’re reading aloud. 

When kids are reading on their own, have them use these graphic organizers to keep track of their thoughts and questions.

For families: What to do next

If your child is struggling with reading comprehension, take notes about what you’re seeing at home. Have you noticed any possible causes, like your child reading slowly ? Do you see any trends, like your child having a hard time with academic text, but struggling less with just-for-fun reading? 

Share those notes with the teacher. Does the teacher notice the same trends? Ask for the teacher’s take on your child’s trouble with reading. Use these conversation starters to share your concerns.

For educators: What to do next

Reading comprehension is a common struggle for students. Sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly why a student is having a hard time. Use the list above to narrow down the cause or causes.

Then try specific teaching strategies to address the cause, including these: 

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom