child writing surrounded by books


Liz Heesom  is an experienced primary school teacher, specialising in languages and special needs support. With over 30 years of experience in tutoring children for the 11+, school entrance, maths and English to GCSE level and more general learning support. In addition she is an author, translator and mother of three. 

How to help improve reading comprehension

A couple of months ago, Harry, one of my new Year 5 pupils, arrived for a lesson saying he got a disappointing mark for his practice comprehension test; he just couldn’t do it and had no idea what had gone wrong.

Many children in Years 5 and 6 struggle with comprehension, which is a key part of the Year 6 SATs and is also used in many parts of the country in 11+ exams. If your child is struggling to get to grips with comprehension, here are some key points to help them master this essential skill.

What is comprehension for the 11+?

First, it is vital to ask your child: "What does the word 'comprehension' actually mean?" In the majority of cases you will get blank looks, and the response – “I have no idea.” In fact, the word 'comprehension' simply means 'understanding'. What is expected of children doing an 11+ English comprehension exercise or test is to show that they understand what the text is about.

They will need to be able to:

  • Read the text
  • Have a sense of what it is about
  • Be able to imagine what is going on
  • Know what most of the words mean
  • Be a detective

‘Be a detective? What do you mean?’

Yes, children doing a comprehension exercise will need to be able to notice details, read between the lines for underlying messages and find evidence to support their ideas.

Not only that, but in the exam they will also need to be able to read the questions carefully, answer fully and clearly, and use the text to support their answers.

They will also, usually, be expected to write their answers in complete sentences. They will have to pay attention to the mark scheme – if it is a three mark question, the test will probably be seeking three separate points – be able to check their work thoroughly and demonstrate their understanding. No wonder it can sometimes feel like a tall order, especially when doing all this in timed exam conditions.

Common problems

When doing 11+ English comprehension worksheet exercises, many children start off by quickly reading the passage and jumping straight into question 1 to answer it. Some children think it’s a memory test and try to answer the questions without looking back at the passage. In my experience, almost all children are so delighted to complete the final answer that they breathe a sigh of relief and hand their work in.

So how can parents help to build English and reading comprehension skills with their child? Suggest this easy five-point-plan to your child and go through it with them using this free Bond comprehension test paper. (Free Login/Registration required, look under Free Resources > English Practice Tests)

  1. Read the passage carefully. Write nothing.
  2. Read through all the questions. Write nothing.
  3. Skim-read the story or passage as you work out answers to each question, using clues and evidence from the passage. Write nothing.
  4. Write answers in complete sentences, unless asked not to. Study the mark scheme to make sure you are making the right number of points.

How can parents help in the long-term?

  • Encourage 11+ reading comprehension reading books as much as possible: make sure your child is a local library member and always has a pile of books available to them.
  • Talk about anything they’re reading: ask what they would do in situations encountered, what they think a character is thinking/feeling, what might happen next?
  • Build vocabulary whenever you can: be interested in words together, have fun looking up unfamiliar words in a dictionary, and using them, too.
  • Share the reading experience: read to your child as well as listening to your child read, enjoy doing word puzzles together. The key is: enjoy together!

Only this week, Harry arrived all aglow, with some terrific news: “Guess what, Liz, I got FULL MARKS in my comprehension test today!”

Liz Heesom

Related links

  • Free Bond comprehension paper (Free Login/Registration required, look under Free Resources > English Practice Tests)
  • Video: How to Do Comprehension - 11+ exam tutor Alvon Stewart works through a series of 11+ exam comprehension questions and shows you how to help your child infer the correct answer using clues available in a text
  • Shop: Bond Comprehension Papers for carefully graded practice of comprehension skills
  • Don't forget your dictionary - vocabulary knowledge is strongly related to reading comprehension skill throughout a child’s development. Oxford create dictionaries and thesauruses for children of all ages that are specially compiled to meet the demands of the school curriculum, and you can view the full range here