This is the second part in my series of Reading Comprehension 101 posts. If you missed the first one about good readers making pictures in their heads, you can check it out here. Making connections is one of my favorite comprehension strategies because it is so easy for kids to do and understand. Basically, if you make a connection to a story, you automatically have a deeper understanding because you have attached it to knowledge that already exisits in your brain. I like to imagine that we all have tons of little files in our brains. Each file contains what we know about a certain subject. For instance, you probably have an "apple" file. If you grew up on an apple farm, your file is huge. You have pictures of apple trees, all different kinds of apples, the taste of them, the feel of them, etc. If you grew up in Hawaii, your file on apples might not have as much, but your pineapple file is probably pretty big. So if I ask you to read a book about pineapples, you are probably going to do really well because it will make sense to you and you can access the knowledge that's already in your brain about pineapples. For instance, you could fill in the sentence, "Pineapples grow on the ________." without having to even read the word. Whereas maybe some inner city kid who has never seen a pineapple is going to struggle with that sentence because his pineapple file has nothing in it. Are you starting to follow why it's important to be able to connect what you know to the book?
The good news for those of you with even teeny little kids is that the more you expose them to life and experiences, the more their files will grow. If they have lots of thick files, then it will be that much easier for them to read all sorts of things and undestand them.
There are lots of fancy ways to say it - using your schema or prior knowledge to enhance your understanding. The easiest way we would refer to it in my first grade classroom was as a "Text-to-Me" connection. So, a super simple connection might be that if you're reading a book about Biscuit the dog, your child might say, "I have a dog like Biscuit!" or maybe she'll say, "Biscuit is way nicer than our cat." If your child isn't saying these things, you can say it and model it for them. It's a magical thing to see how much more a child connects with a book if they have lots of knowledge about the subject. After going to a farm, they can read a farm book with much more interest and confidence. They might make a connection like "oh that little lamb looks like the one we saw today!"
Do you have to freak out and run to give your child as many experiences as possible right away to make them a good reader? No, don't worry. You will be amazed at the amount of information they have collected already. You can just deepen their experience with books by helping them make connections. The easiest books to do this with are books that have to do with real subjects that are close to their daily experiences. Little Critter books are good for that and so are books by Jamie Lee Curtis.
So, once you graduate from "Text-to-Me" connections and feel confident with those, you can also try "Text-to-Text" connections. My son did these really easily, so you might be surprised at how easy it comes or how your kids might already be doing it. It's as simple as saying, "Hey, that Kissing Hand book reminds me of Love You Forever because the mommy loves the kid very much in both of them." or you can compare and contrast a book with the same character, "The Little Critter is thinks he can do everything himself in All By Myself and this other Little Critter book. This one only has his sister but that one has his whole family."
Finally, for those of us who are a little older, there are "Text-to-World" connections. That means, it might not be something that happened to you directly, but perhaps is of historical significance or currently news. Maybe I'm reading a story with a tornado in it and it makes me think of the tornadoes that recently hit Oklahoma. These connections tend to be bigger ideas or a little farther removed from your life. I would mainly focus on the first two with your little guys.
I challenge you to pay attention now when you're reading to how many "Text-to-Me" and "Text-to-Text" connections you're making. In this day and age, you might even have "Blog-to-Blog" connections. You'll be surprised!
Here is a great post on connections and prior knowledge from This Reading Mama - Before They Read - Connecting New Content to Prior Knowledge.