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How to Help Kids Improve Reading Comprehension with Story Mapping

In Educational Strategies & Tips, Educators, Parents, Reading, Reading Strategies by Rachel Wise


Research indicates that students who struggle significantly with reading comprehension benefit from learning a strategy called Story Mapping which is explained in detail below. To read more about the research on Story Mapping see The Effects of Training in Story Mapping Procedures on Reading Comprehension and A Story Mapping Intervention to Improve Narrative Comprehension Deficits in Adolescents with ADHD.
What is Story Mapping?
Story mapping is a technique that teaches students to monitor their own comprehension by thinking about certain questions while they read. Then they fill in the answers to those questions on a story map as they go through the story or passage. Questions that students are taught to think about include:

  • Who was the story about? Or, who were the main characters?
  • Were there other important people in the story? Who?
  • When did the story take place?
  • Where did the story take place?
  • What did main character(s) want (or want to do?) Or, what was the problem in the story?
  • What did the main character(s) do to try to get what she or he wanted? Explain. Or, how did the main character(s) try to solve the problem?
  • Did the main character(s) get what he or she wanted? Explain. Or, was the problem solved? Explain.
  • What lessons did the story try to tell you?
  • Was the end a surprise? Explain. Or, could there have been a different ending?

Here is an example of a story map that you would have your child/student fill in as they read.
story map graphic organizer free
Download a Micorsoft Word Version of This Story Map for Your Use
How Will You Know if Story Mapping Helps Your Child?
In order to test this strategy to see if it is effective for your child/student, first you want to measure their comprehension in a systematic way before the training. Have the student read a story aloud or silently (however, they comprehend best). Then ask the student the questions above. Mark down how many questions they answered correctly. You may want to do this a few times to get an average score. After the student understands the strategy of story mapping and is able to apply it with some independence, you can retest their comprehension, using the same questions with the same or different stories.  If your student is able to answer these questions more successfully after getting the hang of story mapping, you know the strategy has had a positive effect on comprehension.
How Do You Teach Story Mapping?
When you first teach story mapping, you want to familiarize your student with the process while they read a text of choice. For instance, they may pick a story they already know or a topic of interest. For instance, if they love Charlie Brown, they may start out with a Charlie Brown book. As the student reads the story aloud, stop them when they read something that can be filled in on the map. Ask them where they can put the information. If they don’t know, provide as much guidance as needed, explicitly telling them/demonstrating where the information goes on the map if necessary. When a component has to be inferred from the text, point to the relevant information where the student can find the answer and if necessary explain what needs to be inferred (i.e. explain the assumption/prediction derived from “reading between the lines”).
Side Note: Writing something in your own words or drawing a picture to represent the idea are both excellent ways to demonstrate understanding of reading material. So, as your student fills in sections of the story map encourage them (or assist them if needed) to write the information in their own words or draw it. Drawing the idea allows for visualization of the concept, which is another another effective strategy to help with reading comprehension. For more on visualization in reading comprehension see How to Use the Visualizing and Verbalizing Strategy to Improve Reading Comprehension
Your ultimate goal is to get your child/student to be able to employ the story mapping strategy with the least assistance possible, so keep working with them over a period of time, utilizing the story map, until you feel they have reached their full potential in implementing the strategy on their own. Once the child has mastered the strategy or at least improved in their ability to utilize the technique, give them opportunities to use the story map independently with reading material of choice or with readings assigned by the parent/teacher (if possible provide a few options). After your student has completed the map on their own, review it with them and give specific feedback on how they did, what is correct, what can improve, etc.
After you are confident that your child has reached his/her full potential in the use of the story map technique, give him/her some opportunities to work on story maps on their own without any intervention/review from you. Once you have achieved this final step, give your student a story/passage to read, ask them to complete the map, and at the end of the task ask the comprehension questions mentioned at the beginning of this article. You may want to do this a few times to get an average score. If their score on the post-test is significantly higher than on the pre-test, you know the intervention was effective.
(Keep practice sessions short (5 to 10 minutes for younger children or children who get easily frustrated and 10 to 15 minutes for older children or children who can work for longer periods without frustration), unless the child is eager to keep going. If you have to extend the sessions, allow the child to take timed breaks if needed to engage in an enjoyable activity. For suggestions on ways to encourage children to complete tasks or assignments they do not want to do, read 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion and How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior.)
Side Note: Chunking the reading material into manageable steps and teaching students pause after each period to ensure they understood what they read (looking up words if needed), may need to be used in conjunction with story mapping for some students, particularly those who have trouble comprehending lengthy texts or texts with challenging vocabulary. To read more about these strategies, see 3 Research-Based Reading Comprehension Strategies Parents Can Try at Home: Chunking. Monitoring, and Listening.
Below is a real completed story map. First is the story and then the completed map.
Title: Michael’s Big Idea
Michael’s birthday party was on Saturday. He got so many presents he didn’t know what to do. His toy chest, closet, and drawers were already all filled up and he didn’t know where to put his new toys and clothes. His new stuff was all over his room and his mother kept coming in and telling him to find a place to put it. Michael was so frustrated that he decided to take a break and look through his old baseball cards in the garage. While he was out there, he saw some of his toys from when he was in preschool. That was when he got his big idea. Michael asked his mom if he could donate his old toys to other children who did not have a lot of toys. She said “Yes.” Now he would have room for all of his new toys and clothes.
Completed Map
free story map graphic organizer
Obviously this is a very short story, but longer stories can be broken into smaller parts and students can examine each section to determine which questions on the story map can be answered. More than one map can also be used for a single story.
Additional Information
Remember to always stay calm when working with a child or student, even if you think they should be getting something that they are not getting. If you get frustrated with them, they may start to feel anxious, angry, inferior, stupid, etc. which will lead to a less productive learning session. Give positive feedback for any effort shown by the student.
If your child is significantly struggling with reading comprehension or acquiring other academic skills, despite consistent practice and guidance, talk to your child’s school and/or doctor. They should be able to refer you to the appropriate professionals to determine what might be interfering with your child’s progress and what additional strategies might help.
Related Article: How to Use Graphic Organizers to Improve Reading Comprehension, Writing, Listening, Note Taking, and Study Skills
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