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     September 2006

Education Up Close

Reading in the Content Areas:
Strategies for Success

Eavesdrop on a group of educators discussing failing or struggling students and phrases such as "nonreader" abound.

How often have you heard secondary teachers attribute student failure to poor reading habits?

It is common knowledge among secondary teachers that an increasing number of students are ill-equipped to read and comprehend the textbooks designed for proficient secondary readers.

What may not be so widely accepted, however, is the idea that content teachers can assist struggling readers. This premise does not mean that content teachers should become reading teachers; rather, content teachers can structure lessons to assist struggling readers, boosting them to proficient performance when reading content-based material.

Proficient Readers vs. Struggling Readers
Different teachers apply different benchmarks to pinpoint struggling readers. A reading teacher, for example, will administer a battery of informal reading inventories to determine deficiencies in reading rate, fluency, word recognition, and comprehension. While such testing allows a reading teacher to tailor an improvement plan to meet a reader's need, it is not practical or necessary for content teachers to adopt a reading teacher's approach to reading instruction.

Rather, content teachers should understand that the difference between successful and unsuccessful readers is the ability to effectively apply strategies to difficult texts, which is a very relative term.

A reader who holds a Ph.D. in history may find a manual on building a car engine to be a "difficult text." However, one can assume that a Ph.D. is a viable reader who will apply internalized reading strategies repetitively in order to attain comprehension. Such a reader rereads, paraphrases, considers context, infers, questions, reflects, and perhaps even consults other materials without conscious decision. The application of reading skills to a difficult text is automatic for a proficient reader.

A struggling reader, on the other hand, either holds no intrinsic repertoire of reading strategies, or applies such strategies only to texts with which he is comfortable. Thus, simple reading strategies built into a content lesson can provide a struggling reader with the scaffolding necessary to meet success.

Content Teachers Meet Reading Instruction
Do content teachers have to deal with the issue of reading? If your students are expected to read in your class, the answer is probably yes.

While English teachers spend considerable time addressing reading skills in their classes, their primary text type at the secondary level is literature. It is difficult to cover every type of text a student will encounter outside of their classrooms.

Reading instruction is a responsibility shared by all teachers, regardless of level or content. Educators who accept this idea are already a step ahead - but for teachers unversed in basic reading instruction, the task is daunting.

You can help your students decode the types of text they encounter in your classes, whether they are from the hard sciences, social sciences, or mathematics.

Reading Instruction in Content Classrooms
Incorporation of reading instruction into the content classroom is not as daunting as one might believe. Any reading assignment can be broken down into three comprehension-building steps:

Step One: Before Reading
This step activates a knowledge base upon which students can build and establishes a purpose for reading.

Step Two: During Reading
This step allows students to measure comprehension, clarify, visualize, and build connections.

Step Three: After Reading
This step expands prior knowledge, builds connections, and deepens understanding.

Apply any of the following simple reading strategies to aid students during each portion of the reading assignment.

Before Reading Strategies
brainstorm predict skim assess prior knowledge preview headings learn crucial vocabulary

During Reading Strategies
reread infer question support predictions summarize

After Reading Strategies
reread confirm predictions summarize synthesize reflect question

Incorporating learning aids such as graphic organizers and reading anticipation guides into reading assignments can also help students visually organize content.

Sample Introductory Science Reading Using Reading Strategies

Let us assume a Science teacher discovers that several students in her heterogeneously grouped class are having difficulty reading the passages about atoms in their science textbook. What reading strategies might she employ to aid these students?

Before Reading

  • Provide background information about atoms, explaining that atoms make up every known object.
  • Explain that while scientists have never seen an atom, they have collected sufficient information to create a model of an atom.
  • Establish a purpose for reading by stating that the students will see labeled diagrams of atoms to help them learn about the parts and characteristics of an atom.

During Reading

  • After reading in small groups, pairs or individually for several minutes, pause and ask students to pair and take turns explaining what they have learned thus far about atoms and charges.
  • Using individual two-column learning logs, pause at intervals during reading and ask students to phrase a question about the passage just read, then pair, exchange logs and allow the partner to write a question in the second column.

After Reading

  • Have students work in groups to identify parts of the atom on a diagram, identifying the charges for each as well.

Another activity is the KWL chart. Before reading, students complete the first column of the chart, what I know about atoms, and the second column, what I want to learn about atoms. After reading, the third column, what I learned about atoms would be completed.

With either introductory activity, the content focus is atoms, but students have been engaged in a purpose for reading.

Educators owe struggling readers content reading instruction. Confident, proficient readers will not magically emerge from the door of an English classroom; rather, skilled readers emerge from classrooms where effective reading strategies are taught and practiced regularly.

Learn More About Reading in the Content Areas
Visit the Teaching Today Reading in the Content Areas Archive.
Teaching Today offers a host of ready-to-use teaching tips and free downloads to help you improve your students' reading skills.

Teaching Reading in Middle School
by Laura Robb
ISBN: 0590685600/352 pages/2000

This work presents a variety of before, during, and after reading strategies that are easily applicable to content classrooms.

Into Focus:
Understanding and Creating Middle School Readers

edited by Kylene Beers and Barabara G. Samuels
ISBN: 0926842641/ pages/1996
This volume is filled with everything a teacher wants and needs to know about middle school readers. It includes ideas for content area teachers to incorporate reading improvement skills into their classrooms.

Words, Words, Words:
Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12

by Joan Allen, Ed.D
ISBN: 1571100857/160 pages/1999
Allen translates research into effective teaching practice as she outlines strategies for vocabulary instruction.

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