Why Reading Comprehension in the Content Areas is so Important

English teachers are skilled instructors of reading comprehension—a nebulous concept that requires several moving parts. Reading comprehension instruction often includes strategies for tackling certain, discrete skills, like vocabulary, identification of main ideas, and comparisons within and between texts. What makes reading comprehension such a complex thing is that understanding what you’re reading is a completely personal and almost totally internal task. Students can discuss their ideas after they’ve read something, but it’s almost impossible to track reading comprehension in the exact moment it’s happening. Comprehension of a text is made up of smaller pieces, all of which must come together in perfect harmony: background knowledge, interest in the topic, vocabulary skills, and the ability to make inferences and judgments are all required, along with many other skills.

Image via pixabay and Workingham Libraries

Image via pixabay and Workingham Libraries

Thanks in part to the Common Core State Standards, but also to the increasing emphasis in education on adequately preparing students for college and careers, reading comprehension has become increasingly important in the non-ELA content areas like math, science, and social studies. Today’s math instruction requires students to read lengthy texts that describe real world issues. Math students have to explain and justify their processes and answers. This is causing some trouble for content area teachers who feel they now how have to be both experts in their field and experts in English and reading skills. This article from the Atlantic on why the math word problems in the new SAT are proving to be so tough is a prime example of what is expected of content area teachers.

To prepare students for college and careers, reading comprehension needs to be a part of all subject areas. Students cannot master complex scientific concepts, comprehend historical treaties, or follow complex logic problems without it. Content areas deal with complex texts that require analytical reading skills. Students in social studies, science, and math classes have to be able to compare and synthesize ideas, and use specific academic vocabulary. In 2002, Fisher, Frey, and Williams compiled this list of literacy strategies for the content areas. Today, we’re going to add to the list and suggest certain reading comprehension strategies to try in your content area classroom

Reading Strategies for Young Readers

Elementary school teachers often have the difficult jobs of teaching all subject areas. While this means having to know a lot of information about a lot of different topics, it also means that elementary level teachers are more likely to easily employ reading comprehension strategies across all areas. The same activities teachers use with their class during reading can be recycled for science, math, and social studies.

  • Think Alouds: When reading content-related texts, students can learn a lot from teachers who stop to vocalize their thinking. Young readers aren’t always aware of when their comprehension has broken down, so hearing teachers talk about their internal thought processes can help students mimic the strategy.
  • Mimic Literature Circles: Many teacher assign roles for students during book discussions. Each student is given a task like clarifier, connection-maker, questioner, and summarizer. These same roles can be assigned while reading nonfiction texts in the content areas. They’ll help students deepen their comprehension using a familiar technique.
  • Important Words: Identifying context clues helps students in decoding unknown words. But going beyond that vocabulary strategy and having students identify the most important words in a text can help them process the topic and further understand the content area subject. One way to do this might be to have each student nominate an important word found directly in the text. Together, the class can rank the words in order of relevance and importance to the text.
  • Main Idea and Details: It’s important to have students interacting with text at a young age. Encourage underlining and highlighting of main ideas and details. Adding the physical component engages different parts of the brain and allows students to think critically about a text.
  • Rereading: Many students reread their favorite picture and chapter books over and over, which deepens their comprehension of the story. This same skill should be applied to nonfiction content area texts. Rereading a text will familiarize the students with the subject matter and help them pick up on new ideas they didn’t notice in prior readings.
  • Ask Why? and How?: These two questions get at the analytical and inferential thinking important for mastering comprehension of subject-matter texts. Usually questions that begin with “why” and “how” have multiple correct answers that require an overall understanding of a historical event or scientific process in order to answer. For example, “Why do people adopt animals?” or “How do tadpoles become frogs?”

Reading Strategies for Older Students

Teachers of middle school and high school students are usually departmentalized. They teach classes within a particular discipline. Teachers of any subject can use the following strategies, however content area teachers may find them most beneficial for getting students to comprehend complex, academic texts.

  • 2 Column Notes: This strategy asks students to respond to a text (or film or audio recording) by organizing notes and thoughts into two columns. The left column is labeled “Key Ideas” and the right is labeled “Responses.” The “Key Ideas” section includes traditional notes from the text, like main ideas, details, people, and events. The “Responses” section is a place for students to record questions, inferences, assumptions, and connections they’ve made. By linking the key ideas with responses, students can better internalize the information from the text.
  • Important Words Versus Word Clouds: Before class, enter a section of the text into a word cloud generator to emphasize the most important words in the selection. After reading the text, ask students to list the most relevant words. Compare the word cloud to the students’ choices and analyze why there may be some disparity. Asking students to identify important words helps them determine the main ideas and key details of academic texts.
  • Build Academic Vocabulary: Words are the building blocks to comprehension. If a student skips over or misunderstands an important content-area word, he or she will likely fall behind in comprehension. The Marzano 6-Step Vocabulary process is still widely regarded as one of the best ways to introduce and teach academic vocabulary.
  • Free-form Mapping: This strategy allows students to create visual representations of their ideas and understand without having to fit their thoughts into a prescribed graphic organizer. Free-form maps include main ideas, relationships, interconnections between topics, side topics and thoughts, and whatever else a student perceives as important and relevant to the topic. No two free-form maps will be alike, which promotes excellent discussion amongst students.

In Short

Reading comprehension is made of many different skills. These skills are created and developed by using a variety of reading strategies to encourage students to interact with text in meaningful ways. Common Core requires a wider population of students to read more nonfiction than every before; content area classrooms are a great place to develop this new practice. Fortunately, many traditional reading comprehension strategies work well in content area classrooms. We hope you can use some of the strategies we’ve listed above and we want to hear what reading comprehension strategies work best for you.

1 Comment

  1. Timothy Hammn

    June 8, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Very interesting read. I agree, especially with building academic vocabulary.