The Challenge of Content Area Reading
We see it all the time: kids who read pretty well in Language Arts demonstrate more problems when reading in other subject areas. For kids who struggle to read literature at their grade level, content area reading is even more daunting to the point of being nearly impossible for some when they hit high school subjects in history, math, and the sciences.
What begins as a relatively small problem in elementary school looms larger and larger as kids move on to middle and high school. The difficulty of the reading increases as does the volume. And so do the tasks we ask kids to perform based on what they have read. At 11th or 12th grade, school gets very, very hard for students who don't read well in content area subjects. It's hard, too, for the teachers who try to teach them.
Curriculum standards and high stakes testing have focused our attention on the matter: more kids need more proficiency in more subjects, and reading plays a part in every one. With several years of test scores to reflect on it has become clear that what kids don't get about a particular subject often has to do with what they can't read about it.
It's a mistake to think this problem just showed up while we were sleeping through the new millennium. Kids have always struggled to read effectively in the content areas. Put simply: content area reading is more difficult than reading literature. And now that this issue is being acknowledged publicly across the country, many of us are focusing our energies to address it.
First Things First
When I visit schools to help them improve their content area reading , most teachers want to know two or three specific lessons they can teach to help them solve two or three common problems. But before lessons can be effective, I find that more fundamental changes need to be considered, changes that are often tied to school culture.
I'm a big believer in the idea of putting first things first. (I don't always do it, mind you, but I believe in it because when I don't do it, I'm always wrong.) The first layer we have to deal with involves taking a look at our attitudes and practices in eight broad areas:
Reading Differences. From the standpoint of how readers approach the task, there are substantial differences between fiction and non-fiction. Often, kids aren't aware of this; they go about reading a textbook or an article on the Internet the same way they read a novel. We need to help kids shift their expectations and their approach to match the kinds of texts they have to deal with.
Reading Balance. Traditionally, reading in Language Arts has meant reading literature about 90% of the time according to the best estimates that I'm aware of. But later on, in middle and high school, their reading starts to become more like that of adults in world outside of school which is dominated by non-fiction. We can help kids make this transition by giving them more access to non-fiction in Language Arts where they can take more time to develop important skills.
Reading Process. Most kids see reading as a single act; they don't think of it as a process at all. In order to help kids improve, we have to help them become of how they read especially when they aren't reading very well. Every reader has a process and some processes are better than others. As the complexity of their texts increases, kids need to know not only what they are reading but how they are reading as well.
Reading Strategy. The most common strategy employed by students when they encounter a difficult part of a text is simply to stop reading it. Without explicit training and frequent reminders, few students develop strategies to overcome specific problems. While strategies are valuable to students when reading literature, they are almost certainly required for success when reading non-fiction. We need to be explicit about specific strategies kids can use when they tackle tougher texts in the content areas.
Reading Modeling. Even though most teachers don't teach reading, all teachers can read. And that means that all teachers can model their own reading processes and strategies in front of their students. Kids need to see models of successful adult readers in the content areas just like they see them in Language Arts.
Reading Retention. In non-fiction content area reading, we emphasize the retention of specific information. Even kids who read well may not remember enough about what they read because they don't have good tools for memorization and self-study. In addition to showing kids how to understand non-fiction information, we have to show them how to remember it as well.
Reading Applications. Part of making information easier to remember is making it meaningful to the person who has to remember it. If all kids do after reading is fill out worksheets or answer questions at the end of the chapter, they tend to develop habits and attitudes that compromise their effectiveness.
Reading Value. For many readers, especially very young ones, the value of reading literature is evident in its enjoyment. But they often view non-fiction very differently, often seeing it connected exclusively to assignments and tests as merely a way of getting a grade. We have to do a better job of demonstrating to our students what we as mature adult readers know: that non-fiction reading ability is an essential life skill of inestimable value in the real world.
It's Hard but it's Important
I find teaching reading to be the hardest thing to teach because I can never actually see it happening. Even the best brain imaging technology cannot show us exactly what is going on when our students process text. At the same time, I know that it is absolutely crucial that all kids learn to read well enough to function effectively in the world. And that's why I feel a deep obligation to make sure that kids learn as much about reading as they can ó whether I'm teaching Language Arts or not.
In the last few years, I've heard it said that every teacher needs to teach reading. While I can appreciate the good intentions behind this idea, I don't agree with it. Our curriculum is crammed full to bursting and I don't think content area teachers have the time or the training to teach reading well. Nor do I think most of them have the interest to do so. Science teachers need to concentrate on science, math teacher on math, history teachers on history, and so on. But every subject requires reading of some kind. So while I don't believe that all teachers need to teach reading, I do believe that all teachers can help their students read more effectively by making small changes to their regular teaching in the areas that I have outlined here. If Language Arts teachers take a leadership role in defining how reading is taught, content area teachers can support them effectively without taking time away from their curriculum or making radical changes in their practice.