Don't Miss the Point: Content-Focused Reading Instruction Is Crucial
While many language skills and comprehension strategies are embedded in daily lessons, teachers know that the overall purpose of each lesson sequence is to understand content related to a theme. The reason for reading a text is clear: The text is worthwhile. It is complex and rich. The topic is inherently interesting—or if it isn’t, yet, it will be once the students know something about it. The reader will be rewarded with understanding, insight, ideas, and new information.
Unfortunately, students who have reading and language comprehension difficulties much more commonly experience comprehension instruction that targets a specific skill or strategy. While the skill and strategy focus seems logical when students lack skills and strategies, what may be sacrificed with well-intentioned intervention organized primarily around specific comprehension strategies is the point of reading—the reward of reading to learn, preferably with peers who are also engaged.
Recently I was privileged to visit three high school classrooms in Anchorage, Alaska, where the LANGUAGE! Live program is in use (teachers pictured at left). In the classroom of Antavia Hamilton-Ochs at Bartlett High School, you could hear a pin drop as 15 or so very diverse ninth grade students read aloud from a play based on The Diary of Anne Frank.
The student readers—all of whom were placed in the class for reading levels well below average—were engrossed. As students read the dialogue of their assigned characters, they listened attentively to one another. The horror of the Frank family’s circumstances unfolded, page by page, and the students were riveted.
The period ended before the reading finished, and I could only imagine the classroom discussions that might have occurred in the ensuing days. Did the students realize the enormity of the Jews’ persecution by the Nazis? Could they imagine life in hiding for two years? Could they understand the Holocaust in the context of either their own life experience or the annals of human history? What did they make of Anne’s belief that, at heart, humans are good?
The teacher in this class—and the others I observed—valued and promoted reading for a purpose, even though the students in their classes are well below average in their reading and language achievement.
In what way does this approach to reading differ from the norm in classes for struggling readers? I, in my teaching days, used to have a workbook for every skill—finding the main idea, making inferences, using the context, conjuring visual imagery, forming a summary, or locating details—ready to inflict on my remedial reading class. Typically, books and readings are assigned based on reading levels rather than on the relevance of the text’s topic to a solid curriculum component in science, social studies, literature, or the arts.
Best of Both Worlds: Content and Strategies
Is it possible to have the best of both approaches—an emphasis on meaningful content and opportunities to practice skills and strategies that are lacking? Most definitely. This blending of purposes can be accomplished in several ways.
First, several texts of various genres can be read in sequence because they share connection to a theme of significance. Interest usually increases when students know more and more about a topic, so multiple readings about the same themes build background knowledge that, in turn, makes subsequent readings easier to grasp. With each reading, students elaborate their knowledge of thematic content. Interest levels rise, as do attention and emotional connection with the reading experience. If the student cares, he or she is more likely to persist through challenging language and complex concepts.
Simultaneously, the reading task is highly supported. Before, during, and after, the teacher mediates the reading experience. Background information is provided. Vocabulary is previewed and revisited several times. The text is read and reread for various purposes. A first reading brings the main ideas and events into focus. A second, slow, directed reading (a “close reading”) dissects the language in the text and unveils the less obvious meanings conveyed by the language. A third reading prepares students to answer questions that, in turn, lead into a written response.
Strategies such as summarizing, predicting, monitoring one’s comprehension, using context, and finding supporting details are taught, but typically they are taught in practice exercises, with shorter segments of text, in between the content-laden readings. They are never the main dish on the instructional menu, but they enhance and facilitate students’ ability to approach a text with tools for understanding. Strategies are tools, employed when suitable for achieving a comprehension goal.
Is there research support for approaching text study with these priorities? Yes, some; in a study comparing instruction that focused on strategies or content, McKeown, Beck, and Blake (2009) found a slight advantage for content-focused instruction.
So, to evaluate whether text study is hitting its mark, we can be guided by these questions: What are students learning? What topic are they reading and writing about? Is it worthwhile? Is it connected to a larger purpose? Can students and their teachers tell you the point of a lesson? Would most people agree that the substance of the lesson has significance in the world at large? Wherever we can answer, “yes,” to these questions, reading instruction is likely to be going well.
McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., & Blake, R. (2009). Rethinking reading comprehension instruction: A comparison of instruction for strategies and content approaches. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 218-253.
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