Strategy Guide

Reading with Purpose in the Content Areas

6 - 12
Strategy Guide Series
Reading in the Content Areas

About this Strategy Guide

In this strategy guide, you'll learn how to organize students and instruction to establish a sense of purpose for reading authentic texts in the content areas.


Research Basis

Content area teachers in middle and high schools face sometimes misguided pressure from administrators to include more reading in their instructional activities. While it’s likely that being asked to read (with reasonable support) in every classroom would improve standardized test scores, that’s a side benefit to the real reasons to make sure that reading is a part of students’ content area learning.

  • Reading is a way to gain exposure to and develop tentative understandings of content. Teacher talk, even when supported by audiovisual aids, tends to dominate content area instruction—often at the expense of engaged student learning. Reading diverse and provocative texts from your content gives students another way to interact with the key information and ideas about which they’re learning.
  • Reading is vital means of exposing learners to what thinking in your content area looks and sounds like. Exposing students to well-chosen readings lets students in on important conversations in your field and provides models of what it means to think and talk like a scientist, historian, psychologist, musician, and so forth.
  • Asking students to read widely—beyond the textbook—is a highly regarded strategy of giving students access to the language and ideas that all students need to be successful in school and beyond. Teachers don’t have enough time to tell student everything they need to know, and students can’t learn it well enough just by listening and writing.


Strategy in Practice

Students are unlikely to be convinced or adequately motivated by these pedagogical reasons for reading in every content area classroom. Teachers need to set authentic purposes for reading that pique students’ curiosity and prepare them for the information ideas they’re going to read about.

  • Offer students the chance to read beyond the textbook. Popular content area journals, newspapers, trade nonfiction, and online resources provide teachers with access to reading material that can provide depth, authenticity, and timeliness that textbooks simply cannot. Work with colleagues who teach the same course or in your department to establish a library of texts that engages students in the key ideas and information of your content.
  • Have students participate in setting purposes for reading by using anticipation guides . After you’ve selected a text for students to read, go over it carefully and make a list of the key ideas they will encounter. Provide students with a list of statements based on your list and have them rate their level of agreement or disagreement before they read. (This guide then becomes a powerful tool for assessing learning or changed attitudes after reading and discussion as well).
  • Focus on surprising facts or information, controversial ideas or points of view, and content about which students likely have misconceptions. In preparation for a reading on bacteria and viruses in a biology class, for example, students might be asked to respond to statements such as “A typical square inch of human skin hosts thousands of bacteria,” “A population is stronger when there are a number of viral and bacterial diseases present within it,” and “Viruses can be killed using antibiotics.” Students could then assess their beliefs after reading the article or chapter, noting the sections in the text that influences their thinking.
  • Organize the classroom to motivate reading and discussion. Use a technique such as jigsawing to create an authentic knowledge gap in your classroom. Have small groups of students read and discuss a handful of different texts with complementary or contrasting views on a question or issue from your content area (differing points of view on the American Revolution; multiple reviews of a book, film, piece of music or art; sections of a chapter that can be understood independently). Then reshape the groups to include students who have each read one of the different texts. Students are then challenged to share an overview of their reading and synthesize the varying content they collectively read.


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