Supporting Student Comprehension in Content Area Reading
About this Strategy Guide
In this strategy guide, you'll learn a few simple, yet powerful, techniques to encourage students to use peer talk and writing to enhance their understanding of content area texts.
Oftentimes, the support students get with a content area reading task is a list of questions to answer or terms to define. While this approach is appropriate in spirit—students do need guidance to focus on what’s most important—it can backfire. Believing the goal of reading to be a completed vocabulary list or a set of accurate answers, students may look for ways around the reading and thinking process and seek to produce the “correct” response requested from a list.
Offering students meaningful ways to respond to and make sense of what they’re reading can go a long way toward getting students to read with engagement and confidence. Writing and conversation offer a number of possibilities for teachers to support comprehension for all students.
Strategy in Practice
While all of these strategies enhance the possibility for meaningful engagement with text, none of them is likely to happen on its own. Plan to model the chosen learning behavior (oftentimes more than once) and to be an active presence in the room, moving from student to student, pair to pair, to monitor, ask and answer questions, and reengage students who lose focus.
- Look over the text and, based on its difficulty and the readiness of your students, decide an appropriate interval (Every paragraph? Every two paragraphs? Twice per page?) to ask students to “stop, think, and write.” Using a T-Chart or sticky notes, at each determined interval, students should take note of an important idea or fact or record an observation or question. In the process, they produce a running record of their comprehension of the reading.
- Put students into pairs and ask them to set reading intervals of their own. Together, they read silently (or one reads aloud) until they reach the agreed-upon spot, at which point each student shares a question or observation. The students should acknowledge each others’ responses with follow-up questions or thoughtful confirmation of important content.
- Depending on the content and structure of the text, provide and discuss with students a graphic organizer before reading to help them hone in on and formulate an understanding of key concepts. If, for example, students are reading about the attitudes toward the U.S. Civil War held by Northerners and Southerners, a Venn Diagram would be appropriate. If students are reading about the process of cell division, a sequencing chart may aid comprehension.
- Generic graphic organizers provide inspiration and a place to start, but because every text and every group of students is different, be ready to customize resources to give students the best chance at making meaning from the reading.
- Provide students with space and time to process the content on the graphic organizer through writing or conversation. Remind students that understanding your content topic—not completing a worksheet—is the goal of academic reading.
- Have students reflect on what they’ve read through informal writing. If students are completing the reading in class, have them write on a note card or slip of paper a few key understandings (“Tell me what you know about most important functions of the legislative branch of the U.S. government”) and/or a question or point of confusion (“If you could, what would you ask the author of this article to help you better understand her point of view on immigration policy?”). Use this information to guide planning for future learning activities.