Addressing the Reading Needs of Academically Diverse Students in Content-Area Classes

July 18, 2014, The IRIS Center

Don Deshler, Professor of Special Education and Director of the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas, discusses some of the challenges related to addressing the reading needs of academically diverse students in content-area classes (time: 8:26).

Questions asked of Dr. Deshler in this audio:

  1. What do you think is one of the biggest challenges facing content-area teachers?
  2. What are some solutions to this challenge?
  3. Will these strategies be sufficient to address the needs of students with very diverse reading abilities?

Don Deshler, PhD
Don Deshler, PhD
Professor, Special Education
Director, Center for Research on Learning
The University of Kansas

Transcript: Don Deshler, PhD

Narrator: This interview is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Don Deshler, Professor of Special Education and Director of the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas, discusses some of the challenges related to addressing the reading needs of academically diverse students in content-area classes (time: 8:26).

Narrator: Dr. Deshler, what do you think is one of the biggest challenges facing content-area teachers?

Don Deshler: One of the biggest challenges that content teachers face in secondary schools today is how to teach the increased volume of content that they are expected to teach. And not only teach an increased volume of content, but teach it to a higher level of mastery and teach it often to classes whose academic diversity is much broader than it was years earlier. Teachers face an enormous challenge, and then that challenge is really compounded when they find that several of the students in their classes do not have the foundational reading skills that they were anticipating that they would have. Let’s take as an example a sixth-grade science class. There’s a prescribed set of science content that needs to be covered. If we take time away from the science content to teach the students literacy skills in that science classroom, all the science won’t be taught. If we don’t teach some literacy skills, the students won’t have the ability to independently navigate the science text, and so everyone is frustrated.

Narrator: What are some solutions to this challenge?

Don Deshler: First of all, there isn’t an easy answer to it, and if anyone says that there is they’ve not been on the front lines and tried to solve it. Number two, we shouldn’t try to solve that problem alone. That is, as we look at a school’s staff we need to ask the question how might we mobilize the skills, the talents, the resources that we’ve got across our school staff to address the problems of underachievement in literacy. All of that assignment should not be parked at the foot of literacy coaches. It shouldn’t be parked at the foot of supplemental reading teachers or resource teachers, nor should it be the sole purview of content teachers, but rather we need to think of it as a team solution to this issue.

One of the things that might be considered—and I’d add this as my third point—is the notion that Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh spoke about many years ago, and it is to conceptualize the planning and the teaching that we do with students in content classes along the diagonal. Now what does she mean by that? If you envision an XY-axis graph and you put on the X-axis the content that you want students to learn, and if you put on the Y-axis the strategies for learning that content, now what Resnick is arguing is that if we spend all our time teaching the content or along the X axis and no time teaching students how to learn the content or the strategies for learning it, we won’t change the students as learners and they will never learn how to more independently approach the content. Whereas if we spend all the time on the Y-axis just teaching them how to learn, we won’t cover sufficient content. So she says the best path is somewhere between those two, and it’s a line that sort of goes up at a 45-degree angle. That’s what she refers to as teaching on the diagonal

So as we’re teaching content to students as teachers in this science class, we should always be asking ourselves, “What strategies does a good science learner use when they’re reading or trying to navigate and acquire this content?” Once you answer that question, as you’re teaching the content to students, try to imbed within that content reference to ways that the students can learn the content. For example, as you’re introducing a new chapter to students, I might say, “Okay, we’re going to start chapter fourteen today. To help us all get a good idea of what it is, let’s first sort of take a helicopter ride over it. Let’s look at the titles, the subtitles, some of the key graphics, and the summary at the end of the chapter. Let’s do that together and see what predictions we might make as to what we’re going to be covering, and what is going to be the big landscape that we’re going to be covering here.” Well, by doing so, time is spent teaching the students some of the core content that is going to be covered, which is good. And at the same time we’re teaching them a survey strategy. And after you do that for a couple of times, you push the pause button and you say to the students, “Let’s have a conversation. We go through and do this little survey activity at the beginning. Does that help? Why does it?” So we have some abbreviated conversations about how do we learn this particular content?

Now, if content teachers have those ongoing conversations and they model for students how they learned that content and they share with them how they personally as a science teacher who’s also a science expert, here’s how I learn it, here’s the way I remember it, here’s the mnemonics I use, or see how I underlined it in yellow, see the graphic summaries I did? That really helped me learn it. So you can integrate into the content instruction that you’re doing some specific high-leverage strategies.

Narrator: Will these strategies be sufficient to address the needs of students with very diverse reading abilities?

Don Deshler: Now, as you’re doing this in the content classroom, that is going to help a lot of students who are struggling. But there are going to be students in your class that will help a little bit, but it will not be sufficient. They’re going to need more intensive explicit instruction on some of the core foundational reading skills more than you as a content teacher can ever offer, and you probably don’t have the training or the expertise to offer. That’s why—going back to where I started—it’s so important to be able to plan and collaborate with others in the school building, and maybe these are the students that have to go into a supplemental reading class where they will really get intensive instruction so you can build up in a short period of time those necessary skills to empower them to more independently be successful in your classroom.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this IRIS Center interview. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at www.iriscenter.com [https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/].

Print Friendly, PDF & Email