Secondary Reading Instruction (Part 1): Teaching Vocabulary and Comprehension in the Content Areas
Because many middle- and high school students have difficulty with reading for content instruction, it is important that teachers teach effective vocabulary and comprehension skills. Teachers who do so will find that their students are better able to:
- Understand the written material associated with different subject areas
- Learn from various types of texts (e.g., textbook, Internet, newspaper)
- Master grade-level content standards
Transcript: Wrap Up
The first thing you need to do is to select the essential words to teach. Many teachers get stymied here, and they worry that they’re going to select the wrong word, not pick the right word, or somehow mess up, and what I want to say to each of you is don’t worry about that. Pick what you think are the most important words that students need to know in order to understand the big ideas of the unit you’re teaching.
Number two, you need to be able to define and put the word in a context. Use words to define the word that students understand and put it in the context in which the word is going to be used. Also, most of the words you’re teaching have more meanings than the ones you’re teaching for that particular big idea. So you may want to say to students, “I’m going to be telling you about the meaning of the word cell as it relates to biology. But you remember that cell has other meanings. For example, who do we put in cells in prisons? Well, we put people who commit crimes in cells, and so that’s a different meaning.” You want to be sure to emphasize the context of the meaning of the word you’re teaching, but you also want to be sure they understand that most of the words have other meanings.
The third thing you want to do is you want to be sure students can actively process the word. In other words that they make the word their own. They learn not just what you say the word means but the way in which they define the word and use it.
And then fourthly you want to be sure that they have multiple experiences with the word. What that means is they have a chance to turn and talk, use the word with their peers, write about the word, use the word as they describe the big ideas in the content area, and use the word throughout the day. Make it theirs.
The ways in which comprehension can be promoted and integrated into content-area learning is to focus on the most-important comprehension practices. There are numerous comprehension practices in the research literature, and many of them are interesting and fun to teach. But if we try to teach them all, the fear is the students won’t learn any of them very well. So you’re probably better off focusing on three or four of these practices that are associated with improved comprehension in the content area.
First of all, you know that you need to activate prior knowledge, and you can do that quickly. This doesn’t need to take hours. It can be done in 30 to 90 seconds, to two minutes to three minutes. There are several key ways to promote background knowledge. One of them is to show a very brief video clip. And when I say brief, I mean brief: 90 seconds, not 20 minutes.
You can give students a chance to highlight key words or phrases by reviewing the text ahead of time and then using those key words or phrases to expand on and extend what they already know.
You can get students to ask questions by pre-skimming what they’re reading and learning, and those questions will make them aware of what they want to know, and so as they either listen or read they can fill in those gaps. So, activating prior knowledge, it can be done very quickly, and many teachers spend too much time on the building of background knowledge and not enough time on getting students to highlight what they want to know about the background knowledge that’s linked to what they’re reading.
Number two, you want to be sure that students are, if you will, awake while they’re reading, monitoring what they’re reading and learning. So we don’t want them plowing through text and getting to the end. The goal isn’t to finish. The goal as you go through text is to ask and answer questions about what you’re reading. So you want them to monitor.
The third thing you want them to do is, you want to be able to have some kind of a visual schema or some way to organize what they’re reading so that they can remember it. One of the best ways to do that is through a graphic organizer or a visual display in which the key words or key ideas are linked so that they can be better retained by the student.
The fourth thing, it’s important for students to know how to answer easier and more-advanced questions. So, for example, easier questions are questions in which the answer is right there, right in the text, in just a few words. So who wrote the…? Well, you can go right back to the paragraph and see a sentence that says, “Thomas Jefferson wrote the…,” and it’s a right-there question. Those questions are important questions, particularly in science and social studies, and so you want to be sure students know how to ask and answer them. There are more-complex questions in which students have to use information from different places in the text, paragraphs that are separated. Linking that information to answer a more-complex question type is also important. So a question like “Why did the settlers come to the West?” the answer to that question might be in multiple paragraphs within the same text.
There are even more-advanced questions in which the answers to the question aren’t in the text per se but can be inferred from the text based on what you’ve read. So you might ask a question like, “Why do you think the characters in this particular era were so interested in making the kinds of cultural changes that we just read about?” So that requires students to have read the text but also to think beyond the text.
Get students to both ask questions and answer the questions, both before they read, while they read, and after they read. The key question steps, like who, what, why, where, how, can be taught to students, and they can use these question stem to formulate questions. They don’t formulate every question stem every time, so you might even say to students, “Before you read, skim what you’re about to read and come up with a good who and what question, and then at the end see if you can answer it.” Asking questions and then answering them is a really important way to promote comprehension.
Revisiting Initial Thoughts
Think back to your initial responses to the following questions. After working through the resources in this module, do you still agree with your Initial Thoughts? If not, what aspects of your answers would you change?
Do you think teachers should teach vocabulary and reading comprehension skills within their content areas?
What are the responsibilities of middle- and high school teachers for teaching vocabulary and comprehension skills within their content areas?
What should content-area teachers know about vocabulary instruction?
What should content-area teachers know about comprehension instruction?
When you are ready, proceed to the Assessment section.