What was the last thing you read before you began reading this article? Was it a chapter in a novel? A recipe? An analytical report? Your favorite blog? Though you probably didn’t realize it, you used a certain reading strategy to gather meaning based on the genre of the text. For instance, reading a novel employs a different skill set than what you may use to read a technical manual.
Understanding you need to switch skills based on genre is common to all good readers. That’s why it’s so important for students to develop reading comprehension skills that will help them “switch” in various content areas.
Reading comprehension and expository text
Whether it’s science, social studies, or mathematics, all content area books are expository or informational. That means students need to use different strategies for comprehension than they would use if they were reading a story. Think about the difference between a mystery novel and a science textbook. In a novel, each page looks pretty much the same. In other words, each written page is made of paragraphs, which are made of sentences, which in turn are made of words.
Now think back to your high school biology textbook. Obviously there are chapters and paragraphs but there is much more. Content area textbooks make use of headings, subheadings, illustrations, tables and graphs, and summary sidebars. Each component of the textbook is designed to deliver important information that either summarizes, clarifies, or adds to the written content.
Not only is the layout in a textbook different from a novel or story, the purpose and method of delivery is different as well. Novels are plot and character driven and depend largely on dialogue to get the message across. However, content area textbooks are written to inform, explain, persuade or describe. There are no cliffhangers or page-turners to keep the student engaged while reading expository texts. For that reason readers need to have specific strategies they can use to focus and comprehend meaning.
Developing content area comprehension skills
It’s been said that in grades 1-4 children ‘learn to read’ and after that they ‘read to learn.’ While there may be some merit in that, actually the two are interchangeable. In other words, budding readers can learn new information as they are developing their reading skills and even skillful readers can develop new strategies to increase comprehension.
How? While all content area textbooks have content, how that content is structured and organized determines how challenging or easy it will be for students to understand. It’s critical that developing readers have well structured textbooks meaning there is a logical structure at the paragraph level. One reason students often struggle with expository text is because there are many different structures involved. Some paragraphs describe while others compare and contrast. Some show cause-and-effect relationships. This is why reading comprehension in content areas relies on increasing awareness of the structure in the textbook and showing students how to use that structure to understand what the author is trying to say.
Content area reading strategies
Everyone agrees that sound reading and comprehension skills are essential for learning. However, content area textbooks often provide more of a challenge, especially as students reach middle and high school. That’s when the reading volume and level of difficulty increases. The results can be a negative impact on content learning which will largely determine academic success.
One strategy for boosting reading comprehension involves helping students recognize word clues that point to a specific structure. For example, compare/contrast paragraphs may contain the words “however” and “both.” This is where visual organizers such as Venn diagrams can help students compare and contrast concepts. Then students can write summaries to clarify meaning in their own minds.
Students also need comprehension skills that include learning new vocabulary prior to reading, learning how to use text clues to identify critical information (such as titles, subheadings, graphics, and summary statements), and recognizing key terms that imply relationships between ideas.
Over time, these strategies will become second nature. A good reader will use these tools unconsciously in order to understand what they’re reading. However, struggling readers have to be taught what strategies to use, when to use them, and how to go about it. With practice, harnessing these strategies will become second nature for them regardless on the content area.