Every time you read a text you read it the same way, right? Novels, textbooks, magazine articles and Internet web pages are all the same if they are written in the same language, aren’t they? The answer to both of the questions is “not really”. Readers employ different reading strategies and prior knowledge based on the genre (type of reading) and topic of the text. For this reason it is important that teachers help students, especially those in middle and high school, learn how to “tackle” their particular content area’s texts.
What is Content Area Reading?
Simply put content area reading is the reading that a person (usually a student) needs to complete and understand in a particular subject area. The content areas typically included in this definition are science, social studies/history and math, but any area outside of English literature instruction constitutes a content area. The reading associated with content area courses reflects not only the concepts and ideas important to these subjects, but also the text structures used by those practicing the field.
How are Content Area Texts Different Than Literature?
Since most of the texts used in these subject areas are expository (informational) they require their readers to use different strategies for reading and comprehending them than they employ when reading literature. Consider the differences between a novel and a social studies textbook. Novels are usually set up so that there are distinct chapters, but each page of text looks the same. It features sentences in paragraphs. There may occasionally be a few illustrations, but they are few and far between. Now think about a textbook. While there are chapters and text in paragraphs textbooks also use sidebars, illustrations, headings, footers and colored text to “tell” their “stories”. If the reader focuses only on the components of a textbook that are like a piece of literature, she will end up missing a large portion of the information on the page.
In addition to looking different, content area texts may be written differently than literature. Literature is written in a narrative form which relies on a plot and character dialogue to convey its message to the reader. Content area texts are usually expository meaning that are written to inform, persuade, describe or explain information for the reader. There is no action to tell a story in an expository text. The reader needs to use strategies for harnessing and synthesizing the information in this type of text.
Beyond these general differences specific content areas may use particular text structures or styles of writing. For example, lab reports written by scientists (and science students) follow a certain format that their writers and readers must understand in order to convey information.
How do Readers Go About Understanding Content Area Texts?
Readers need to choose and revise their choices of reading strategies depending on the type of content area text they are reading. Each genre of text requires its readers to use a different set of strategies for accessing its information. The reader must first identify the text’s structure and use his knowledge of this genre to read the text. While reading the text, he must use general reading strategies such as questioning, making inferences and connections and activating prior knowledge and content specific strategies including drawing on subject specific information to make meaning of the text. During this process he is (hopefully) making meaning on three different levels: literal (understanding the information written on the page), inferential (reading ‘between the lines’) and evaluation (making judgments and conclusions about the information). These abilities develop from good content area reading instruction and practice.