Helping Students Develop Strong Content Area Reading skills

Content area reading refers to the reading that someone needs to complete and understand in a particular subject area. The content areas typically included disciplines like 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. The following tips are a few methods for helping students develop strong content areas reading strategies.

How to improve content area reading

Text Structure Analysis

Helping students understand how particular content area texts are constructed helps them unlock the information inside them. Teachers should spend time demonstrating how texts are physically structured on the page and how the layout can aid students in understanding the piece. Text features such as illustrations, captions, bold print, footnotes and text boxes should be explored and discussed. In addition, students should become familiar and comfortable with the rhetorical modes used in content area texts. Generally most expository texts are written in the cause-effect, compare-contrast or sequencing formats.

Textbook Walk-throughs

Before students can “tackle” the information in their textbooks they have to understand how they work. This may seem like common sense to a seasoned reader, but many adolescents do not know how to use their textbooks. Teachers should spend time talking with students about how their content area textbook is laid out and where to find information. At the beginning of each unit it is worthwhile for teachers to give students opportunities to preview the chapter(s) they will be reading so that they become familiar with how information is presented and where to locate certain types of information.

Before-During and After Reading Activities

Because content area studies rely so heavily on connecting prior knowledge to new information, a good deal of time should be spent preparing students to read specific content area texts. During the “before reading” portion of a lesson students should be given opportunities to active prior knowledge, develop or understand the questions they will be expected to answer through their reading, make predictions about the text and/or set a purpose for reading. While reading a content area text, students should be encouraged to ask and answer questions and to monitor their reading comprehension. After reading they should make connections and extend their understanding of the topic that they read about.


Often times students get so used to teachers asking questions about content after they have finished reading a text that they forget that asking one’s own questions during a reading task is one of the best strategies for ensuring comprehension. Students should be given opportunities to ask and answer their own questions about content area texts. They can generate inquiry questions before reading which they will answer while reading or can ask and answer clarifying questions as they move through a text. The goal of this activity is for students to integrate spontaneous “silent” questioning into their independent reading experiences.

Vocabulary Strategies

Vocabulary is essential for understanding content area texts. Think about all of the subject specific vocabulary words that are necessary to understand a content area textbook. For example, you could not possibly comprehend a social studies chapter on the geography of Africa if you do not know the meanings of the words “desert”, “savannah” and “rainforest”. Each content area expects its practitioners to not only have strong general vocabularies, but also an understanding subject specific words. Students should be encouraged and assisted in learning content area vocabulary words. Strategies such as word maps, collaborative glossaries (content specific dictionaries created by the class) and classification and categorization activities help students develop strong content area vocabularies.