Helping Middle School Students Learn with Social Studies Texts

Article excerpt

When students enter middle school, many are soon overwhelmed by new school environments and increasingly more complex learning demands. For example, they are expected to read more sophisticated informational texts across a number of content areas. Yet, many students begin these critical years with limited strategic ability to engage in successful and meaningful reading experiences with expository texts. Struggling learners, including students with disabilities, generally find themselves in a reading improvement class while attending regular content area classes. In these heterogeneously mixed, inclusive content classes, teachers, who focus on content knowledge and acquisition, often circumvent literacy difficulties through other instructional avenues, such as lectures, oral reading, recordings of textbooks, and videos (Baer & Nourie, 1993).

Although content classrooms are described as logical and optimal contexts for helping low-achieving students become more proficient in learning with texts (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985), this task frequently becomes the responsibility of the reading improvement teacher and other support teachers, such as learning disabilities specialists. Regardless of the type of teacher, it is important to investigate how instructional practices for reading expository textbooks can benefit struggling readers. In light of this concern, we designed and studied the implementation of a comprehension enhancement strategy for social studies reading called the PEP Road Map Instructional Framework. This instructional procedure is designed to work with diverse students across a wide range of reading abilities. This article describes the strategy and its use by one middle school reading teacher with students who have learning problems, and subsequent results.



In examining the structure of currently published social studies textbooks used by middle and high school students, we noted that passages related to either a person (e.g., Abraham Lincoln), event (e.g., World War II), or place (e.g., Grand Canyon). Considering this, we developed the PEP (Person, Event, Place) cognitive strategy to help struggling learners improve their comprehension of social studies texts. The strategy enables learners to focus attention on what they already know and expect to read about in social studies. With this mind-set, they question themselves to target relevant information from the textbook. They draw upon their understanding of what they are reading in order to generate appropriate questions that eventually help their peers read specific passages (Singer & Donlan, 1994).

The PEP comprehension enhancement strategy is grounded in what we know about reading as a transactive, socially constructed process (Ruddell, 1997; Weaver, 1994) and in our understanding of cognitive strategy instruction (Deshler, Ellis, & Lenz, 1996). Cognitive strategies provide students with a set of self-instructional steps that assist them in addressing a specific academic demand and in learning, organizing, retaining, and expressing information. Jones, Palincsar, Ogle, and Carr (1987) indicate that if students do not already possess a strategy for completing certain tasks, then teaching an appropriate strategy is likely to improve academic achievement, especially for less proficient students. Since lowachieving students are not likely to develop cognitive strategies spontaneously, it is important to provide specific strategy instruction (Jones et al.).

While designing the PEP strategy, we were also aware of the need to situate the strategy within an instructional framework that would appeal to middle school learners and would provide an effective and purposeful way to learn the strategy. With this in mind, we devised an instructional procedure involving three basic components: (1) A comprehension enhancement strategy called PEP, (2) a road map activity adapted from Wood's reading road map (1988), and (3) a critique sheet. …