Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary Content-Area Classrooms; Many Middle and High School Students Lack the Strategies They Need to Comprehend the Demanding Content-Area Textbooks Used in Secondary Classrooms. and Their Teachers Lack the Time and Knowledge to Help Them Develop Those Strategies. Ms. Ness Offers Suggestions for Overcoming Both of These Obstacles to Student Success

By Ness, Molly | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary Content-Area Classrooms; Many Middle and High School Students Lack the Strategies They Need to Comprehend the Demanding Content-Area Textbooks Used in Secondary Classrooms. and Their Teachers Lack the Time and Knowledge to Help Them Develop Those Strategies. Ms. Ness Offers Suggestions for Overcoming Both of These Obstacles to Student Success


Ness, Molly, Phi Delta Kappan


AS STUDENTS move up through the grades, the academic demands on them increase, and a great many of those increases come in the form of reading. While basic literacy is certainly a problem for some students, they are in the minority. Most of our middle and high school students can read--if by that we understand the ability to "decode" text.

But the academic tasks students encounter in the upper elementary grades, and even more so in secondary school, involve a great deal of reading in support of learning new and complicated content. As Michael Kamil has reported, the ability to comprehend the expository texts in content-area textbooks is critical to students' academic success.(1) Yet as the academic demands on our secondary students become more complicated, explicit reading instruction diminishes.(2)

The academic importance of instruction in reading comprehension is clear. Students who are taught such comprehension strategies as predicting, questioning, and summarizing improve their reading comprehension scores on both experimenter-constructed tests and standardized tests.(3) So it seems clear that secondary teachers can help students become proficient readers of academic texts if they arm them with a variety of comprehension strategies.

Of course, for many decades literacy researchers have called on content-area teachers to provide explicit reading instruction in secondary classrooms. Cries of "every teacher a teacher of reading" are anything but new. However, the message sometimes seems to have fallen on deaf ears, and there is much room for improvement with regard to literacy integration in math, science, social studies, and the fine arts.

Over the course of the 2005-06 academic year, I set out to examine the extent to which content-area secondary teachers included explicit comprehension strategies in regular classroom instruction. I examined the instructional practices of four content-area teachers in middle school and four content-area teachers in high school and sought answers to two broad questions:

* To what degree do the teachers incorporate reading comprehension strategies in their science and social studies classrooms? (That is, what percentage of instructional time do they spend on integrating literacy strategies in their classrooms?)

* Which reading comprehension strategies are most frequently used in middle and high school science and social studies classrooms?

I collected data from 2,400 minutes of direct classroom observations in eight middle and high school science and social studies classrooms. Acting as a nonparticipant observer, I coded the instruction I observed according to whether it was judged to be comprehension instruction or non-comprehension instruction.

While I began my study under no illusions that literacy integration would be extensive in these classrooms, I was surprised by how little instruction in reading comprehension I actually saw. In a total of 40 hours of classroom observations, these secondary content-area teachers allotted an average of just 82 minutes to teaching, explaining, modeling, scaffolding, and assisting students in using effective reading comprehension strategies. That's just over 3% of instructional time devoted to helping these adolescent readers make meaning of text by asking and answering questions, summarizing, applying fix-up strategies when comprehension broke down, examining text structures, using graphic organizers, predicting, and clarifying. Furthermore, the reading comprehension instruction I did observe was limited in scope: the most heavily used strategies to support comprehension were asking literal questions and having students write summaries of text.

What might these findings mean? First, because middle school and high school curricula emphasize breadth over depth, teachers are likely to see their major instructional responsibility as covering their particular content in preparation for state tests. …

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Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary Content-Area Classrooms; Many Middle and High School Students Lack the Strategies They Need to Comprehend the Demanding Content-Area Textbooks Used in Secondary Classrooms. and Their Teachers Lack the Time and Knowledge to Help Them Develop Those Strategies. Ms. Ness Offers Suggestions for Overcoming Both of These Obstacles to Student Success
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