Many reports and research studies have documented the adolescent reading challenge -- too many students are unable to learn and build new knowledge from the texts used in their subject matter classrooms. In addition to the challenges of general comprehension, reading in a subject area presents additional challenges that many students are unable to tackle on their own. For example, textbooks are dense with information -- some important, some not so much. The chapters are long and packed with specialized vocabulary; assume background knowledge that students often don't have; include various types charts, tables and graphics; and are poorly organized, covering too many topics piecemeal. They are not structured like any other authentic reading. Students who read these textbooks are already learning many other new concepts and data, as well as thinking and reasoning in ways that are important to the subject matter. And many of these students have not developed sophisticated comprehension skills for learning from text. So not only do they need to learn the content, they need to learn how to learn from complex subject-matter texts.
Although many content area teachers use a variety of texts in their classrooms, such as newspapers, articles, digital texts, and primary sources, textbooks remain the principal source of assigned reading in most content classrooms and in college.
Textbook Reading Dilemmas
Over the past five years, we have worked with teachers in urban high school AP U.S. government and environmental science classes to develop strategies for helping students learn from textbooks. Through interviews and observations, we found that, although textbook reading is frequently assigned, many students don't actually do it and, if they do, many don't understand the most important content. Several things seem to contribute to this situation:
1. Many students tell us that they don't read their textbooks because their teacher typically covers the important information during class. It's easier and more efficient for them to just listen than to struggle through a typical 20-40 page textbook chapter. For others, the challenge of reading a typical textbook assignment is so overwhelming that they give up before they even begin.
2. Students who struggle with reading often don't recognize that they don't understand. We interviewed students who described reading homework as simple but couldn't explain or synthesize what they'd read. They thought that because they could pronounce the words, they understood. These students often skim or skip over challenging sections, and they don't monitor their understanding along the way.
3. As described above, content-area textbooks pose unique reading challenges for many students: density, structure, specialized vocabulary, background knowledge, or lack of coherence. Many students haven't been taught or haven't developed the skills and strategies needed to read this type of complex text.
Strategies for Tackling Textbook Reading
Content teachers are in a unique and enormously powerful position to help students navigate these complex texts so that they can become useful sources for learning. These teachers deeply understand the most important information and concepts students need to learn, and they can identify the background knowledge and ways of thinking needed to make sense of the text. Below are several strategies we have developed with our partner content teachers to help students learn from the textbooks used in their classes.
Given the length, density, and broad-ranging topics found within textbook chapters, we suggest that subject matter teachers preview the material and strategically select sections that align with specific learning objectives. Then teachers should give students a specific purpose so that they know why they are reading and what they are supposed to learn. As novices in the subject area, students often can't prioritize among all the information included in textbooks.
Giving a Good Reading Homework Assignment
Following on the importance of setting a purpose for reading and identifying specific sections of texts to read, teachers can help students by taking time to give clear, focused homework assignments. Instead of telling students, "Read Chapter 12 for tomorrow," teachers can include three parts to every homework assignment: the purpose for the reading, how students should approach the reading, and how students will use the information. For example:
Tonight, you should read pp.230-240 and pp.255-260 in Chapter 12. The purpose for reading this is to understand the causes of the American Revolution. As you're reading, draw a T-chart to keep track of the British perspective and the American perspective. When we come in tomorrow, we're going to divide into two teams, take roles, and debate the reasons each side had for entering into war.
The next day, students should be engaged in homework "application" where they are asked to use what they have read (as in a debate). This method rewards students who have done the homework and gives all students the opportunity to revisit their thinking about the text. Teachers should not repeat the content students were asked to read in a class lecture. Instead, they should support students to work with and apply the ideas in the text.
Teaching Students to Self-Monitor for Understanding
Our approach to helping students learn self-monitoring is fairly simple. Because students can't annotate or highlight in textbooks, we encourage teachers to model and practice with students how to use sticky notes. First, we teach students to place sticky notes strategically to remind them to stop and check their understanding -- to ask questions of themselves or peers. This type of chunking carves up a long text into smaller and more manageable parts. Students are also encouraged to use sticky notes to identify places in the reading where they're confused. Even if they can't solve the confusion, they're encouraged to identify it and to bring it to the attention of the class during discussion of the reading.
The logic behind all our strategies is straightforward. Students who are supported and who spend more time working with content area texts are more likely to learn the content and improve their reading abilities. They get the double bonus of becoming more sophisticated readers and learning more.
Please share strategies that you use to help middle or high school students comprehend nonfiction texts.