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When High School Students Struggle with Textbook Reading

Sheila Valencia

Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle
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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.

Identifying Purpose

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.

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Sheila Valencia

Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle

Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stephanie ML's picture

When I taught high school economics classes, it was obvious that most of my students, many of whom were in the "honors" program, really couldn't comprehend their textbooks, and most didn't bother to read the assignment. When they did, they couldn't paraphrase what they'd read. If they read a passage out loud in class, they often couldn't respond to even the most basic of queries about what had just been read. Now I'm teaching 8th grade, and part of my curriculum is to teach them to read a textbook for comprehension and content value. I've convinced them that this is a skill they need to succeed in high school, and by the end of the year, some of them are doing a better job of reading, but it's an uphill battle. I count the small victories, and try not to consider this a defeat!

Kent Harris's picture

You all seem to be describing a general lack of 'critical thinking' skills. An attitude of why bother to expend the time and energy required to relate the 'text' to my life experiences when:

Who am I to disagree with the author, an obvious 'authority'.
Nobody really cares if I have questions about the text or not, least of all my overworked teacher.
Since I go to class most days, I will hear what the teacher thinks is 'relevant'
The teacher either creates the tests and/or teaches to them.
Ergo, I can pass this course without reading or comprehending the text.

So, why bother? Maybe our students can exercise 'critical thinking' when it helps them rationalize an 'easier' life. Ergo, the students failure to find is a good reason to read and understand the text is our fault, not his! Why are words like accountability and consequences so tragically out of favor?

Jennifer's picture
HS Science Teacher from NJ

Kent - Speaking only for my students, I don't know if I agree about the lack of critical thinking - my students can verbally spar with the best of them. Many of them can absorb material by listening to it, and then incorporate that into an argument very nicely. They just have trouble reading for the information, and we all know that acquiring information on their own is a skill, and a very important one. I teach science, not reading, and don't have the skills to teach reading. I have had several meetings with my supervisor trying to figure out strategies to improve reading. What is really scary is that I teach at the Advanced Placement level - these are not students who are freshman, or mediocre students. These are the best of the best. Many of them (not all, by any means, but enough to raise flags) are struggling with the text and so choose not to read it. I've tried every strategy I know, which admittedly, isn't many, to try to work on this situation. Especially in today's web-based society, where many people get their information from reading online, it is important to know how to read higher level material. If one relies only on basic material, you are going to miss the deeper meaning of things. I don't think any teacher would recommend ignoring the problem, the question is what do we do about it?

Carl Moore's picture

I would agree with Jennifer critical thinking is not the issue but rather critical reading. Everyone from 1st to 12th grade needs to emphasize critical reading. One of my favorite methods for developing critical reading, especially in AP Chemistry, is to ask a single analytical, senario-based question. This requires them to dig into the nuance of the text in addition to the notes of the day.

Mr. Azar Aftimos's picture

Perfectly said. Thank you very much for raising many important and helpful points with respect to teaching.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Thank you for advocating on behalf of students who struggle with reading. I know more than a few and have often contemplated what technology can make the task easier. Thanks for giving me ideas.

Kent Harris's picture

It's my understanding that many of those kids who advance to 'middle school' without 'mastering' the basic skills of reading, writing and math AT EACH GRADE LEVEL as they pass through K-6 will never 'catch up' with their more fortunate peers. Now that's a little scary! I also understand most curriculums actually require this 'mastery' at grade level and fail to provide the extra help some kids need (after school or on weekends) because of parental objections, union contracts and/or lack of funds. It seems this is highly discriminatory as it consciously permits the poor and disadvantaged to fall through the cracks in our public education system leaving them forever handicapped. A tragedy of no small proportions that can be greatly reduced when schools REQUIRE parents to provide this 'special help' using (relatively) economically one-on-one interactive, computerized tutoring accessible 24/7 before their child can move on to the next grade in the fall.

Rick Onofrey's picture
Rick Onofrey
Physics Teacher

As a science teacher, I have often found that students do not read the short sections of chapters that I assign as reading. Instead, they skip to the end of the section, find the questions I assigned for homework, and then skim to find the answer in the chapter.

One way that I have "forced" them to read is to have them take notes from the chapter, with a very detailed description of how to take notes - first the chapter subheadings, then any bold/italicized words, then go back and fill in pertinent information. With that method, they glance through the chapter, then skim it, then read it. They are required to keep their notes in a notebook, and I randomly collect notes along with homework.

I have had students tell me that this method works for them better than just being told to "read the section".


Melinda Bolinger's picture
Melinda Bolinger
Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Fort Lauderdale, FL

I teach Social Studies in a private school, in 6th and 7th grade. This is my first year in middle school after teaching 5th grade for the past 10 years. I think this article is so relevant, because I find on a daily basis that many of my students are not able to comprehend the material in their text and they can't extrapolate information. I have realized as the semester has progressed, that these kids need to be taught strategies for reading informational text. In 6th grades they were taught THIEVES, a basic strategy, but in hindsight, there should be more follow up on a regular basis.
As I said, this is my first year in middle school. I am learning as I go. This article just supports what I have been thinking all along.

Peg Grafwallner's picture
Peg Grafwallner
Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist

I am a proponent of "supported failure"; unfortunately, what we see in classrooms is a "one-and-done" type of failure approach. We must allow our students the opportunity to fail knowing that they will learn from the failure and that there is support to show them where the errors were made and how to recover from them. By wrapping students in "supported failure," students know that they are learning, recovering, and learning again.

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