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"No Child Left Behind" Places Premium on Reading Instruction in Content Areas


Voice of Experience

Every teacher is a teacher of reading, and the No Child Left Behind Act has made that more clear than ever! Thats what educator Max Fischer says in this weeks Voice of Experience essay. But what about teachers who havent had a reading course since their undergrad days? Included: More than a dozen strategies for teaching reading in the content areas!

Max W. Fischer

If you're an educator, President Bushs No Child Left Behind Act has your attention. More than likely, it is affecting the way you do business. Although the law has many facets, Im drawn to how its testing mandates are impacting teachers of content area subjects, especially in middle and high schools. By the school year 2005-2006, every student in grades 3-8 will be tested annually in math and reading. Additionally, science will be added to the testing milieu during the 2007-08 school year.

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School districts and individual schools must demonstrate in the results of those tests annual yearly progress (AYP)*. The intimidating aspect of AYP is that each of four targeted subgroups of students must meet its goals for a school to reach satisfactory AYP. No matter how well the student population as a whole scores, if its population of economically disadvantaged, racial/ethnic minority, disabled, or English-Second Language students do not meet the stated yearly goal, AYP will not be reached by that school/district -- which, in turn, will be subject to consequences set out in the law.


So why should secondary level content-area teachers be so concerned? Whether one teaches middle school social studies or high school science, those subject areas are dominated by reading. Reading comprehension is being placed at a premium in NCLBs compulsory battery of tests. A school will have to take a collaborative, systemic approach throughout its curriculum to improve reading scores among its at-risk subgroup populations.

Elementary teachers have always used content area work to supplement comprehension skill practice. Unfortunately, at the secondary level, many instructors havent seen a need to integrate comprehension skills into instruction beyond answering section review questions.

It would appear natural for secondary teachers to blend comprehension strategies with enriched content. It would appear even more likely that that will soon become a priority across the country!


How can secondary content area teachers successfully apply vocabulary and comprehension skills to their core material? Strategies go far beyond rudimentary vocabulary definitions and review questions. Various intelligences besides linguistic -- including visual/spatial, interpersonal, intra-personal (affective), even musical and kinesthetic (tactile) aptitude -- can be harnessed in the cause of comprehension. I would like to focus on a range of tactics that content-area teachers might use in three areas -- pre-reading, reading, and post-reading.

Building Reading Skills
In the Content Areas

Graphic organizers make excellent tools for improving students reading comprehension in the content areas. The Graphic Organizers Page includes links to many of the tools mentioned in this essay. On that page you will find links to graphic organizers that students might use to create
* KWL charts
* spider maps
* bubble outlines (network trees)
* chain-of-event flow charts
* fishbone diagrams
* Venn diagrams
* more!

New Graphic Organizer
Templates from Ed World
Have you seen Ed Worlds new printable and editable templates! Students can copy onto a disc a Venn diagram, a KWL chart, a concept map, or another graphic organizer and add their own text! Click here to take a look!

No Educator
Left Behind!

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Vocabulary introduction, prediction, knowledge inventory, and content prompting are major components of laying a foundation for comprehension. Following are some ideas for building reading comprehension through pre-reading activities:

  1. KWL Charts. Have students create a KWL chart. A KWL chart is a vertical diagram in which students make three columns. The first column is labeled What I Know, the second What I Want to Know, and the third What I Learned. Obviously, the first two columns are the ones utilized at the pre-reading stage. (A variation of this format adds a fourth column -- H. The KWLH chart includes a column in which students record How they can learn more about the topic.)
  2. Visual Predictions. Employing slides, transparency images taken from the Internet, or other illustrations that pertain to forthcoming content, have students work individually or in groups to predict or interpret the setting and plot within the picture.
  3. Vocabulary introduction. Given a list of relevant vocabulary for an ensuing chapter, have students categorize the words into subgroups -- people, places, events, problems, solutions, or descriptive words.
  4. Visual vocabulary introduction. Have students define vocabulary as usual. Then ask them to create pictographs, in which they draw a scene or symbol that represents that particular word. The only writing allowed in the image is the name of the term itself.
  5. True/false prompts. Give students a list of true/false statements pertaining to the next reading assignment. Have them take their best guess about whether the statements are true or false before they undertake the reading. As they read, or after the reading has been discussed, students can go back and make corrections as needed.
  6. Musical prompts. A well-selected piece of music can be used as a prompt. For example, "Everyday People" by Sly and the Family Stone could be played while student reading the lyrics. A discussion of the songs theme -- that even though outward differences exist, people are generally the same inside -- could propel students towards a reading assignment dealing with cultures where outward differences determine social strata.


Organization of content, summarization, rereading, and supporting prior predictions are important for the absorption of content material. Following are some ideas for helping students make sense of their reading:

  1. Graphic organizers. Those visual versions of traditional outlines come in various forms including spider maps, network trees (sometimes referred to as bubble outlines or diagrams), outlines/diagrams, and story webs.
  2. Study guides. Those fill-in-the-blank, traditionally teacher-made outlines, can be used by students to guide their content reading. Students complete a section at a time as they read.
  3. Written summaries. Students might write a summary paragraph about their reading.
  4. Illustrated summaries. Students might draw a sketch depicting the main idea of a specific paragraph, or they may be required to sketch a series of main ideas in sequence. (This is often referred to as storyboarding.)


Skills often used to review reading include validating/refuting predictions, reflecting, comparing/contrasting, inferring, and summarizing. Following are activities to help students reflect on their reading:

  1. Cause and effect. Cause and effect graphic organizers, chains of event (flow) charts, and fishbone maps are visual aides that plot the natural progression of cause and effect within a major topic.
  2. Compare and contrast. Venn diagrams are interlocking circles designed to assist in comparing and contrasting two or more topics within a segment of text.
  3. Moral dilemmas. Depending on the nature of the content, dialogue by teams of students or a teacher-led whole-class discussion about recently read text can help students internally reflect about the meaningfulness of the content in their own lives.
  4. Musical reflection. Just as a piece of music may be used as an introductory prompt (see Pre-Reading Strategies above), music also has the ability to help students make connections with the main ideas they have recently read about.
  5. Making predictions and inferences. A review of student-made predictions can lead to students making inferences involving subsequent content.
  6. Manipulating objects. Students can make models to demonstrate their understanding of content. For example, after reading a section on the structure of a molecule or atom, students could employ Styrofoam packing peanuts, toothpicks, and markers to make a simple model of the particle in question.

Many of the aforementioned strategies are not new. Some are more widely utilized than others. However, in targeting improved reading of at-risk student populations, an increase in the number of tools content-area instructors have in their repertoires increases commensurately the likelihood of success.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.