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Yes Johnny, We Expect You to Read in School Today

By July 10, 2012June 14th, 201612 Comments

TRICA 3There was a time when children went off to school expecting to read in every class, whether it was mathematics, science, or history. It simply was a given that reading in all the content areas had an impact on learning. This truth has resurfaced in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and teachers are realizing these new standards set much higher expectations for student learning than we have held in the recent past.

The CCSS aim to move students toward reading more nonfiction by engaging them in increasingly complex texts as they move through school, while at the same time, helping them develop discipline-specific literacy skills. In Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, 3rd edition, there are five  recommendations from research that, if implemented thoughtfully and systematically, will help improve students’ reading comprehension. With each recommendation that follows, I’ve made a suggestion for getting started.

1. Explicit instruction in effective comprehension strategies

Even though science, mathematics, and social studies all demand distinctive reading and writing skills, one instructional practice that is important for all readers, and particularly adolescents,  is teacher modeling. When
teachers model strategies, they give students a kind of “sensory template.” The “Think-Aloud,” for example, is a strategy where teachers model the type of thinking a specific task requires. As students watch and listen to their teacher’s actions and words, they are able to visualize using the strategy.

2. Increase open, sustained discussion of reading content 

When teachers encourage students to brainstorm ideas together and ask each other questions, students grow more aware of their cognitive processes, which strengthens their ability to select and use appropriate comprehension strategies. As important, when they engage in large-group discussion, they mine the shared knowledge of the class.  The Socratic Seminar is a strategy that promotes debate, uses evidence from the text, and builds on another’s thinking. In a Socratic Seminar, each student has an active role: half the class sits in an inner circle and engages in a discussion while the other half sits in an outer circle and assesses their peers’ discussion skills.

3. Set and maintain high standards for text, conversation, questions, and vocabulary.

Traditional vocabulary activities asked students to look up definitions of words in the dictionary and use the words in sentences; while this approach may be better than skipping vocabulary altogether, it is not an evidenced-based approach. This six-step approach for direct instruction of vocabulary is better:

  • Provide a brief explanation, description, or example of the new term.
  • Ask students to restate, in their own words, the explanation, description, or example.
  • Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the term.
  • Engage students in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the new term(s).
  • Occasionally ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  • Periodically allow students to play games that use the new terms.

4. Increase students’ motivation and engagement with reading.

Although research does not identify specific motivational techniques for particular types of students, it does support choice, social interactions, and important and interesting learning goals. Teachers in any content area can give students choices of research topics and then assign debates. Because most students enjoy argument, they become motivated and engaged readers, but they need coaching from teachers on how to have meaningful debates. Teaching students to use frameworks, such as Proposition Support Outlines, helps them organize their research and arguments. While outlining, they analyze the different types of evidence an author presents and learn to be critical readers who can recognize different viewpoints, theories, hypotheses, facts, opinions, and debatable assertions.

5. Teach essential content knowledge so that all students master critical concepts.

As students improve their knowledge in a specific area, their ability to understand the associated
reading material also improves. As a content-area teacher, you are much more likely to improve students’ ability to independently comprehend the reading material when you use instructional routines that support students’ understanding of content-area vocabulary, concepts, and facts. After students read about a topic, ask them to perform or construct something by following a multistep
process or procedure.

Teachers can prepare students to succeed in college or build solid careers by sharing a variety of strategies, explaining their value, and repeatedly modeling and having students practice  them. By learning to read effectively, students not only learn the content they need to master, they also come to value reading and learning.

Order Teaching Reading in The Content Areas: If Not Me Then Who, 3rd edition from ASCD.

Written by Vicki Urquhart, co–author of Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, 3rd edition.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Susan Burris says:

    This article was of particular interest to me as I am currently the Director of a Center of Excellence for MN schools and my entire staff will be working hard to implement all of these points in our work with schools throughout the next 3 years. It is timely in the fact that MN schools are working hard to implement the CCSS at the same time we are building the new Statewide System of Support. It is articles like this that make me realize we have a Golden Opportunity and an Amazing Challenge, well worth the undertaking! If we can support our schools to understand and make this happen in the classroom we will surely be successful!!! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  • Shana says:

    I was wondering about the root cause of how our expectations changed… “There was a time when children went off to school expecting to read in every class, whether it was mathematics, science, or history. It simply was a given that reading in all the content areas had an impact on learning.” I’m happy to see the CCSS have emphasized the importance of reading in all content areas. Why and how did our schools stray from the use of reading and strategies/instruction to promote successful reading in all classrooms? After better understanding the root cause of use of reading in the classroom, we can return reading as tool for learning and communicating into the hands of our students.

  • Connie Clark says:

    As a parent of a recent high school graduate and a teacher in that system, I have observed a decline in expectations that students will read textbooks. This decline is observable in College in the High School classes as well as in general high school classes. Participating in PSEO @ a nearby MNSCU college in her senior year gave our daughter an opportunity to practice before she headed to the U of MN last Sept.

  • Susan, Shana, & Connie–Thank you for your comments today. It sounds like Minnesota is being responsive to the pressing need to help students build strong foundations for learning through reading and writing.Implementing the CCSS and supporting students, teachers, and schools is a huge undertaking. Happily, many good resources are beginning to appear on the Web and elsewhere, and of course, you’ll find that McREL offers consulting and training in these critical areas. And, if you’re looking for an easy-to-read introduction to CCSS, check out the new booklet from McREL & ASCD titled “Understanding Common Core State Standards.” You can learn more about it here:

  • Ashley Martin says:

    Nonfiction is certainly the theme of the upcoming CCSS. Students must be expected to create ownership of their learning through reading nonfiction. Reading nonfiction is much different than reading fiction. We have to explicitly instruct students how to read texts with titles, subheadings, captions, photographs, maps…etc. Once students gain the ability to do this effectively, they will begin picking up nonfiction books more as a means to learning new knowledge about a subject they are already interested in. If we are going to be successful in helping students learn through independent reading, we must first give them deliberate opportunities for reading nonfiction. We can do this by 1) knowing our students personally and academically, 2) providing independent reading books that have their interests in mind, and, most importantly, 3) giving them ample time to read. When we instruct students on how to love reading by taking the frustration out of it, then they will begin searching purposefully for new knowledge through the books they read.
    Great article!!

  • Kesha McNeal says:

    Most students struggle with reading nonfiction books because they have new terms such as plot, setting, and captions. I think that it is a good idea for students to read nonfiction books, but it is also important for those books to be relatable to students.I also think by using nonfiction books you can make an connection to other subjects being taught.

  • Olivia says:

    I enjoyed this article. This is something that we have been talking about in some of our mentoring. I agree that the modeling and the thinking aloud are some of the most important ways of teaching students how to read a textbook. I also really liked the vocabulary ideas. Having students come up with their own way to remember the words is the best way to teach vocabulary.

  • We are all surrounded by high tech. There is a poor room left for speaking and automatically for reading. Although I think this is still the basis for acadmic education, to know how to read and understand texts.

  • Thanks a lot for the info. For me as a teacher it’s very helpful and important, because I also believe that modern teaching techniques should correspond all the requirements of the developing world.

  • Katrina D. Richard says:

    As a teacher, I am in total agreement with the need for increased literacy in schools. I am overjoyed at the introduction of common core into the educational system. I find the strategies mentioned to be effective for many of my students, however, it is increasingly difficult to implement them with some students and unfortunately some classes because the reading level is so extremely low. Time for a socratic seminar is limited when we must spend a bulk of instructional time on helping students to just read the words on the page and then trying to figure out what sentences mean. Are there any suggestions on how to combat this unfortunate issue?

  • Ricky Ngai says:

    Thank you for sharing this article. Our school is preparing for the transition of CCSS and I am trying to find ways to implement literacy into my math class. Very clear recommendation and I like the contrast between what we do traditionally in the past versus creative strategies such as socratic seminar. I am going to try to experimenting some of these methods into the classroom.

  • Julie Stewart says:

    A useful and insightful expose of effective strategies teachers can implement to enhance students reading achievement. The exploration provided reinforcement of current practice as well as timely reminders of strategies I don’t always use, but should!

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