Comprehension Strategies in Content Areas

by Amira Hill-Yancy

Ensuring adequate ongoing literacy development for all students is important. Ensuring adequate ongoing literacy development for all students, particularly those students in the middle and high school years, may prove even more challenging than ensuring excellent reading education in the primary grades, for two main reasons: “1. First, secondary school literacy skills are more complex, more embedded in subject matters and more multiply determined; embedded in subject matters, and more multiply determined; and second 2. Adolescents are not as universally motivated to read better or as interested in school-based reading as kindergartners.” (Biancarosa & Snow, 2005)

Teaching reading comprehension is vital at the secondary level. The research shows that students understand text by using learned reading comprehension strategies. Teaching reading comprehension strategies should be a concern of teachers in every content subject area (Wise, 2009). By the time students reach high school, they may have been taught comprehension strategies using narrative stories, but may have little exposure to comprehension strategies within the context of reading expository texts. Since expository texts are prevalent in high school, it is essential that instruction involves like texts. To facilitate this process, in the content area teacher’s classroom, there should be a variety of reading materials of different text structures for students to practice comprehension strategies. Utilizing the Internet as a resource to access a variety of texts allows greater flexibility in text selection. Comprehension strategies should be taught and then embedded in content instruction over several weeks to ensure frequent practice and student ownership.

The fact that comprehension strategies work best when used in combination to help students’ understanding of texts has been proven in the research. Although additional research on which comprehension strategies work best in combination should be completed, staff and administrators can work together to decide which strategies to use. Teachers will need professional development opportunities to learn effective instructional techniques, such a direct instruction, for teaching comprehension strategies.
Students can benefit from direct instruction in the strategies and should be given adequate time for practice to master the skills. Direct instruction takes learners through steps of learning systematically to help them see both the purpose and result of each step. The primary focus of this teaching approach is thorough explanation and the ability to teach multiple strategies simultaneously. The teacher explains and demonstrates a strategy, which includes how to use the strategy and why it is useful. The clarity of the teacher’s explanation is important in helping the student become successful in learning comprehension strategies.

Comprehension strategies can improve student learning in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, middle and secondary teacher are equally unlikely to utilize their instructional time to explain, model, and coach students through reading comprehension strategies. It is essential to promote the value of reading comprehension instruction to teachers in the content areas for increasing student understanding of content area concepts.

Useful Tips

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C.E. (2004). Reading Next- A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy: A Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Rowe Novotny, Kathryn Grace, “Reading Comprehension in the Secondary Classroom” (2011). Theses, Dissertations, and Other Capstone Projects. Paper 102.
Wise, B. (2009, February). Adolescent Literacy: The Cornerstone of Student Success. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(5), 369-375. Retrieved July 1, 2009

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