As a high school English teacher I have focused on teaching content, assuming most students develop sufficient
reading comprehension strategies when they are younger. However, I teach many teenagers who are struggling readers; some because they are unmotivated and others because they do not process and
comprehend the passages they read. In my latest course, Reading in the Content Areas, Grades 6-12, I learned the importance of providing direct instruction and guided practice in literacy strategies, to aid students in understanding class content. Guthrie (2000) states “in the domain of reading, students are given a sense of self-perceived competence when they are taught strategies for learning from text” (p. 2). In other words, teaching strategies empowers students as life-long learners; which is my mission as a teacher.
As a result, my focus has changed from content coverage to coverage of both “content knowledge and process knowledge” (Alvermann, Phelps & Ridgeway, 2007, p. 5). For example, where I previously handed out graphic organizers for students to fill in with content from texts, I now teach students to create graphic organizers to represent the ideas in texts. Learning to organize information visually is a skill students can apply to learn from texts across the curriculum; and it also improves my content instruction by requiring students to attend closely to the structure and meaning of the text as they read. An important point for teachers in all content areas is “content coverage and higher-level critical thinking are not mutually exclusive in classrooms where students are involved in talking about and reflecting on what they are reading” (Alvermann, Phelps, & Ridgeway, 2007, p. 289). Although there are many content objectives we must meet, strategy instruction can be provided simultaneously.
Motivating reluctant readers is my biggest challenge as an English teacher, and I know there is “a strong correlation between choice and the development of intrinsic motivation” (Unrau, 2004, p. 369). Allowing students to select the material they want to read will better motivate them to complete reading assignments. Therefore, I seek to provide opportunities for student choice whenever possible; such as choices of reading materials within the units I teach. Providing choices of novels with similar themes in my English classes is sometimes difficult due to limited resources and budget constraints. However, with our availability of laptops and online resources, I can provide reading choices in poetry, short stories, and articles to meet my objectives. Students also exercise choice when they practice goal-setting, even if the whole class is reading the same novel.
There are two important reasons to teach goal-setting as a literacy strategy. First, student motivation increases when students believe “that they have a voice in setting their own objectives for reading” (Alvermann, Phelps, & Ridgeway, 2007, p. 30). In fact, Unrau (2004) says we give students a motivating sense of ownership by teaching them to “set their own goals and work toward their achievement independently” (p. 369). A second reason to teach goal setting is “opportunities for self-selection are incentives for literacy growth” (Unrau, 2004, p. 369). When students decide to challenge themselves, and are allowed freedom of expression in reacting to their learning, I find they reach further and perform better than when they are meeting preset requirements. I allow choices in “End-of-Book Projects” for example, and I see far more learning expressed than when I assigned standard book reports.
In studying goal setting, I find “practices that focus on social comparison between children… can lead to declines in competence beliefs, mastery goals, and intrinsic motivation” (Guthrie, 2000, p.1). On the other hand, when students are “learning-goal oriented -- that is, dedicated to understanding content, using strategies effectively, and linking their new knowledge to previous experiences” (Guthrie, 2000, p.2) they become more engaged. I use teaching methods conducive to these goals when I “create environments that accentuate self-improvement, discovery, engagement in meaningful tasks, and practicality” (Unrau, 2004, p. 356). Therefore, I not only strive to meet my content objectives, but also to teach students to set, monitor, and meet their own literacy goals.
My students set reading goals in their portfolios, provide samples of work as evidence of meeting their goals, and then write reflectively to explain their learning processes. This requires students to think metacognitively as they monitor their growth as effective readers; and it creates a collaborative, rather than competitive, classroom environment. Students are engaged in and in control of their own learning, and they demonstrate this learning through their portfolios, making their work meaningful.
Teaching vocabulary is a key objective in my English classes; but it is challenging to teach words in a meaningful way so that students remember and use the new vocabulary. One tool I use is specific criteria for selecting vocabulary words. Alvermann, Phelps, and Ridgeway (2007) recommend basing selection on "relation to key concepts, relative importance, student's ability and background, and potential for enhancing independent learning" (p. 237). Vocabulary that students need for learning and for understanding content is far more memorable to them than random word lists to study. Additionally, mastering new vocabulary improves students’ reading comprehension when these criteria are used (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001, p. 127).
I also use effective strategies to help students understand and recall new words; including “contextual redefinition” (Laureate, 2004), semantic mapping, concept of definition mapping, semantic feature analysis, and possible sentences (Alvermann, Phelps, & Ridgeway, 2007, p. 239-243). As students discuss and reflect on the meanings of words, they better understand the vocabulary and how to use it. When students create visual associations for words using graphing organizers, drawings, or mental images, they permanently adopt them into their personal vocabularies.
As a first year teacher, I remember planning many lessons even before meeting my students. I now recognize that "learning is enhanced when teachers pay attention to the knowledge and beliefs that learners bring to a learning task” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 11). All of my students “bring their personal, cultural, and academic knowledge” (Langer, 2000, p. 14) to the learning tasks I present. They have diverse perspectives that influence their new learning, and that offer “opportunities to consider issues from multiple perspectives” (Langer, 2000, p. 14). I am now more conscientious about activating students’ prior knowledge, using strategies such as “K-W-L Charts” (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002, p. 71), and “anticipation guides” (Alvermann, Phelps, & Ridgeway, 2007, p. 174), and then planning lessons accordingly. These strategies guide me in understanding students’ strengths and learning needs based on their background knowledge and experiences, and help me correct students’ misconceptions (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 71). Additionally, students are motivated by the personal connections I make with them using these tools; class is more engaging when we include our personal stories in our new learning.
Alvermann, Phelps and Ridgeway (2007) recommend providing opportunities for students to create “socially constructed meaning” (p. 8) and reflect on their reading. Strategies I use to accomplish this are “reaction guides” and “reading for different purposes” (Alvermann, Phelps and Ridgeway, 2007, p. 268-279). These lead to engaging small group discussions because students are eager to share their views and their experiences of the text with their peers. I frequently use literature circles, too, to teach students to interact with the text in various ways, and to prompt reflective discussions.
“Reciprocal teaching” is a new method I adopted for teaching active reading strategies; including predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing (Alvermann, Phelps, Ridgeway, 2009, p. 107). This also provides an opportunity for students to work collaboratively. Most of my students relish the opportunity to take on the role of teacher among their peers, and find this motivating. However, some are shy, or unaccustomed to collaboration. I teach important 21st century skills about communication and collaboration to make group work successful for my students. For example, we always respect each other, even when we do not agree. (Students can be very sensitive about their opinions.) Also, we use active listening skills in addition to voicing our own reactions. Ultimately, my students are each others’ best teachers, readily answering questions and clarifying misconceptions for each other in terms they understand.
One of the benefits of this course, for me, has been reflecting on the processes I engage in as an active reader. I preview text, establish expectations and predictions based on prior knowledge, monitor my comprehension as I read, and reread passages as needed. While reading, I often highlight or take notes on important concepts, and I am aware of the structure and purpose of the text. I automatically question the author’s expertise and stance, as well. After reading, I reflect on how new information can be incorporated into my own life and thinking, again rereading as necessary to improve my understanding. These are all literacy strategies I have taken for granted, which I need to impart to my students. Modeling my own reading strategies by reading and thinking aloud for students is a starting point for achieving this. Teaching strategies explicitly and supporting students as they apply them will lead students to become active readers like myself.
When the same strategies are applied in other classes, student learning is reinforced and improved. Meltzer (2001) says "to make effective use of these cognitive and metacognitive strategies, students must learn the literacy strategies, be given time to practice and apply them to a variety of contexts, and use them to learn across the content areas" (p. 38). I hope to collaborate with colleagues across content areas and demonstrate that literacy strategies enhance content learning; therefore learning and teaching these strategies is worth the time and practice required.
Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Ridgeway, V. G. (2007). [Content area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today’s diverse classrooms (5th ed.)] Boston: Allyn & [Bacon].
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). Pre-existing knowledge. [In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (pp. 10–12).] Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Guthrie, John T. (2001, March). Contexts for engagement and motivation in reading. Reading Online, 4(8). Retrieved from http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/guthrie/index.html
Langer, J. A. (2000). Guidelines for teaching middle and high school students to read and write well. New York: CELA. Retrieved from http://cela.albany.edu/publication/brochure/guidelines.pdf
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2004). Program 2, section 2. Vocabulary [DVD]. Reading in the Content Areas, Grades 6-12. Baltimore, MD.
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Meltzer, J. (with Smith, N. C., & Clark, H.) (2001). Adolescent literacy resources: Linking research and practice (pp. 38–41). Retrieved from http://www.alliance.brown.edu/pubs/adlit/alr_lrp.pdf
Unrau, N. (2004). Focusing on motivation to read content area texts. [In Content area reading and writing: Fostering literacies in middle and high school cultures (pp. 346–375).] Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.