Reading Comprehension 101: Five Strategies for Scaffolding Challenging Texts for Not-English Teachers

Welcome, Teachers!

A few weeks ago, our instructional coach Val Hoose asked me to help her plan and run a professional development session on reading comprehension for teachers who teach math, science, social studies, and various electives, as well as for new and experienced English language arts teachers. I readily agreed.

Below, you’ll find all of the information from our professional development session, as well as links to various resources you may share with your colleagues. You may also participate in our professional development session from the comfort of your own home! Just follow the directions below!

Three Key Shifts in Reading and Writing Standards

Before jumping into specific strategies, all teachers (not just English teachers) should know that there are three key shifts between the English Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the now retired New Mexico State Standards:

  1. Regular practice with complex texts and their academic language
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational
  3. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction

While all three of these shifts are important for teachers and administrators to understand, I would like to pay particular attention to number three: building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 4.19.54 PM

The final paragraph in the screenshot of the third shift above points out that history/social studies, science, and technical subject teachers are now also responsible for teaching students how to learn about course content through reading, which means that these teachers are now also responsible for supporting students’ reading skills and comprehension.

For many teachers who are not English teachers, this is a scary concept. Since their college coursework provided very little – if any – lessons on teaching reading, many science, social studies, math, and elective teachers are understandably nervous and unsure about how to teach reading and writing skills to their students. Furthermore, several math, science, social studies, and elective teachers have stated that they already have their own content to teach in a limited amount of time. How can they possibly add English content into their already jam-packed curriculum?

If you’re currently nodding your head at your computer/tablet/smart phone screen, fear no longer! Val and I are here to give you a few strategies you can use to help struggling readers tackle a text that may be above their heads.

Support Reading with Strategies, Not Lessons

Before we get started, let’s clear something up: if you’re looking for lessons that teach reading skills, you’ve come to the wrong place. The CCSS expect English teachers to give explicit lessons on how to read. All other teachers are simply expected to support reading skills through different strategies that they use in their classrooms. By providing the opportunities to interact with content-rich texts in different ways, you are also implicitly teaching students how to read for your specific subject.

In other words, all of your lessons should still be focused on your specific content area. The only two things you’ll change is your teaching strategy, and how your students interact with the content. The right strategies will support reading skills while also teaching content.

Strategy #1: Marking the Text

Marking the Text is an AVID strategy that requires students to annotate the text as they read. Students may number the paragraphs, underline important points such as author’s claims and relevant information, circle key terms and names of places or dates, and jot their thoughts or connections to other concepts in the margins.

Since the best way to learn new teaching strategies is to experience them as a student, take a moment to download and print this fantastic passage from Cris Tovani’s book, I Read It, But I Don’t Get It. Annotate the article by following the directions this Marking the Text Handout.

Four Issues that Hinder Reading Comprehension

While reading and annotating the passage from I Read It, But I Don’t Get It, did you underline the four main issues that make texts inaccessible for students? I hope so!

Were you were unable (or too lazy) to download Tovani’s passage? That’s okay, I understand. The four issues that make texts inaccessible are:

  1. Students “don’t have the comprehension strategies necessary to unlock meaning. Students who have only one or two strategies for making meaning struggle to understand difficult texts.”
  2. Students “don’t have sufficient background knowledge. Students who don’t already know something about what they are reading can’t make connections. What they read seems disconnected and unimportant.”
  3. Students “don’t recognize organizational patterns. Students who don’t understand how text is organized usually don’t know what is important. They can’t prioritize and therefore don’t establish a cognitive framework. They have no way to organize and store their thinking.”
  4. Students “lack purpose. Students who don’t have a purpose when they read usually lose interest in what they are reading and fail to construct meaning. It’s hard to glean anything from the text when you don’t know why you’re reading it.”

The remainder of the strategies in this professional development session/blog post have been designed to target and remedy these four issues.

Strategy #2: Quick Writes

Quick writes are pretty self-explanatory: they’re short writing responses that students complete at the beginning of the period, or in preparation for class. Quick writes shouldn’t take longer than ten minutes to complete.

According to Kelly Gallagher, there are two types of quick writes: text-dependent quick writes, and text-independent quick writes. In his book Deeper Reading, Gallagher provides various types of prompts to use as quick writes to support students’ reading comprehension and to serve as a formative assessment. Check out this modified passage from Deeper Reading to learn about three different quick write prompts that could be useful in all content areas.

After you read, ask yourself:

  1. Which of the four possible comprehension issues will this strategy best prevent or resolve? How?
  2. How will this strategy benefit students with limited reading skills?
  3. How will this strategy benefit students with advanced reading skills?
  4. How might you use this strategy in your own classroom?

Strategy #3: Jigsaw

Jigsaws are great ways to cover a lot of content in a little time by making students responsible for learning content within their “expert groups” and responsible for teaching content within their “home groups.”

To learn how jigsaws work, read this helpful handout by Penn State University.

After you read, ask yourself:

  1. Which of the four possible comprehension issues will this strategy best prevent or resolve? How?
  2. How will this strategy benefit students with limited reading skills?
  3. How will this strategy benefit students with advanced reading skills?
  4. How might you use this strategy in your own classroom?

Strategy #4: Reciprocal Teaching

The reciprocal teaching strategy has broken down the skills that strong teachers automatically employ when reading complex texts. By explicitly teaching these four skills to your students, or by providing them with handouts that require them to focus on these four skills as they tackle difficult texts, you will demystify the reading process for struggling students.

Read about the four skills targeted by reciprocal teaching in this article by the National Behaviour Support Service with the Navan Education Centre.

After reading, ask yourself:

  1. Which of the four possible comprehension issues will this strategy best prevent or resolve? How?
  2. How will this strategy benefit students with limited reading skills?
  3. How will this strategy benefit students with advanced reading skills?
  4. How might you use this strategy in your own classroom?

Strategy #5: One-Pager

One-pagers are also pretty self-explanatory: they’re single-page responses that use quotes, keywords, images, and summaries to visually represent what a student has learned from a text. One-pagers are handy assessments of what a student has gleaned from a text, and they’re also visually appealing pieces of student work that are perfect for hanging on classroom walls.

Poway Unified School District has published student-friendly directions for creating a one-pager for any subject.

science 2
Science One-Pager (click on image to enlarge)
math one pager
Math One-Pager (click on image to enlarge)
ss one pager
Social Studies/History One-Pager (click on image to enlarge)
ela one pager
English Language Arts One-Pager (click on image to enlarge)

After you read and view the samples of student work, ask yourself:

  1. Which of the four possible comprehension issues will this strategy best prevent or resolve? How?
  2. How will this strategy benefit students with limited reading skills?
  3. How will this strategy benefit students with advanced reading skills?
  4. How might you use this strategy in your own classroom?

Final Thoughts

Now that you’ve successfully learned about five strategies to support reading comprehension, it is time to synthesize what you’ve learned. As I said before, the best way to learn new teaching strategies is to learn them as a student!

Take a moment to make a one-pager summarizing what you’ve learned from the multiple resources within this post. Be sure to answer the following two questions:

  1. Aside from the obvious answer of “reading comprehension,” what do these five strategies have in common?
  2. Where might you place each strategy within a unit?
  3. How will you know which strategy to use for specific lessons?

Do you know of other strategies teachers can use to support their students’ reading comprehension of complex texts? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Reading Comprehension 101: Five Strategies for Scaffolding Challenging Texts for Not-English Teachers

    • Thanks for your comment, Becca! I enjoyed planning this PD and writing this post because it gave me the opportunity to revisit some long-forgotten strategies in my Kelly Gallagher books. I’m especially excited to try the One Comment and One Question strategy because it’ll encourage some of my quieter students to share their thoughts during class discussions. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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