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October 27, 2016 Content-Specific Literacy: Focusing on Comprehension By John DePasquale
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    This year at my middle school I transitioned from being a reading and writing teacher to a new role supporting students and teachers across multiple subject areas. As a result of this new teaching focus, I’ve spent a good amount of time lately thinking about ways to use my experience and expertise as a reading and writing teacher to develop particular strategies and ideas to teach discipline-specific literacy skills.

    I recently shared tips for teaching content-specific vocabulary in the blog post "Content Area Literacy: Focusing on Vocabulary." I hope to expand on some of those ideas as I focus here on ways to support students’ reading comprehension across disciplines.

    Why focus on discipline-specific literacy skills?

    A poem by Maya Angelou is clearly not read in the same way as a chemistry lab report. This may seem obvious, but it helps me remember the importance of explicitly teaching the unique reading, writing, and speaking skills that exist within different subject areas. Reading like a scientist, historian, or mathematician involves distinct skills. It is useful to consider these differences in order to best support students in their learning and use of these discipline-specific literacy skills.

    If you're wondering what discipline-specific reading looks like, I like to imagine what it’s like to read like a scientist, a mathematician, and a historian. Here’s a list of a few distinct literacy skills that are important in the different disciplines:

    Reading Like a Scientist

    • Scientists read a variety of texts that include evidence-based research studies, scientific textbooks, ecological field guides, lab reports, journal articles, and information from data sets organized into graphs and tables.

    • Scientists evaluate the soundness of arguments as they read by considering empirical evidence that is used to support a written claim. 

    • Scientists identify patterns, make predictions based on evidence, interpret data, and analyze cause and effect relationships.

    Reading Like a Mathematician

    • Mathematicians read texts that include words, numeric symbols, graphic representations, and other illustrations.    

    • Mathematicians use logical reasoning to evaluate the soundness of an argument or claim.

    • Mathematicians visualize the context of a problem as they read and apply reasonable strategies they think will guide them to a solution.

    Reading Like a Historian

    • Historians read primary and secondary source documents that include letters, photographs, maps, and timelines.

    • Historians evaluate an author’s perspective, the context and audience of a text, and determine author’s bias as they read. 

    • Historians analyze and draw conclusions from texts that often include multiple and conflicting perspectives or viewpoints. 

    Of course this list is not exhaustive, but it helps to highlight some of the different discipline-specific literary skills.

     

    Strategies to Teach Discipline-specific Literary Skills

    Now that we see there are unique literacy skills that are emphasized in specific disciplines, here are three reading strategies that can be adapted in any content area to teach discrete skills. Students can use these strategies before, during, and after reading to support their comprehension.

    Before Reading: Preview Texts as THIEVES

    THIEVES is a reading strategy developed by Suzanne Liff Manz to guide students through a series prompts to preview a nonfiction text. THIEVES is an acronym for title, headings, introduction, every first sentence in a paragraph, visuals and vocabulary, end-of-chapter questions, and summary.  Students look to these different areas and elements of a text to determine information that may be important before they read. Since many science and history textbooks are densely packed with information, this strategy helps students to develop a base of understanding about a topic or idea before engaging with the text.

    For more information about previewing texts using THIEVES visit the ReadWriteThink page, “Using THIEVES to Preview Nonfiction Texts.”

    During Reading: Double Entry Journal

    A double entry journal is a strategy students use to respond directly to a text as they read.  Students first select significant phrases or sentences from their reading and write these direct text quotes on one side of the journal. The students then write a personal response to these quotes on the other side of the journal. Student may choose to react by making a comment, writing a question, developing a connection, or analyzing the significance of the quotes from the text. I also encourage my students to think of their response as a way to engage in a dialogue with the author of a text. Since evaluating an author’s perspective and determining an author’s bias is important literary skills for historians, double entry journals are a perfect tool for the history classroom.

    After Reading: Writing to Learn as a Reflection

    When students write to learn, they engage in short, low-stakes writing activities to think about key ideas and concepts through the process of writing. Since writing to learn is informal, it allows students to reflect on themselves as learners and their process of learning. I typically use writing to learn activities after students read a text to provide them with the opportunity to think critically about what they read, and for them to analyze and apply their thinking. Three generic writing to learn prompts that I use are: What was learned? How did you learn it? How can you use what you learned?

    In math class, students can write to learn as a reflection to reflect on their thinking and learning process. A colleague of mine, Sharon Steiner, introduced me to using writing to learn strategies after students complete a math problem as a way for them to reflect on and explain their logic, reasoning, and process.

    I hope you are able to use these strategies in your classrooms. If you have ideas for supporting students' reading comprehension across the curriculum, please share in the comment section here.

     

     

    You can follow me on Twitter @johndepasquale_.

    This year at my middle school I transitioned from being a reading and writing teacher to a new role supporting students and teachers across multiple subject areas. As a result of this new teaching focus, I’ve spent a good amount of time lately thinking about ways to use my experience and expertise as a reading and writing teacher to develop particular strategies and ideas to teach discipline-specific literacy skills.

    I recently shared tips for teaching content-specific vocabulary in the blog post "Content Area Literacy: Focusing on Vocabulary." I hope to expand on some of those ideas as I focus here on ways to support students’ reading comprehension across disciplines.

    Why focus on discipline-specific literacy skills?

    A poem by Maya Angelou is clearly not read in the same way as a chemistry lab report. This may seem obvious, but it helps me remember the importance of explicitly teaching the unique reading, writing, and speaking skills that exist within different subject areas. Reading like a scientist, historian, or mathematician involves distinct skills. It is useful to consider these differences in order to best support students in their learning and use of these discipline-specific literacy skills.

    If you're wondering what discipline-specific reading looks like, I like to imagine what it’s like to read like a scientist, a mathematician, and a historian. Here’s a list of a few distinct literacy skills that are important in the different disciplines:

    Reading Like a Scientist

    • Scientists read a variety of texts that include evidence-based research studies, scientific textbooks, ecological field guides, lab reports, journal articles, and information from data sets organized into graphs and tables.

    • Scientists evaluate the soundness of arguments as they read by considering empirical evidence that is used to support a written claim. 

    • Scientists identify patterns, make predictions based on evidence, interpret data, and analyze cause and effect relationships.

    Reading Like a Mathematician

    • Mathematicians read texts that include words, numeric symbols, graphic representations, and other illustrations.    

    • Mathematicians use logical reasoning to evaluate the soundness of an argument or claim.

    • Mathematicians visualize the context of a problem as they read and apply reasonable strategies they think will guide them to a solution.

    Reading Like a Historian

    • Historians read primary and secondary source documents that include letters, photographs, maps, and timelines.

    • Historians evaluate an author’s perspective, the context and audience of a text, and determine author’s bias as they read. 

    • Historians analyze and draw conclusions from texts that often include multiple and conflicting perspectives or viewpoints. 

    Of course this list is not exhaustive, but it helps to highlight some of the different discipline-specific literary skills.

     

    Strategies to Teach Discipline-specific Literary Skills

    Now that we see there are unique literacy skills that are emphasized in specific disciplines, here are three reading strategies that can be adapted in any content area to teach discrete skills. Students can use these strategies before, during, and after reading to support their comprehension.

    Before Reading: Preview Texts as THIEVES

    THIEVES is a reading strategy developed by Suzanne Liff Manz to guide students through a series prompts to preview a nonfiction text. THIEVES is an acronym for title, headings, introduction, every first sentence in a paragraph, visuals and vocabulary, end-of-chapter questions, and summary.  Students look to these different areas and elements of a text to determine information that may be important before they read. Since many science and history textbooks are densely packed with information, this strategy helps students to develop a base of understanding about a topic or idea before engaging with the text.

    For more information about previewing texts using THIEVES visit the ReadWriteThink page, “Using THIEVES to Preview Nonfiction Texts.”

    During Reading: Double Entry Journal

    A double entry journal is a strategy students use to respond directly to a text as they read.  Students first select significant phrases or sentences from their reading and write these direct text quotes on one side of the journal. The students then write a personal response to these quotes on the other side of the journal. Student may choose to react by making a comment, writing a question, developing a connection, or analyzing the significance of the quotes from the text. I also encourage my students to think of their response as a way to engage in a dialogue with the author of a text. Since evaluating an author’s perspective and determining an author’s bias is important literary skills for historians, double entry journals are a perfect tool for the history classroom.

    After Reading: Writing to Learn as a Reflection

    When students write to learn, they engage in short, low-stakes writing activities to think about key ideas and concepts through the process of writing. Since writing to learn is informal, it allows students to reflect on themselves as learners and their process of learning. I typically use writing to learn activities after students read a text to provide them with the opportunity to think critically about what they read, and for them to analyze and apply their thinking. Three generic writing to learn prompts that I use are: What was learned? How did you learn it? How can you use what you learned?

    In math class, students can write to learn as a reflection to reflect on their thinking and learning process. A colleague of mine, Sharon Steiner, introduced me to using writing to learn strategies after students complete a math problem as a way for them to reflect on and explain their logic, reasoning, and process.

    I hope you are able to use these strategies in your classrooms. If you have ideas for supporting students' reading comprehension across the curriculum, please share in the comment section here.

     

     

    You can follow me on Twitter @johndepasquale_.

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