In contrast to reading in its traditional context i.e. in the English subject, “reading in the content areas” simply means that school children are able to read and comprehend expository texts in “content areas” such as mathematics, history, science and social studies. The said texts are set apart from other type of texts by their characteristic nature that is based on facts. Further, such facts are usually presented in very technical terms utilizing multisyllabic words. Expository texts are also distinct in their structure, which vary from types like compare and contrast, cause and effect, sequencing, and many others that are logic-based (Literacy Matters.org, 2007).
The process by which students interact with texts in the content areas is another subject worth delving into. The said process is a three-part continuum that involves interaction before the text is read, during reading, and even after the text has been read. Interaction before the text is read involves drawing students’ stock knowledge that is related to the text, setting goals and anticipating questions. Techniques for identifying words such as syllabication and structural analysis, as well as the use of context clues to comprehend words that may be too technical, characterize the interaction with text during reading. This phase is what we call “reading between the lines,” upon which inferences could be drawn. However, reading in the content areas also emphasizes the importance of interaction with the text after the actual reading. This is where the process of reflective analysis, synthesis of information and ideas from various sources, and interpretation takes place (Literacy Matters.org, 2007).
Having explained the three stages in which students interact with expository texts in content area reading, it is important to take note that the interaction of the students with the text also happens in three levels. Primary among these is the literal level where factual information are merely read and understood. Next would be the inferential level, where students process the information gained in the literal level by relating them to previous knowledge. The third would be the evaluation level, where students are already able to conclude and develop their own perspectives based on the ideas that were analyzed (Literacy Matters.org, 2007).
The cold fact, however, is that not all students are able to read in all of the said levels (Literacy Matters.org, 2007). Herein lies the importance of being able to read in the content areas, meaning in all its three stages and levels. Too many years of studying students’ test scores and of analyzing the reason behind failures in such tests indicate that the areas they don’t understand are usually the areas they couldn’t read about (Peha, 2005).
According to Guenther (2005), “one can’t separate learning to read from reading to learn.” One reads to find out something, thus reading is formed by both the content of a text and the intent of a reader to learn it. Reading does not happen in a vacuum. And it is important that the issue of elementary students’ “need to learn to read to learn” is addressed, moreover before they reach fifth and sixth grade (Guenther, 2005).
Peha (2005) affirms this in saying that small reading problems in elementary levels would loom bigger as children progress in school, meaning little reading problems in elementary could even impair reading, and thus learning, in secondary and tertiary school levels. With higher school levels comes more voluminous readings and harder tasks required from what was read, thus increasing the difficulty of reading. At around 12th or 11th grade, school becomes gravely hard for children who have reading difficulties in the content areas, and the all too often response to this is just to quit reading, and worse, schooling altogether. Even the teachers themselves also admit to having difficulty in teaching such children.
The said problem, however, did not arise out of the blue. Generations that have passed saw to children struggling to read in the content areas. Yet todays’ curriculum standards and high stakes testing brought society’s focus on the issue i.e. there is an increasing number of students who needs to be increasingly proficient in an increasing number of subjects, each of which has reading as its crucial factor (Peha, 2005).
Efforts to address this issue have echoed throughout the country (Peha, 2005). Yet it is still not so broadly realized that content teachers themselves, meaning those who teach content area subjects, could help struggling readers to read. By claiming this, it should not be confused that teachers in the content areas are being asked to become reading instructors. This only imply that content teachers could structure the lessons they teach in such a way that would boost struggling readers to become competent in reading content-based text (Glencoe Online, 2006).
Students who could not read in the content areas could not develop knowledge in those areas. If any, educator Max Fischer (2003) makes it plain that this only makes every teacher a teacher of reading. President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act has made this responsibility of teachers clear (Fischer, 2003).
Potential Impact on School Curriculum and Student Learning
In writing, Peha (2005) acknowledges the fact that teachers could not possibly teach reading, even though the intention behind it is good. Practically speaking, Peha (2005) says that the existing curriculum already has no room to accommodate further additions and most teachers in the content areas could be untrained, too busy, or uninterested to accommodate such changes. With this in mind, the No Child Left Behind Act might have problematic impacts.
However, if content area teachers would be well-oriented that they are not being asked to give up teaching their original curriculum to teach reading instead or to employ radical changes in their teaching practices, but that they are just asked to support content area reading in the way they structure their teaching (Peha, 2005), then there would possibly be no problem.
Moreover, the focus on reading in the content areas by utilizing reading strategies would enable content area teachers to aid their students in becoming effective content readers, and thus, content area learners. Empirical studies indicate that when teachers inject reading strategies in their lessons, their students learned significantly more than those who were taught in the traditional way (Literacy Matters.org, 2007). Thus, we could expect this kind of gain as an impact of employing reading in the content areas among schools.
On the part of the school, this gainful impact would be very much welcome as it would enable a school to stay afloat. In previous years, students were required to take tests that would evaluate their learning in content areas. The outcome of those examinations would become the basis of the annual yearly progress (AYP)* of every school institution. What is daunting in the AYP is that it requires a school to achieve its goals for all four targeted subgroups of students before it could be given a “satisfactory AYP” (Fischer, 2003).
Thus, even though the general student population scores well, if any of its subpopulations do not achieve the stated yearly goal, the school will fail its AYP. Thus, the school will have to face legal consequences. (Fischer, 2003). Since the problem of much of the said subpopulations rely much in their learning in the content areas, their success in reading in the content areas could also mean success for their school.
For the students, the impact of such programs would be gainful as well since reading in the content areas would, as explained earlier in this text, endow them with learning in the content areas --- something which is indeed the core of student learning.
For content teachers, programs regarding content area reading would enable them to boost student achievement with rigor, relevance and to employ literacy strategies that would endow their students academic success (Pappas, 2007).
In terms of curriculum and teaching techniques, programs regarding reading in the content areas will have impacts in ways that would oppose the traditional “read-and-answer-the-questions approach” in content area subjects (Combs, 2004). Content teachers would be expected “to support their subject area while building student literacy skills in mastering vocabulary, comprehension and analysis” (Pappas, 2007).
In recent years, the focus on reading in the content areas has yielded much development, but several areas still have to be mended. Focus still lacks in the aspects of reading comprehension and understanding, and this tends to lessen the gain from programs in content area reading (What is the importance of content area reading instruction in schools?, n.d.). This should thus be taken into account when employing such programs.
Another thing to watch out for is that content teachers may understand the importance of teaching reading in the content areas and may desire to do so. However, content area teachers who are not well-versed in basic reading instruction may still find the task intimidating (Glencoe Online, 2006). And though nowadays, various content area reading strategies are widely available in books, journals, and on the Internet, content area teachers remain confused because they lack the necessary training in the teaching of reading. One specific area of confusion lies on when to employ specific strategies (Combs, 2004).
All of the impacts that were discussed above, both positive and negative, should be taken into account when attempting to develop reading in the content areas in schools and among students. Reading in the content areas should be employed with the said gainful impacts in mind, and with the young generations’ well-being as the main purpose for employing such. In the same way, the discussed problematic impacts should also be planned for so that only the gainful impacts would remain and be magnified. These should be done so that in time, through constant and aggressive efforts on the part of everyone concerned, reading in the content areas will produce a generation of students who have learned well in the content areas and who could use such learning to deal with the important issues in life where such learning is called for.
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