Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Cross-Curriculum Approach to Improving Reading

A Cross-Curriculum Approach to Improving Reading
By Jill Jenkins
            Students who find reading difficult are not the sole-responsibility of the English or Language Arts Department; they are the entire schools responsibility.  At the request of one of my readers, I am going to outline some proven methods to improve reading in your school, but to really have an impact on the students in your school all departments must be part of the solution.
Building a Strong Vocabulary

            Many students who struggle with reading have a limited vocabulary.  Teaching phonics helps students sound out words if they happen to speak “the King’s English;” however, if they happen to speak a different dialect, it is only somewhat useful.  Since being a dialectical snob is not very useful, I would suggest some other approaches might be more useful. However, one of my readers who teaches in India tells me that since many of his students are totally illiterate and come from families who are illiterate, he finds giving extensive phonics training useful.  To be perfectly honest, my experience is with older students from 12 to 18 years old and by that time it is not as effective. Nevertheless, I once had an ELL student, a refuge from the Congo, who spoke a little used dialect and no English at all. He was part of class of 35 students, not an ideal teaching circumstance.  Furthermore, since he was a refuge and a ward of state, the group home in which he resided did not complete the paperwork correctly and did not identify him as a student who required ELL services, even though he knew about three words of English.  I resorted to using I-Pad Apps that not only used pictures, words and sound, but taught phonics.  He worked alone until I got the class busy on an assignment, then I could work with him one-on-one.
          Word Attack Skills that include understanding the etymology of root words, prefixes and suffixes improves students’ ability to decipher some words that are not familiar to them.  One of the best methods that I have used was borrowed from Janet Allen’s webpage.  The variation of her idea that my school found useful looks like this:

Another visual organizer that helps student understand the meaning of words when you are using a whole-word approach is:

Practice Makes Perfect
     Students need a variety of opportunities to practice reading under a variety of different circumstances.
·       Read Along: Students whose parents have read aloud to them while they follow along in the book arrive at school better prepared than those who have had limited access to books.  Likewise, the positive feelings associated with their parents reading to them in a warm, bed makes reading a more desirable behavior.  As a teacher you can play that role by reading aloud to your students or providing them with a stimulating recording.  It is extremely important to read in an expressive manner and stop frequently and involve the students in short discussions to keep them involved, so they don’t fall asleep. 
·       Independent Reading:  Students should be given ten to twenty minutes every day to read quietly alone.  They should be reading a book that is both age-appropriate and appropriate for their individual reading level.  As a teacher you could choose to divide this reading into ten minutes in class and ten minutes at home or you could do it all in class.  Although most students have short attention spans, so ten minutes is about as long as most of them can stay focused on a reading activity, so dividing into two separate ten minute intervals is much more productive.
·       Group Reading: In the old days elementary teachers placed students in reading groups based on their ability and secondary teachers didn’t worry about students’ ability to read.  As a result, the bright students became better readers, the average students stayed average and the poor readers’ parents sued the school, because Johnny couldn’t read.  Obviously, that wasn’t the answer.  Some schools today have turned to pull out programs that ignore the bright students and the average students and focus on the struggling students.  Some of the more affluent schools are even trying to tutor these students one-on-one, but that isn’t the answer either.  Just like the dogs that The Dog Whisperer works with, students learn faster when they are competing with more competent students.  Placing students into groups of three with one bright student, one average student and one struggling student will improve the average student and the struggling student’s ability greatly.  The bright student is staying up all night with a flashlight reading books voraciously, and this little reading group isn’t going to stop him.  His parents can’t and neither can a teacher.  Let students teach each other.  It is easier on the teacher and because students are social beings, it is much more effective.


     Before you begin reading, engage the students’ prior knowledge to enhance the learner’s understanding of the concept you are trying to teach.

  • For example, you are teaching about Geysers in a science class, so you ask, “Has anyone ever been to Yellowstone Park and watched Old Faithful?”   After the students express some memories from their trips to the park, the teacher asks, “Did you ever wonder what makes that hot water fly up into the air? Let’s read about it.”

  • In a history class, you are teaching about the Sahara Desert, so you ask your class, “Has anyone in the class visited the Sand Dunes in Utah?”  After the class shares some memories, the teacher can compares the student’s experience to the expanse of sand in northern Africa and asks the class to read the description of the desert in the book.    

  • Perhaps you are teaching percentages in math, the teacher could ask “How many of you have ever shared a meal at a restaurant, and had difficulty determining how much to leave for a tip?”  After the students share their experience, the teacher asks the class to read the directions for finding percentages from the textbook. 

The advantage of engaging prior knowledge is the student can connect the knowledge to something that they already know so they are likely to remember it better.  Advertise executives use this techniques all of the time.

Furthermore, it makes the learning more personal and thus more meaningful for the student.

Making Connections

Students better understand a new concept if it is connected to a previous experience: another book they have read, or a movie that they watched.   Help students make that connection by stopping and asking questions that will help them relate the idea to something familiar to them or by relating what connections you make to it.  Modeling is a good way to engage the reluctant reader.
  • For example, you are reading a book about the elevation Himalayan Mountains in your geography textbook.  You stop and reflect, “I once climbed the tallest mountain in Utah, King’s Peak.  I was up so high that I got a nosebleed.  How tall is that highest mountain in Utah?  That is only half as tall as Mount Everest.”  The students can discuss when they have been to high elevation and what happened to them when they were there.
  • Another instance, you are reading about how to determine area in a math class.  The teacher notes, “I once confused the formula to determine area with the formula to determine volume and nearly bought enough paint to fill my living room. Has anyone in here ever had an experience where they had to determine the area of a space?”  Let them reflect on a time they made a doghouse or a dress and how they might have used the formula in real life.
Helping students connect what they read to their own lives, makes it relevant.

Stop reading before you finish a section and ask the students to predict what might happen next or what might happen if.
  • In a health class, the class is reading a section on treating burns, but before reading the appropriate procedure for caring for burns, the teacher stops and asks, “John, what do you think would happen if I put baby oil on the burn?”  After John answers, the teacher inquires, “Why do you think that would happen?”   “Helen, what do you think we should put on a burn?” 
  •  In a math class the teacher is reading a story problem with the class, “Harold bought three dozen balloons at $1.75 a piece.”  The teacher asks an unsuspecting student, “What math procedure do you think this problem is going to require us to do, George?” 
Making predictions keeps the students actively involved in reading.  It helps students begin to look for patterns in writing that make them more effective at making better predictions. 

Identifying the Organization Pattern
Some students do not understand how a textbook or a reading selection is organized.  If they get a little help identifying where things are organized, they can become more successful.

Explain how the textbook is organized:

  •   Where is the Table of Contents?

  •   Where is the Glossary?

  •   Where is the Index and how do I use it?

  •   What are subtopics and how can they help me on an open book test?
  • Why are these words in bold face?

  •  Are these guide questions of any value?

Make students aware of internal organization:
  • Main Idea and Support
  • Solving the Mystery
  • Comparison and Contrast
  • Question and Answer
  • Step by Step
  • Chronological Recounting of Evens
  • Most Important to Least Important
  • Visual Patterns
  • Point and Counterpoint
  • Main Events
If you help the student find the structure, their comprehension will improve dramatically.  What seems obvious to you, may not be to your student, so don’t assume they already know it.


Many students can read words correctly, but when you ask them what they have read, they don’t know.  They don’t know because they have not connected the words together to create ideas.  Unless you complete each reading activity with a thinking activity, they won’t comprehend what they have read.  To determine if students have understood what they have read, ask them to write a summary.
Students sometimes are unable to select what information in a reading selection is important and what is supportive.  By asking students to write a summary, the teacher can easily see if the student is just reading words without decoding them into meaningful ideas or if the student understands the issues.

  • For example, in a math class, the students have just read a chapter about how to determine the angles of triangles.  The teacher asks them to write these instructions as though they were teaching a six-year-old sibling.  Make sure it is clear and concise.

  • In a history class, the class has just read a chapter about what difficulties pioneers faced crossing the plains, so the teacher asks the students to write a list of five major problems these pioneers faced.  Help the students focus on what is important by asking them to summarize.

The Journal Questions
            The learning journal is an effective way to increase students’ comprehension, but the questions have to be carefully constructed to require the student to reread portions of the text, select specific examples, and use the examples to support a larger idea presented in the text.  Questions like:

  • ·         What did you think of the book?

  • ·         How did the story make you feel?

Are usually answered in trite meaningless patter, because they hold no real meaning and require no real thought on the part of the student.  If you asked questions like:

  • ·         Noah Claypole has been described as a bully.  Describe at least three specific incidences in the book where he behaved like a bully and explain what affect it had on Oliver.

  • ·         Using the description of a volcanic explosion, explain how and why they occur and predict what long-term outcomes could result to people, plants and animals when one occurs.

  • ·         Is Friar Lawrence culpable for Romeo and Juliet’s death?  Describe what actions he did that could lead to a conviction.

  • ·         Does Mr. McGregor over-react to Peter Rabbits’ trespassing in his garden? You are the prosecutor, so support your answer with  Peter Rabbit’s specific behavior and Mr. McGregor’s behavior.

Most importantly stay enthusiastic about books they are reading and books you are reading.  Talk to them individually about books.  Make suggestions about books they could read to learn more about a subject they are excited about.  Reading is an addiction and as a teacher you need to sell them on the product.  Make your classroom a rich environment filled with books, magazines, pictures and articles.  Allow student time to explore a variety of sources beyond your textbook.  By varying the reading material, you can increase students’ stimulation and reading  comprehension skills.