Engaging Students in Reading Throughout the Content Areas…During & After COVID

You’re in front of your class (post-COVID, of course) teaching about the Declaration of Independence. You LOVE teaching this unit and you are pumped. You have created a perfectly crafted Google Slides presentation filled with photos, text from primary sources, text from secondary sources, and your own lecture notes. This. THIS is why you became a teacher…to teach the youth of today about the foundation of our country. You perfectly execute the lesson and assign students the reading and response for them to complete during their work time. Much to your surprise, students aren’t rushing to get started and are dragging their feet to begin reading the given text. Once students do get started, one student slams his Chromebook down and begins drawing on a paper instead. You are stunned. Why aren’t your students engaging in the text as you had hoped?

Let’s be honest, most middle school teachers have been in similar situations as the one described above. Perfectly executed lesson… but when it comes time for students to engage with the reading… students are either 1. Not engaged, 2. Refusing to complete the assignment, or 3. Failing to finish “quality” work aligned to grade level standards. As educators, we are trained to reflect after analyzing student understanding of the topic. We are often quick to modify by using graphic organizers, or re-teaching in small groups, but have we considered the text at hand? Can our students read and comprehend it? Many of our students are defeated before they even begin an assignment.

It’s no surprise to anyone that there are students with whom we work with that are considered “high risk,” “below grade level,” or “failing” when it comes to reading. Personally, I despise all of those terms because they come from a deficit mindset. I like to refer to them as “striving readers.” So why is it that we assign “grade-level” or “above grade-level” texts for our students when we are aware of our student needs? For some it might be uncomfortable to consider helping support reading in a science, math, or social studies classroom. Some might even say, “But I don’t teach reading.” If this is your mindset then our striving readers are going to continue to fall behind. As Chris Tovani, author of Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12 states, “If we don’t begin to find accessible text for all adolescent readers, they will continue to fail, only to become someone else’s problem the following year. More students will become turned off to the content we love.”

How can content area teachers help support striving readers in the classroom? How can we ensure student success regardless of reading ability?

    • If providing students with Google Slides or a Powerpoint, record yourself reading and insert as audio on each slide. You will be able to find free voice recording programs with a quick Google search. Save the audio to your computer then upload and insert to your slideshow. Make sure to provide audio for directions as well.
    • ReWordify.com — This website allows you to paste your text and then provides you with the same text with simpler vocabulary terms. You then have the ability to create a vocabulary quiz, word lists, etc.
    • Read & Write for Google Chrome — This is an AMAZING extension that has so many reading accessibility features. It allows students to highlight text to be read aloud. It also includes: a talking dictionary, picture dictionary, word prediction, fact finder, translator (yes, includes Spanish!), screen masking, screenshot reader, and more. Teachers get a free PRO subscription.
    • Use text sets to supplement your units of instruction. Utilize multiple texts of varying levels to reach all readers as a supplemental alternative. Text sets typical contain a wide variety of written texts, varying in length, difficulty, and text structure. They also include examples of texts that are engaging, interesting, and accessible to most students. This is also a great way for students to practice specific reading strategies while learning content information. Some examples of accessible text include: poems, picture books, photos/postcards, song lyrics, menus, student writing, short stories, and charts/graphs. Utilize your school, district, or local librarian for assistance with this.
    • Utilize images. If you are expecting a student to provide writing such as a short response, place a photo of a pencil next to the directions. If you are expecting a student to read, place a photo of a book next to the directions, etc.
    • Pre-teach vocabulary and discuss the morphology (root words, prefixes, suffixes) of the words. This is a great activity not only for striving readers, but students who also need enrichment. This activity can focus on syllabication, encoding (spelling), decoding (reading), and vocabulary, which will ultimately lead to better comprehension.
    • Think aloud when reading aloud your content specific text. We can’t assume that students have been taught how to read primary sources, science articles, or math problems. As you read aloud, stop and explain your reading process. Consider the following: Why do you begin where you read? What do you do when you come to an unknown word? Do you stop to think and understand what you are reading or is it automatic? Do you underline words or phases? Why?

Ultimately, our goal as educators is to help our students succeed in all facets of life, but especially in regard to academics. It is imperative that we acknowledge our students as readers and accommodate to help support their learning. In no way is this lowering the rigor in your content area class, but it is allowing ALL students the opportunity for success. In all honesty, by you providing accessible texts for students, you are allowing them the opportunity to read something that the students will be able to understand; worthy of their time, and perhaps even ignite a spark that will turn them onto your content concept. To quote Tovani again, “We love this content so much, we’ve dedicated the better part of our lives to teaching it to others. I don’t see how we can be teachers of this content without spending at least some of our time with students helping them learn how to read about it.”

Kellyn Sirach is a middle school literacy specialist in the Champaign-Urbana area at JW Eater Junior High in Rantoul, Illinois. Within her 7 years in education, she has experience in working with prek through college-level developmental reading and writing students. In 2016, Sirach was awarded the 30-under-30 award from the International Literacy Association for her efforts in increasing diverse text accessibility in rural southern Illinois. Sirach is passionate in learning more about the science of reading and increasing text accessibility for all learners within all classrooms. Sirach produces a monthly newsletter for educators on the topic of literacy. If you would like to subscribe, email ksirach@rcs137.org.

Twitter: @ksirach