Reading in the Content Area – Tips for Making it Work

Introduction to “Reading in the Content Area”

Many of us who have been teaching for a while have been exposed to the "Reading in the Content Area" methodology in our Teaching Credential Classwork or Continuing Education Classwork. The proponents of this formalized and academic approach proclaim that it encourages and provides more practice with reading than if students were exposed to "reading" in just their literature classes. This “content-area” reading is considered academically to be "real-world" reading in that the reading is not from a self-proclaimed "reading textbook" that provides "stories" and "narratives" only for the sake of "text for reading.”

How Reading Usually Works at the Elementary Level

At the elementary-level, students in "Reading Classes" learn the alphabet symbols and how words and then sentences are formed through the use of these symbols. Students learn the sounds produced by certain combinations of the symbols and how to acquire basic meaning from these combinations of symbols. They learn a basic vocabulary from these classes along with basic spelling, syntax, and grammatical principles. And they generally read for the purpose of “reading.”

How Reading Usually Works for the Secondary Level

In the usual secondary-level school situations, reading in “literature” classes has meant “reading for enjoyment” while "reading in the content area" has meant improving reading skills while using textbooks from math, chemistry, history, biology, or geography courses. “Reading in the Content Area” is READING FOR A PURPOSE—to LEARN the material such that you can APPLY the information.

Instead of learning the basic combinations of the alphabet that form words and then sentences for comprehension, students move from this practice to learning more vocabulary and meanings of new terms from the specific areas of study. Students learn the subject matter concepts and terminology while they read the textbooks. They are doing more reading for comprehension rather than reading for vocabulary-building. In fact, when students encounter in their subject-matter textbooks a word they are unfamiliar with, they might be able to use the context of the sentence to determine the meaning of the problem word. This new word becomes a part of their subject-matter ("content area") vocabulary.

Applying the “Reading in the Content Area” Paradigm

After the students have seen the new word a number of times in their reading–and through context or definition has added the word and its meaning to their vocabulary–the students’ reading proficiency in that particular subject area will have improved. And, the students should be able to remember and recall the information they have read such that they can formulate correctly in their own phrasing how they understand it.

None of this “reading in the content area” paradigm is really “ground-breaking” information, however. We already know this.

Good teachers in any subject-matter/content-area have always encouraged and enhanced the students’ abilities in reading in their content area by using techniques that help with vocabulary/terminology learning for that particular subject. But too frequently, instructors in various subjects assign chapters of reading to students without verifying if the students have comprehended what they’ve been assigned to read. This is counter-productive.

Struggling with Reading – Particularly in the Content Areas

If the students are stumbling over the vocabulary and terminology and the underlying concepts and meanings, the students are not only NOT reading well, but they aren’t effectively learning the subject matter either.


If the students’ reading abilities are improved, this also helps the student in comprehending and learning the various subject matter topics. Reading in the subject matter/content area in a broad sense is synergistic in that it improves the students’ understanding of the specific content while at the same time enhancing the students’ vocabularies and reading abilities.


So, even though teachers in the content areas of science, math, history, geography, foreign languages, and other “content areas” will argue that they don’t even have time to teach their subject matter, let alone teach reading, they can make minor changes to their lessons, their curriculum, and their classwork to help students with their reading—reading for the PURPOSE of learning and applying the subject matter.

Tips for Making Minor Changes to Your Curriculum to Teach Reading in the Content Area

–Have students take notes from the text by analyzing the key words in the paragraphs. What’s the subject? What’s the point of the paragraph, let alone the section or chapter? (for more in-depth “grammar” and “parts of speech” it’s helpful if the teacher knows grammar—that’s one of the reasons why many non-literature/English teachers refuse to teach “reading” in their classes: they don’t know their grammar and parts of speech well enough themselves).

–Include vocabulary from the textbooks or lessons in your tests by not only quizzing only on the meaning or word-definitions, but also on the words’ usage in sentences and paragraphs. This more effectively tests the understanding of the term or concept; and, if done frequently enough (weekly test?), will give the students practice that will develop valuable skills for if they enter college and professions that require reading for understanding and application.

–Have the students write reports based on what they’ve read. If you assign textbook or other reading assignments that you have control over, you can verify if the students are parroting the information back to you in their writing or if they have actually assimilated the material to make it their own. The better readers (and writers) will be able to do this well. Those who struggle with reading will have problems with this exercise—and you’ll be able to identify them through their writing and be able to help them or get them help.

–To encourage even more “real-world” reading, provide “subject matter” reading material from non-textbook and non-reader type sources such as manuals for scientific equipment (chemistry class), aircraft flight training manuals (physics), compass and map reading manuals (geography), brochures from historical tourist sites (history), and so on. By reading, discussing, and applying these documents with the students, they can readily see the APPLICATION of reading in the content/subject area and thus appreciate the skills they are learning.