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I Teach Content in Secondary Schools. Do I Need to Teach Reading?

Margarita Calderón, Leticia M. Trower, and Lisa Tartaglia...

Curing Initiative Fatigue

HomeReadingI Teach Content in Secondary Schools. Do I Need to Teach Reading?

I Teach Content in Secondary Schools. Do I Need to Teach Reading?

Margarita Calderón, Leticia M. Trower, and Lisa Tartaglia explore the need for content-based literacy instruction beyond elementary school

Margarita Calderón, Leticia M. Trower, and Lisa Tartaglia explore the need for content-based literacy instruction beyond elementary school

Literacy is the key to success, and multilingual learners deserve access to the opportunities and support they need to become confident readers. This is why equitable literacy instruction is imperative. Real literacy is anchored in middle and high school as students rummage through history, biology, algebra, chemistry, geometry, business, literature, career training courses, and other subjects. This means that multilingual learners’ (MLs’) best chance to become strong readers and writers lies in the hands of their core content teachers. “Students can’t develop content knowledge if they can’t read the material in history and civics classes” (Pimentel, 2023).

While instructional standards for content areas outside of ELA may not include instruction on how to read and write, each content area has its own language that students need to learn to be successful in meeting content-area standards. This includes word-level knowledge such as subject-area jargon, knowledge of the types of phrases and sentences that are often used in that content area, and knowledge of the types of texts that are common when communicating about that content area. Students who can access, analyze, and create the language of a given content area will be more successful in that content classroom—as well as in college courses on that content area and in careers related to that content area.

The Reality Facing Core Content Teachers Today

  • There are not enough ESL teachers to team up with all core content teachers in a school.
  • More emergent bilingual students are arriving in secondary schools, and more will be in every classroom soon.
  • Content teachers want to know how to help the MLs, but in many cases their college preparation or professional development programs have not adequately addressed this topic.
  • Some MLs bring to school literacies that older generations may not be as fluent in (e.g., world experiences, technology skills, different ways of doing math, world literature, conservation).
  • Finally, as we hear from the content teachers in the schools we work with: “All students need reading skills these days!”

To compound a little more, literacy today is multidimensional. Our students need to be able to access, analyze, navigate, and create messages from a wide variety of genres, text types, text structures, and media. This includes text as well as websites, videos, social media, and more. Project-based learning and STEM/STEAM have become trends, and these have huge implications for teachers with MLs. These types of learning experiences integrate language, literacy, content, and social–emotional competencies, since students are expected to work together as they inquire, experiment, discuss, debate, test, conclude, and make recommendations. All of this requires students to be able to read, write, and speak the language of the core content area—but it also provides opportunities to build in support for MLs that will empower them to do so.

But I’m Not a Reading Teacher!

Literacy instruction in secondary is not a one-person job: we can’t leave it all up to the ELA or ESL teacher. Rather, literacy must be a whole-school approach. Furthermore, every content area has unique literacy needs.

Scientific writing is different than rhetorical analysis, and math word problems are different than art critiques. It is the job of each content teacher to ensure that all students are able to speak, read, and write proficiently about their content area.

What Can I Do Now?

Here are a few things content teachers can start doing now that will help students develop their reading and writing skills in a safe and comfortable context for ELs/MLs and striving readers to take chances.

These easy steps can be implemented without taking time away from teaching the content:

  1. Select vocabulary from texts that students read in your class, and preteach that vocabulary before students read.
    Preteaching a few words is a scaffold that helps students enter the text with confidence and a higher degree of comprehension.
    EXAMPLE: Students in a history class are learning about the events leading up to a war. Before they read about these events, their teacher, Ms. Upchurch, looks through the text to identify key vocabulary words. She preteaches these words and tells students to watch for them as they read.
  2. Teach students how to identify common features of texts used in your content area.
    When students know how to read graphs and charts and pay attention to cutaways, they will have a better understanding of the text, and this will provide them with a better understanding of the content.
    EXAMPLE: Before students read, Ms. Upchurch points out features of the text, such as a timeline, a map, and a T-chart. She shows students how these features help the reader understand the text.
  3. Show students the various types of text structure used in your content area, and teach vocabulary associated with each type of structure.
    This will help students comprehend content passages and successfully write about the topic. See Figure 1 for five types of text structure.
    EXAMPLE: Ms. Upchurch highlights vocabulary in the text that shows cause/effect (such as because, due to, as a result, since, and so that), and teaches it alongside the key content vocabulary from the unit.
  4. Give students a graphic with text structures.
    Pair passages with graphic organizers that fit the text structure.
    This will help students organize the information learned in the passages.
    EXAMPLE: Since Ms. Upchurch’s students are reading a cause/effect text, she pairs the text with a cause-and-effect diagram like the one below. As an additional scaffold, some students receive a partially completed diagram.
  5. Provide strategies for students to read and comprehend content texts.
    Explicitly teach students how to read with a partner and use comprehension strategies to aid in comprehension.
    Do paired reading for ten minutes at least once a week.
    EXAMPLE: Ms. Upchurch teaches her students to stop at the end of each paragraph and orally summarize with their partners what they’ve read. This will help them understand the content she is teaching today and improve their reading comprehension whenever they read a challenging text in the future.
  6. Make sure discourse/oral language is part of every lesson and that students are held accountable for using the academic vocabulary you have taught.
    Provide opportunities for students to summarize and process with a partner as frequently as possible. This will improve students’ writing as well as help them understand the content.
    EXAMPLE: After they read a section of text, Ms. Upchurch leads students in a discussion about the events leading up to the war before she asks them to write about it. During the class discussion, her students know they are expected to use the cause/effect vocabulary that is posted on the board, as well as the key content vocabulary from the unit.
  7. Backward design: Look at the end goal and determine what students need to be able to do to complete the final product or meet the standard.
    This ensures that ELs/MLs will have all the resources they need for the final product.
    EXAMPLE: Since Ms. Upchurch wants her students to write an essay explaining the events that led up to a war, she starts by considering what an A+ essay would look like. She analyzes that model essay for vocabulary and sentence patterns that students will need to write an excellent essay and builds those into her lessons leading up to the assignment. She considers the content knowledge students will need to be successful and chooses instructional strategies to help students understand those concepts.

What about Foundations of Reading for Newcomers?

When it comes to foundational literacy skills, content teachers might leverage the expertise of ESL and/or reading teachers to help meet their newcomers’ needs. Addressing all domains of language (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) accelerates language and content knowledge. For new arrivals, dually identified emergent bilinguals striving to decode, or some MLs who have been trying for two or more years to move beyond intermediate proficiency to exit from English learner (EL) status, phonemic and phonological awareness is also necessary—albeit in small doses, ideally connected to what they read in their content classes.ESL/EL or reading teachers who team with a content teacher can have students practice using words in the context of what they’re about to read in geometry, history, biology, engineering, or any other subject. They can point out:

  • Phonology—speech sounds
  • Morphology—word parts
  • Syntax—sentence structures
  • Sound–symbol association—relationship between sounds and letters
  • Syllables—word parts that contain a vowel phoneme
  • Orthography—spelling
  • Semantics—the meaning of words, multiple meanings, subtleties

Students can also use poetry for rhyming and practicing stressed syllables for pronunciation.
Two to three weeks with a well-developed phonics–vocabulary–reading–writing program for newcomers will equip them with the language and literacy skills they need to participate in instruction with their peers.

Lessons on Reading Comprehension for MLs from 29 Schools

While some teacher preparation programs for middle and high school teachers offer literacy courses, most colleges and universities focus on the content areas their graduates will teach.

It is therefore no surprise that most content teachers are not reading experts! What this means is that today’s content teachers may need more support, more knowledge, and more instructional strategies to meet the literacy needs of their students.

After working with middle and high schools in Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas for two to five years, we found that the following professional development sequence has helped core content teachers become efficacious and skilled in integrating vocabulary, discourse, reading comprehension, and writing skills into their active subject-matter delivery. Social–emotional learning (SEL) competencies undergird each component and are used for creating a safe context for everyone to talk, regardless of English proficiency levels. Moreover, teachers emphasize that MLs and other students in the classrooms appreciate more peer discourse and attribute their significant growth to academic language practice with peers.

Professional Development Sequence

  • Phase 1—How to select words to preteach from texts, videos, and presentations. How to preteach five words at the beginning of class in ten minutes. How to structure peer interaction and more opportunities to talk. Which interaction competencies can be taught along with vocabulary practice.
    Observing and coaching teachers as they implement the new instructional strategies.
  • Phase 2—Teaching subcomponents of reading (text features, text structures, deconstructing and constructing sentence structures). Engaging students in effective and time-efficient partner reading by alternating sentences and verbally summarizing after each paragraph with their partners.
    Observing and coaching teachers as they implement the new instructional strategies.
  • Phase 3—Teaching “after reading” strategies to anchor English (or whatever language is being used), reading comprehension, discourse, and knowledge from that text.
    Observing and coaching teachers as they implement the new instructional strategies.
  • Phase 4—Teaching how to draft, edit, revise, final edit, and write powerful conclusions and titles in diverse modalities.
    Observing and coaching teachers as they implement the new instructional strategies.
  • Phase 5—Final overview of language, literacy, and content integration.

In two five-year studies, the language, literacy, social norms of interaction, and content components of this PD sequence were empirically tested and compared with other types of content instruction in paired schools (Calderón, 2007; Calderón et al., 2023), yielding significant results. They continue to be implemented, enhanced, and scaled up.

Why Is It Working for Teachers and Students?

Collegial learning, supported by central and school administration, entails rethinking and restructuring professional development for everyone in the school. In successful multilingual schools, all teachers attend the same workshops, read the same ML-related books, practice to make the strategies their own, and participate in coaching after each workshop. Each semester of a year focuses on one theme only (semester one—academic language and discourse; semester two—adding reading; semester three—adding writing). This gives time for teachers to practice the new strategies before being observed and coached. If we want successful students, we need to nurture successful teachers!

In between workshops, teacher teams work collaboratively to review, share creative demonstrations, prepare lessons, and discuss student progress.

We have learned as much as the teachers from these long-term relationships. It is important to give teachers strategies and tools that they can implement, experiment with, and make their own.

We were in awe recently as to how kindergarten teachers as well as Advanced Placement high school teachers were teaching partner writing strategies, partner reading, academic language, and academic discourse. We see how middle and high school students quickly and accurately summarize math/geometry concepts in a way that amazes them and their teachers. We see whole schools improving student outcomes and teacher efficacy, fomenting teacher and student imagination and creativity. Learning and implementing new instructional strategies that target language and literacy is well worth the effort for content teachers.

As one middle school math teacher recently told us, “My whole class is beaming! My students want to share their math fluency with this writing strategy with the whole class.

And having my students write about math functions helped me understand what they understand. Thank you!”

Calderón, M. E. and Tartaglia, L. M., with Montenegro, H. (2023). Cultivating Competence in English Learners: Integrating Social-Emotional Learning with Language and Literacy. Solution Tree.
Calderón, M. E. (2007). Teaching Reading to English Language Learners, Grades 6–12: A Framework for Improving Achievement in the Content Areas. Corwin Press.
Pimentel, S. (2023). “How Reading Can Help Fix Declines in History and Civics Scores.” Education Week, 42 (33): 20.

Margarita Calderón, PhD, professor emerita, Johns Hopkins University, conducts comprehensive professional development and coaching for all educators in a school/district. Two empirical studies focused on integrating vocabulary, interaction, reading comprehension, writing, and core content in 6–12 classrooms; other research on dual language program development.
[email protected]

Leticia M. Trower (she/her) is director of professional learning at Margarita Calderón & Associates and a doctoral candidate in the Diversity and Equity in Education program at the University of Illinois. Her research interests include professional development in K–12 schools and the relationship between teachers’ language, beliefs, and practices.
[email protected]

Lisa Tartaglia is a high school assistant principal in Northern Virginia. She has been a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy coach. She was recently accepted into a doctoral program in educational leadership at Old Dominion University and will begin in August.
[email protected]

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