Christine Ceraso Parisi, Reading Consultant, Thomas Edison Middle School
The purpose of this action research study was to answer specific questions about student achievement in the area of reading comprehension and writing. The focus question of the study was, “Will students improve reading and writing skills if both language arts and social studies teachers implement the same strategies in their content area classrooms for the period of one school year?” Formal reading comprehension and writing instruction in content area classrooms rarely takes place beyond the elementary school level. Students are expected to have mastered needed reading comprehension and writing skills and to have transferred those skills to much more complicated content area readings prior to entering middle school. Understanding content area subject concepts requires application of a variety of reading comprehension and writing strategies to make sense of text. Mathematics reading depends upon student ability to understand precise vocabulary meanings, science reading engages students in visual understanding of graphics, and social studies enlists student understanding of author bias (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Content area teachers should model how to read their specific content area text.
Specific strategies applied in language arts and social studies classrooms during this study were: application leveled non-fiction texts and readings, research-based instructional strategies such as summarizing, creating relevant connections, and making inferences. Students were introduced to a variety of note taking techniques, graphic organizers, and summarization formats. Results of the study confirmed strategic reading comprehension and writing instruction in the areas of social studies and language arts congruently enhance student comprehension.
Understanding how to instill reading comprehension and writing strategies in all students is paramount to student success. RAND (2002) stated research in the area of reading comprehension and writing strategies is vital to the advancement of literacy. Reading comprehension and writing affects all subject areas. The intent of this action research study was to explore how a team of middle school educators implemented developmentally appropriate reading comprehension and writing strategies to enhance student comprehension and writing in grades 6-8 language arts and social studies classrooms. Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) reported that the directives of No Child Left behind (NCLB) require higherlevel literacy skills, yet students at the secondary level are not proficient in reading comprehension or writing skills. The initial draft of NCLB in 2001 focused on interventions for elementary students who were not successful in reading comprehension and contained minimal mention of reading interventions at the secondary level (Jackson, 2009; Santa, 2006). NCLB is changing classroom reading instruction in content area classrooms (Duddin, 2010). Anfara and Schmid (2009) contended the continued teacher directed instruction and rote memorization of content area concepts are not producing needed reading comprehension and writing results. Analysis of current reading comprehension and writing instruction and research in the area of reading comprehension and writing revealed a need to design new reading comprehension and writing instructional models to engage all learners which is paramount to the reading comprehension process (RAND, 2002). Reading comprehension and writing strategies taught in language arts and social studies should support the varying skills and aptitudes of all middle school students (National Middle School Association, 1995).
Middle school students are required to comprehend extensive reading materials in science, mathematics, social studies, and language arts in a short span of time. To successfully synthesize all required information, students need to apply a variety of metacognitive and written strategies (Tovani, 2000). Reading comprehension and writing strategies are a necessity in all middle school content area classrooms. Content area materials are difficult and tedious for many middle school students to comprehend.
Many middle school teachers focus instruction on subject content rather than the atomicity of skills needed to access content area information. To master subject content, students need a variety of informational texts, must be self-driven, and responsible for their learning (Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, 2000; RAND, 2002). Many middle school teachers do not have experience teaching specific reading comprehension and writing skills. Insufficient teacher knowledge of reading comprehension and writing skills coupled with difficult reading materials make necessary a need for change in middle school content area instructional practice. Studies by Alger, Hall, Osborne, and Spencer (as cited by Phillips, Bardsley, Bach & Gibb-Brown, 2009) determined content area teachers would like to teach reading comprehension and writing strategies but are unsure of where to begin and presume direct reading comprehension and writing instruction is limited to elementary school classrooms, is part of the language arts curriculum, or the sole responsibility of the language arts teacher. Content area teachers surmise that specializing in a particular content area subject negates the necessity to teach reading comprehension and writing strategies (Bintz, 2011; Wilson, Graham, & Smetana, 2009). Fang and Schleppegrell (2010) disagreed and purported that middle school students need more advanced reading comprehension and writing skills, time to practice accessing information, and exposure to high interest leveled reading materials in specialized content areas. Perie, Grigg, and Donahue (as cited by Fang and Schleppegrell, 2010), presented a variety of reports in the area of reading comprehension strategies which suggested that a vast amount of middle to high school students lack needed reading comprehension skills. Perie et al. (as cited by Fang and Schleppegrell, 2010), contended that over 8 million students in grades 4-12 cannot adequately comprehend content specific texts.
Reading and writing are learned processes in which the reader creates meaning from the printed word and responds to the reading based on the ability to make connections. Students must be provided with a variety of leveled texts and ample opportunities to practice strategic reading and writing skills. A review of literature in the area of reading comprehension and writing disclosed a variety of approaches related instructional practice in both areas but studies were not consistent in the processes of reading comprehension and writing (McKewon, Beck, & Blake, 2009; Anfara & Schmid, 2007). There have not been studies to develop a universal program for writing and reading comprehension in the middle school content areas (Mead, Burke, Lanning, & Mitchell, 2010; Anfara & Schmid, 2009; Slavin, Cheung, Groff, & Lake, 2008). Limited information has been found in guiding instruction across the curriculum in the area of reading comprehension prior to middle school (Reed, 2009; Fang et al. 2008; Parris & Block, 2007).
Little is known about how to implement an approach to reading comprehension instruction in content area reading across the content area classrooms, provide student opportunities to practice reading comprehension strategies, and transfer information beyond elementary school (Reed, 2009). There are a limited number of existing studies related to effective implementation of reading comprehension and writing strategies at the middle school level (Allington, 2009; RAND, 2002). Middle school content area teachers need assistance in teaching reading comprehension and writing strategies so that students are able to access and make sense of specific content area concepts. Students need purposeful direction in order to identify the important information embedded in content area texts. While reading, students integrate their prior knowledge, schema, and questions to make predictions or inferences. Active engagement with content area text to promote understanding, imparting the importance of how reading comprehension strategies promote understanding and effective reading comprehension and writing strategies are expedients through which students assimilate content area concepts (Freedman & Carver, 2007).
Time constraints in traditionally taught content area classrooms limit opportunities for teachers to provide rich text related to the content which demarcates student selection of stimulating reading materials (Duddin, 2010). Scheduling reading comprehension and writing instruction into the middle school content area curriculum is difficult due to short instructional periods (Fang & Wei, 2010; Sanacore & Palumbo, 2010). Middle school students should be provided with time to actively read in order to continue developing reading skills (Fang & Wei, 2010; Sanacore & Palumbo, 2010).
Content area teachers are facilitators who model and guide students through the metacognitive process of reading comprehension and writing. Duddin (2010) observed a lack of opportunities in content area classrooms to include readings to connect student learning to the world. Teachers who teach reading comprehension and writing strategies in content area classrooms understand the goal is to ensure all students become active and metacognitive readers (Wilson, Graham, & Smetana, 2009). The process of involving content area teachers in teaching reading comprehension and writing strategies is diffusive (Fang & Wei, 2010). Guiding students in understanding content area text is the responsibility of all content area teachers (McKewon, Beck, & Blake, 2009). Practice and instruction of reading comprehension and writing strategies enhances the curriculum of content area teachers rather than add more instructional content (Joseph, 2010).
This study examined a cooperative team approach to reading comprehension in the areas of language arts and social studies. Implementation of reading comprehension and writing stratagem, based on student data reviewed by the content area team was the basis to determine the expansion of student reading comprehension and writing in both content areas. McKewon, Black and Blake (2009) noted providing students with reading comprehension and writing strategies facilitates comprehension. Each content area teacher involved in the study modeled specific reading comprehension and writing strategies and provided ample class time for students to practice reading comprehension and writing strategies.
Working as a team to analyze student data guided the teachers to identify specific weaknesses in reading comprehension and the writing process. The analysis of student data prompted teachers to create targeted remediation strategies and incorporate tailored strategic instruction simultaneously in both social studies and language arts content area instruction for the period of one school year.
Population and Sampling
The study took place in an urban middle school in northeast United States. The population consisted of 36 middle school teachers in grades 6-8. A population constitutes “…individuals who have the same characteristic” (Creswell, 2005, p. 145). Jackson (2008) explained that the population is the overall group the study will generalize. The population in this study was segmented into three teams of teachers in each 6-8 grade level, a total of nine content area teams. Each team was comprised of a language arts teacher, a science teacher, a social studies teacher, and a mathematics teacher. Team teachers serviced approximately 80-90 students. The population followed a typical middle school schedule of 45 minute classes with students moving to each content area classroom. Instructional earning environments outside of language arts classrooms was mainly teacher-directed.
The sample consisted of the language arts and social studies teachers from the population in grades 6-8. Similarities to the population were the coherence of the sample to the configuration of the middle school’s procedures and programs. Students were expected to self-select and apply reading comprehension and writing strategies learned in previous grades to comprehend and respond to a variety of reading materials such as teacher selected web sites, district chosen textbooks and readings and teacher assigned readings.
Each language arts and social studies teacher was provided with an outline of the purpose of the action research study. The first step in the implementation of the study was to provide the sample of teachers with professional development. All teachers received training in Marzano’s teaching strategies as well as supplied with a copy of Marzano, Pickering, and Pollocks’s book Classroom Instruction that Works. Teachers were also provided with a day of in-service in the area of reading comprehension and writing strategies across the curriculum provided by the building reading consultants. Phillips, Bardsley, Bach, Gibb-Brown (2009) professed reading and writing must be taught in every grade yet content area teachers are not trained on how to teach reading comprehension and writing strategies or implement the strategies into their content area curriculum. Teacher professional development was specifically designed to meet content area reading comprehension and writing methods as well as discussion comparing successful methods to encourage teachers to re-evaluate student needs (Friedman, Harwell, & Schnepel, 2006).
Following professional development, language arts and social studies teachers were asked to develop a plan of action in the area of reading comprehension and writing related to their grade level. It was important that all content area teachers at each grade level worked with the same reading comprehension and writing strategies to help students access content area information. Identifying which strategies were most important and transferable to all content areas began with charting student progress in each language arts and social studies classroom. Analyzing student data to inform instruction was the foundation to develop specific strategies to increase middle school students’ reading comprehension and writing in all content areas as well as show significant gains on state mandated tests.
Each grade, based on data collected by the team, chose two areas of weakness to be the focus of the research plan. Grade 6 chose making connections to text, self, and world at an evaluative level of thought. Teachers also chose to develop summarizing of non-fiction readings to be applied in persuasive writing. Grades 7 and 8 chose to focus on persuasive writing and summarization. Both grades used a variety of sources, similar graphic organizers, conferencing, notetaking and vocabulary development to enhance reading comprehension and persuasive writing instruction. Non-fiction readings were assigned to students to practice determining important information and applying information to persuasive writing.
Prior to whole class instruction, students were given a pre-test to determine proficiency in each grade level goal. Data provides teachers who possess limited understanding of literacy instruction an opportunity to implement successful reading comprehension methodologies and document student progress in literacy understanding (Topping, Wenrich, & Hoffman, 2006). Successful reading and writing instruction begins with building student background knowledge, vocabulary, explicit instruction, modeling student taking, summarizing and identifying text structure (Fang & Wei, 2010).
Results of grade level pre-tests determined strategy instruction. All teachers provided the following direct instruction and modeling of chosen strategies and skills: highlighting key vocabulary, main ideas and supporting details in non-fiction readings, persuasive writing graphic organizers, elaboration of thoughts, paraphrasing, and understanding and responding to open-ended questions. Post evaluation determined which skills students mastered after students selected readings at their instructional and interest levels.
Based on data collected prior to instruction, teachers identified the number of students scoring at a proficient or higher instructional level as well as determined the number of students to reach a proficient or higher instructional level at the conclusion of the study. Data was collected, charted, and discussed at weekly team meetings. Pre- and post-test results of each grade level’s goals are presented in Tables 1, 2, and 3.
Table 1: Grade 6
or higher will increase from 31% to 70%
higher will increase from 35% to 70%
Table 2: Grade 7
or higher will increase from 45% to 60%
69%, and 86%
higher will increase from 44% to 80%
Table 3: Grade 8
or higher will increase from 56% to 80%
93%, 62% to 93%, and 82% to 91%
higher will increase from 17.2% to 60%
reading proficiency or higher with scores of
11% to 54%, 23% to 28%, and 17% to 62%
Teachers, through cooperative team planning, begin to create an atmosphere for safe learning and critical thinking (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010). Students need to be taught reading comprehension and writing skills in order to access and understand content area concepts. Accessing content information is a critical component of student learning and success (Bozo, 2010).
Teachers at the middle school level specialize in the content they teach and are typically disengaged from reading comprehension and writing instruction (Fang & Wei, 2010). Educational methodologies in middle school classrooms transition from elementary school process learning to rote learning of specific content matter knowledge and test preparation (Palumbo & Sanacore, 2009; Duddin, 2010; Joseph, 2010). Results of this study determined that middle school teachers working as a team and presenting the same strategies to students in both language arts and social studies congruently were successful in increasing student learning. Providing teachers with on-site professional development related to strategic reading comprehension and writing instruction and ensuring opportunities for teachers to meet weekly as a team to evaluate student progress and design specific instruction contributed to increase of student scores on postinstruction assessments. Meeting as a team and choosing specific reading comprehension and writing strategies to incorporate in language arts and social studies instruction support Kay’s (2009) findings that skills should be taught “comprehensively, intentionally, and purposefully” (p.45) to ensure student success.
Hinde et al. (2007) indicated that more time devoted to teaching content does not guarantee comprehension, however, teaching students to read and write strategically does ensure content comprehension. In 2010, the Common Core State Standards Initiative Committee (CCSSI), Pitcher, Martinez, Dicembre, and McCormick, proposed a shared responsibility in teaching reading comprehension across content area disciplines. Reed (2009) and Gwertz (2009) asserted that direct instruction of reading comprehension and writing strategies is the responsibility of all content area teachers and easily accomplished when all teachers collaborate as a team. Content area teachers in this study documented increases in student achievement working as a team with a common strategic focus.
Duddin (2010) maintained teaching to state standards with student self-selection of books is research-based and proven to be beneficial to all students because students are reading and responding to text of interest correlated to the content topic and engage students in independent reading and writing. Duddin (2010) also espoused student academic success is reliant on authentic, meaningful text rather than content area textbooks written above middle school grade level. Teachers involved in this study provided students with a variety of leveled reading materials related to topics studied in social studies. Teachers noted that students became actively and purposefully involved in applying reading comprehension and writing strategies and many challenged themselves to read more difficult text.
Results of this study proved specific professional development and team collaboration through data collection increased student productivity in the areas of reading comprehension and writing. Teachers need to be provided with relevant professional development at the beginning of the school year as well as periodic collaboration with reading consultants to clarify questions or concerns in the area of reading comprehension and writing. Teachers must also be provided time to collaborate as a team using data collection, have access to a variety of content specific leveled texts, and schedule time in classroom instruction for students to practice and share reading comprehension and writing strategies with others.
Content area teachers who understand the metacognitive process related to reading comprehension and writing prepare content instruction with literacy at the forefront of instruction (Brozo, 2010). According to Ness (as cited by McCoss- Yergian and Krepps, 2010) reading comprehension and writing instruction has been endorsed by many researchers such as: Alvermann, Biancarosa and Snow, Kamil, Heller and Greenleaf, Torgensen, Houston, Rissman, Decker, and Roberts in the area of reading comprehension and writing instruction as a critical method to improve student understanding in all content area classrooms. Student interaction with content area textbooks depends upon the application of metacognitive strategies (Wilson, Grisham, & Smetana, 2009). Infusion of reading comprehension and writing instruction in all content area classrooms will enhance student learning (Wilson et al., 2009). Ruday (2009) reported an increase in student interest in reading and writing after direct instruction of specific strategies and practice of metacognitive thinking. McCoss-Yergian and Krepps (2010) also noted that the most effective means of increasing student comprehension in content area classrooms is direct instruction of specific reading comprehension and writing strategies across the curriculum. Research by educational leaders Allington, Boyles, Bennett, Daniels and Zemelman, Harvey and Goudvis, and Keene and Zimmerman support the methods applied in this study and results from this study provide a basis to create collaboration with all content area teachers to teach specific reading comprehension and writing strategies in language arts, social studies science and mathematics in middle school classrooms.
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