November 2004 • Volume 36 • Number 2 • Pages 13-20
A Framework for Scaffolding Content Area Reading StrategiesDorie Combs
Increasing numbers of middle school teachers recognize that literacy is the responsibility of all teachers. Traditionally, teachers in many content areas have depended on the read-and-answer-the-questions approach almost exclusively when reading is part of their instruction. Now they can find a smorgasbord of content area reading strategies in journals, books, and on the Internet. But because most content area teachers have had little, if any, training in the teaching of reading, they remain confused about when specific strategies are best to use (Spor & Schneider, 1999). How can middle school teachers determine which strategy they should use when helping their students comprehend textbooks?
Reading researchers have been promoting the use of a variety of pre-reading, during reading, and after reading strategies for more than 30 years since the publication of the Directed Reading and Thinking Activity (Stauffer, 1969). The term "scaffolding" is often used to describe these instructional strategies that can provide support and guidance to struggling readers. Graves and Graves (1994) trace this term to Wood, Bruner, and Ross in 1976, when it was first defined as "a process that enables a child … to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal which would be beyond his or her unassisted efforts" (p. 90). Scaffolding has come to refer to any instructional activity applied before, during, or after reading that is intended to provide support for immature, poor, or struggling readers. Theoretically, at least, these strategies are designed to be gradually withdrawn as students develop independent reading skills. Graves and Graves (1994) explained that these scaffolds should not be used as "preset" plans for any reading selection, but instead should be treated as, "a flexible framework that provides a set of options from which you select those that are best suited for a particular group of students reading a particular text for a particular purpose" (p. 5). So while teachers' implementation of reading activities is more commonplace, are all strategies effective in all reading scenarios? Should teachers simply pick and choose from this menu of activities? How can teachers know what to do when?
This concern was literally brought home to me when my own middle school child read a popular, contemporary novel as a whole-class assignment. Since he had recently read the book on his own, I was eager to find out if he enjoyed and appreciated the novel more with a second, closer reading. As a former English teacher, I was expecting to hear how he had noticed more details, observed foreshadowing, and was made aware of the greater complexities and layers built into the story. What I got was, "I liked it better the first time. It was better when we didn't have to stop and answer all of those dumb questions." Maybe, it occurred to me, we teachers sometimes just get in the way of learning. Maybe there are times that even a young adolescent needs to be permitted to use her own strategies.
There are two important factors that influence our students' readiness to comprehend text material: interest and text difficulty. Interest has been identified as being a key component of motivation along with the individual's feeling of competency. "Students who perceive reading as valuable and important and who have personally relevant reasons for reading will engage in reading in a more planned and effortful manner," (Gambrell, Palmer, Codling, & Mazzoni, 1996, p. 518). Children who indicate they are interested in the text are also more likely to "try harder" and say they "want to learn more." (Mizelle, 1997, p. 16). Text difficulty is most often defined in terms of readability, which is often calculated in terms of sentence length or number of sentences and word length (Alverman & Phelps, 1998; Manzo, Manzo, & Estes, 2001). Other factors that should also be taken into account include the length of the text itself, the layout and font size, organizational structure, use of illustrations, commonality of words, complexity of sentences, and content (Pinnell, 1999). By overlapping these two dimensions within a framework, teachers can better select the appropriate instructional scaffold (See Figure 1).
The result is four quadrants: high interest/easy text; high interest/difficult text; low interest/easy text; and low interest/difficult text. Each quadrant indicates different instructional needs. Teachers can determine student interest through simple inventories and informal discussion. While several models of such inventories exist (Robb, 2002, for example), many teachers simply create their own questionnaires, asking students what subjects they enjoy, what books they have read recently, and other magazines and newspapers they like to read. Text difficulty can be gauged through the use of readability formulas, a CLOZE assessment (see Manzo, Manzo, & Estes, 2001), or more simply, by asking students to judge the text for themselves.
High Interest/Easy Text
Books, chapters, and articles that students find interesting and that they find personally engaging are, in fact, highly motivational. Students enjoy reading these texts and often possess background knowledge in the content. The desire to read a particular text and the pleasure that comes from the experience are accompanied by "deep and effortless concentration" (Schiefele, 1999, p. 257). Teens tend to enjoy adolescent fiction, sports, fashion, or video game magazines, as well as some of the more fascinating components of the curriculum. When such texts use simple, common vocabulary and are written in a conversational style, many students will find them easy to read.
Teachers who have employed the reading workshop approach as described by Atwell (1998) and Rief (1992) have had considerable success because the students are allowed to choose their texts and quite naturally pick those that are personally interesting and less challenging. The effectiveness of such programs as DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) and SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) is largely due to the freedom and flexibility afforded the students. Menon and Mirabito (1999) found that fourth and sixth graders read more in school and at home, found more personal enjoyment from reading, and chose books based on whether they would enjoy the book after participating in an unstructured Hooked on Books program. The students were asked to read 30 minutes each night and met together for 40 minutes once per week to informally discuss and share their books. Beyond this, there were few requirements, rules, or assignments. The students chose their own books and usually formed their own discussion groups or pairs. While the teachers brought in a variety of sharing games and discussion activities, the emphasis was on student-initiated discussions as opposed to reading to complete a book report or project. These students naturally chose books they found interesting and easy. All they needed was a little time.
There are some topics that typically captivate adolescents (e.g., disasters, mythology, diseases, and other strange, bizarre, and gross phenomenon). Teachers can use a variety of supplemental texts that employ a more entertaining style, such as newspaper feature articles, magazines, and informational picture books (The Eyewitness series and Usborne books are available on a variety of content appropriate topics). Likewise, the Internet hosts a wealth of age-appropriate informational sites. These sites often include visuals, video or audio clips, and hyperlinks that students can explore. When teachers take advantage of the natural curiosities of their students, they can quickly catch them in a web of related information and learning. A study of disasters can lead to a more in-depth study of the causes and effects of El Nino and La Nina currents. Science fiction and feature articles about contemporary cloning experiments can lead to a more serious exploration of genetic science. The amazing pyramids of Egypt and the mummification process can hook students into a deeper understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilization and its culture.
There are times when our students are highly motivated and interested in reading a particular book or article. This powerful combination needs little teacher support, in fact, too much instruction may be a hindrance to deeper comprehension. In these situations we only need to stand back and get out of the way!
High Interest/Difficult Text
As students delve deeper into topics they find intriguing through research, inquiry projects, or personal interest, they are likely to encounter more difficult text. We know that personal interest is related to comprehension, regardless of other factors, including reading ability, prior knowledge, and text difficulty (Schiefele, 1999). Developing readers, in particular, are more likely to better understand text that they find interesting. But interest alone will not pull these youngsters through. Even highly motivated and skilled readers become frustrated when they encounter text that is saturated with new vocabulary and long, complex sentences. Adolescents are more likely to give up than persevere in the face of a daunting reading task. It is at this point that a wise teacher will step in and provide activities and experiences to help students tackle more difficult material.
We cannot assume that just because students are interested in the subject they also have adequate prior knowledge (Schiefele, 1999). The students may need some pre-reading discussion to sort out what they already know and to help the teacher identify misconceptions. Strategies such as the KWL (Ogle, 1986) or Factstorming (Stephens & Brown, 2000) encourage students to recall what they already know about the topic and identify the questions they still have. As students share what they know with the whole class, all of the students gain new knowledge that can provide support for understanding the new material.
More likely, it will be with the complex terminology and jargon of the difficult text that students will need the most assistance. Teachers can use vocabulary and concept development strategies, such as the Frayer method, semantic feature analysis, or a concept map (Flood, Lapp, & Wood, 1996; Lapp, Flood, & Farnan, 1996; Stephens & Brown, 2000), which can be easily adapted to any content area. All of these strategies involve the creation of charts or graphic representations of the terms. The List-Group-Label strategy allows teachers to compile lists of student-generated terms related to the topic of study. Students create and label categories for the words, then assign new terminology to the appropriate categories. When students are conducting individual research or reading books of their own choosing, a personal vocabulary journal may be the most effective route.
Whenever students work with complex text, they will also need extra time to make sense of what they are reading. One simple, yet effective method is to provide opportunities for the students to talk about the text in small, collaborative groups. Teens are more likely to openly and honestly discuss their questions and opinions in smaller groups.
Other, more structured activities can be used while students are reading. From Oral Guided Reading (Stephens & Brown, 2000), in which the teacher reads the text aloud, pausing to lead discussion, to Reciprocal Teaching (from Palinscar & Brown, 1984, as described in Manzo, Manzo & Estes, 2001), in which students take turns leading small or large group discussions, it is important to ensure that students fully understand difficult text. Each of these strategies engages students in questioning, clarifying, predicting, and summarizing as they read.
Low Interest/Easy Text
But with high-stakes testing and accountability standards, social studies, science, math, and other content area teachers cannot often afford the luxury of allowing students to read only those texts they find interesting. Even when simpler texts are available, teachers will need to use a variety of pre-reading activities to develop the interest and internal motivation to read. How do we take a topic that adolescents find boring and turn it into something fascinating and intriguing?
Class starter activities can pique interest in the topic while encouraging more students to put forth effort. An enthusiastic teacher and a well-planned pre-reading task can accomplish this goal. Pre-reading activities serve to identify students' background knowledge and experiences; correct misunderstandings; introduce new ideas, facts, or concepts; as well as provide an overview of the text structure and sequence (Manzo, Manzo, & Estes, 2001). Savvy middle school teachers can often engage classes in discussion activities to bring prior knowledge of and experience with the topic to the surface. Short writing prompts or questions can be written on the board or overhead projector prior to the beginning of class. Students then spend the first few minutes of class focusing their attention on the topic for the day. A well-phrased question can motivate students to want to read the text to gain more knowledge about the topic. For example, prior to beginning a unit on genetics, the teacher might begin the class with the following question: "Do you believe that genetic engineering is important scientific research or do you fear that this could lead to monstrous creations?" After engaging the class in a lively discussion and debate, the teacher can then ask the students to read a relatively simple introductory piece that provides some of the background and basic terminology needed to pursue more scientific texts.
Students can also be instructed to write what they observe in a display of one or more interesting objects, art prints, an experiment, or a visual image projected on a screen. The ideas sparked by the demonstration can provide the foundation for building new knowledge. A slide of a painting of the Trail of Tears might be used to generate ideas about why the Cherokee Indians were moving, how they felt about the move, and the results of the march. Discussing a piece of art can provide the prior knowledge and personal involvement that will make the text meaningful.
Abstract topics must be made more concrete through personal associations. When beginning a unit on economics, the teacher could open a discussion of the high demand for a particular toy, baseball card, or concert tickets. By making a connection to their world, the teacher can quickly move into the basic principles of supply and demand.
Other, more structured pre-reading activities have a solid research base (Flood, Lapp, & Wood, 1996; Langer, 1981; Lapp, Flood, & Farnan, 1996; Manzo, Manzo, & Estes, 2001; Stephens & Brown, 2000). Graphic organizers (see Buehl, 2001; Manzo, Manzo, & Estes, 2001; Wisconsin Department of Education, 1989; and Wood, 2001 for several examples) provide frameworks in which students, individually or in small groups, can organize their background knowledge and even fill in the missing information as they read. A study of the American Civil War might be organized using a Venn Diagram that compares characteristics of the North with those of the South. A semantic map can be used to brainstorm and later confirm the characteristics of the Medieval Period of European history. The complex characters in The Giver might be better understood through the use of character maps with which students not only identify characters' actions, but their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. As students compare these graphics, they will realize that complex text can yield various interpretations.
Anticipation Guides (Buehl, 2001; Manzo, Manzo & Estes, 2001) present a short list of statements that students judge as being true or false. These guides are especially effective with more controversial issues or with topics on which students are likely to possess incorrect knowledge. After completing the questionnaire, students then read the new material, noting any changes of opinion after completing the task.
One particularly interesting activity presented by Stephens and Brown (2000) is the Explorer's Kit. To introduce a unit, novel, or complex text, the teacher prepares a box or other container of items that are related to the topic. Students review the contents of the Explorer's Kit and make predictions about the text. Students can also create their own Explorer's Kits after reading texts.
Many common class activities can serve as highly effective pre-reading strategies. Hands-on activities, lab experiments, videos (yes, sometimes it is best to show the video before students read the text), and structured small-group discussions can provide just enough information to arouse students' curiosity to learn more. A wide variety of easily applied pre-reading strategies have been shared in this and other scholarly journals and books.
Low Interest/Difficult Text
The plain truth is that sometimes learning is hard, and more often, unfortunately, it is not any fun. Certainly, teenagers can think of other things they would prefer to do! Mature readers learn that they must allocate more attention and processing capacity to complex text (Schiefele, 1999). They recognize and respect external motivators, whether these are grades, paychecks, new job skills, or completion of a home improvement project. Few teen readers have these metacognitive skills. The wise teacher simply will not tackle text that is both boring and complex without providing a simpler version first. But with high-stakes standards-based testing, content area teachers have curricula that are "a mile wide and an inch deep," and they simply do not always have the time to locate high-interest, easy text for the wide variety of interests and reading levels their students possess. This is the point where teaching becomes a skillfully choreographed, artistic performance. Again, the teacher must begin with pre-reading activities that not only spark interest in the topic, but also provide information critical to comprehending the text. Because the text is likely to include new and complex terminology, vocabulary should be taught prior to reading as well.
Once students are prepared to begin reading, teachers can employ any one of a variety of Guided Reading Activities (like the above mentioned oral reading strategy and reciprocal teaching) to address varying levels of text difficulty. With some texts, students may simply need to have the text broken into smaller sub-sections, with guiding questions to help them focus on critical information. Teachers can prepare these questions on handouts, overheads, or simply use the questions at the end of the chapter, with the instructions to read specific pages until they find the answer to the question, construct a written response, then read on to find the answer to the next question.
With more heterogeneous classes, the teacher may wish to have students work in small groups, alternately reading sections of the text silently, then discussing the questions amongst themselves. For example, students can work with a partner in the Think-Pair-Share activity (Wood, 2001), silently reading a passage, individually thinking about the critical points, then sharing with a partner. The pairs can then share their ideas with a larger group of four or six. Such collaborative activities, if structured carefully, address adolescents' needs to socialize, reinforce critical information through discussion, and ensure that struggling readers keep up with the pace of the class. However, teachers should be careful not to allow individuals to "piggy-back" on more advanced students. In any group activity, individuals must be held accountable, but not at the expense of academically talented students. In fact, sometimes it may be more appropriate to allow bright students to pursue more challenging material on their own or in separate groups.
To help students visualize complex ideas, they can create Talking Drawings (Wood, 2001). First, students are told to close their eyes and think about the topic (the human heart, for example). Second, then they are instructed to read the text selection and draw a picture to show what they learned.
With some texts it may be best for the teacher to actually read the text aloud to the students while they follow along. As mature, expert readers, teachers make excellent reading models. By overtly sharing their thoughts, teachers demonstrate for their students that reading is a non-linear process of fits and starts, thinking and backtracking. These think alouds (Mazno, Manzo, & Estes, 2001) help immature and struggling readers observe and practice effective reading strategies.
Student reading aloud, round robin reading, and "popcorn" reading should be avoided (unless oral language or speech is the purpose of the activity). Reading aloud overemphasizes errors, provides poor reading models, and discourages effective metacognitive and comprehension strategies, such as pondering and re-reading. Struggling readers are likely to be embarrassed by the procedure or left out. The desire to avoid this humiliation leads some students to misbehave. Getting in trouble is preferred to the ridicule of peers. Because so many middle and secondary teachers continue to use round robin reading aloud, it has become a crutch for many struggling readers. Young adolescents need to develop independent, silent reading skills if they are to become lifelong learners.
Literature Circles and Book Clubs (Daniels, 2002; Latendresse, 2004) can encourage reluctant readers to read more challenging books. The opportunity to choose a book, set reading goals, and participate in open discussions with peers can motivate students to read books that they would otherwise find difficult. I have personally observed reluctant readers immersing themselves in novels that are more complex than they would select on their own simply because their friends are reading the same book. The support provided by the circle's discussions serves as a guide for these struggling readers.
Creating Interest and Motivation
But how can teachers really motivate middle school students to want to read material they find tedious and hard to understand? While we all have used a variety of motivators, such as grades, points, tokens, and candy, these techniques all rely on external motivation. Reading reward programs, such as Accelerated Reader and Book It, may encourage reluctant readers in the short term, but, over time, have little long-term effect (Flora & Flora, 1999) and may well reduce students' natural interests in reading on their own for pleasure (Biggers, 2001). Grades will have a positive motivational effect on a small percentage of students, but can have a negative effect on others. Youngsters who experience little academic success often give up in the face of yet another poor grade. Academic learned helplessness can be observed in students who refuse to even try to do a task. It is less painful to take a zero than it is to attempt the task and fail. Pre-reading instruction is at the heart of motivation, and, while it is certainly not easy, teachers cannot shirk their responsibility to motivate all students to want to learn.
Mizelle (1997) uses the acronym TARGET as a framework to describe six aspects of instruction that affect adolescents' motivation to read: Task, Authority, Rewards and recognition, Grouping, Evaluation, and Time. The task creates a purpose for reading and study. It should be challenging, engaging, and developmentally appropriate. The students must be given some authority and choice within the task. Rewards should be specific, recognize individual effort and achievement, and made available to all students, not just a few "winners." Instructional grouping must ensure that each individual student feels accepted as a member of the group and that his or her ideas are valued. To accomplish this, the groups should be flexible and heterogeneous. Evaluations should recognize individual strengths and multiple intelligences and involve students in self-assessment and goal setting. Finally, effective literacy programs must provide sufficient time for students to complete tasks—to read and write at their own pace.
Project-based, authentic learning has been shown to motivate students to complete rigorous, complex tasks that result in deeper learning and improved performance (Fiske, 2002). Preparing students to read something they have no interest in has to begin with the task because in that task lies the purpose. If students are not aware of how they can use what is presented in the text, even the best of students will find it to be drudgery.
Teens can become thoroughly immersed in research when they are allowed some choice of topic and focus their investigations on their own questions. This author and colleagues used the I-Search (Combs & Barrett, 1994; Combs, Barrett, & Gwynn, 1996; Macrorie, 1988; Zorfass & Copel, 1995) to teach sixth and seventh graders to write research papers. The students chose a specific topic within a broad category, then developed a list of 20 questions they wanted to answer. Because they were not allowed to write their answers in complete sentences while taking notes, they were further forced to make sense of what they read. Nonetheless, they exhibited great determination and persistence in researching and reading very complex texts. These students were motivated by the fact that they were searching for answers to their own real questions.
Motivating students—creating a desire to know more about something, to lead students into a sense of excitement about learning—is the heart and soul of teaching, but it is not really a mystery. Teens can be lured into learning by realistic, purposeful tasks of which they have some choice and control.
Content area teachers can improve their instruction by using reading strategies. A variety of adaptable strategies can be easily identified. The key is in knowing when to use them. If the text is easy and students are interested, leave them alone to read silently at their own pace. When students are interested but the text is difficult, pre-reading activities that reinforce background knowledge and assistance with complex vocabulary may be all that are needed for students to be successful. Even if the text is easy, when students are not interested or motivated to read the material, a smart teacher will want to provide pre-reading activities to spark their interest and enthusiasm for the topic. But, when the text is difficult and students are not interested, the best course is to begin with a different text. Otherwise, the teacher will want to "walk students through the text" using a guided reading activity.
Most importantly, let us not give up on our students and throw the text completely out of the content area classroom. Reading remains one of the most efficient and powerful tools for learning. It is our job to facilitate successful reading experiences so that all of our youngsters will become mature, expert readers and lifelong learners.
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Dorie Combs is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky. E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright © 2004 by National Middle School Association