The Importance of Taking a Reading Strategies Course
by Kristina Ulmer
Published Reading Specialist teaching English and Social Studies at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Horsham, Pennsylvania
During my last monthly chiropractic visit, as my doctor molded and twisted my back and neck, he turned to me for advice. He informed me that his daughter had recently decided to change her major to secondary education with a focus in social studies. "Is there any advice you could offer her, since you're a teacher?" he asked me. I didn't have to think long or hard. I knew exactly what I would say to any aspiring teacher of any content area if he or she asked me what wisdom I could bestow upon him or her.
"Tell her to take a reading course."
He looked confused, and my memory flashed back to the beginning of my teaching career, to my first class as a high school English teacher. With my mind full of endless hours of dissecting literature from all important literary periods and packed with theoretical knowledge on how best to educate my students, I was confidently ready to inspire all of my students to become full-fledged Shakespeare and Homer enthusiasts.
And then… Well, then… Frankenstein happened. No, not the green-faced, ill-tempered, stitched-up, neck-bolted monster of bad movieland, but Mary Shelley’s 18th-century novel, Frankenstein, full of vocabulary, sentence structures and plot sequences that my freshmen had never encountered.
With my teaching of the novel, all my students seemed to comprehend what was going on in the story, and they could even see the major themes prevalent throughout the book. But then, during reading time one day, heavy into the novel, one of my students, Megan, looked as if she was dazing off into dreamland. This was pretty typical of Megan, who consistently didn't turn in her work and was failing every class (her parents blamed it on her laziness and apathy as a student). "You should be reading," I reminded her, waiting for her to roll her eyes at me for interrupting her daydream session. However, instead of the typical thanks-for-telling-me-the-obvious look I was expecting, Megan looked up at me with her big, bewildered brown eyes and said, "I don't understand what this is saying."
It was at that moment I realized that Megan was not turning in her work and was failing every class because she was having trouble reading. Her reading problems prevented her not only from understanding literature, but also from understanding her social studies and science textbooks as well. I tried to help her. I worked with her after school, during her study hall and during her lunch, trying to help her understand what she was reading. I broke it down line by line. But she continued to struggle with even giving a basic summary. And then it occurred to me. I didn't know how else to help her. In all my years of college experience, complete with 135 credits of English literature and education classes, no one had taught me, the high school English teacher, how to teach a student how to read.
I contacted the student's parents and her guidance counselor. The student was tested, diagnosed with a reading comprehension problem and placed in special education; and while I was glad that I had brought her reading problem to the forefront, something continued to eat away at me. I was her teacher, her English teacher. My job is to help kids become better writers and readers, and yet, while I could help average- to-great readers see beyond a text, help them make connections and think critically about a novel we were studying, I had no idea how to help a poor reader--the reader who could not develop a basic understanding of what we were reading in the first place.
And so began my journey to becoming a reading specialist. I took a reading strategies class offered to all teachers in my county, and then, thirsty for more knowledge, I enrolled in a reading specialist graduate program. Even though I am barely halfway through my graduate studies, I am happy to say that when I have another Megan in my class, I will know what to do.
But I know many teachers are like I was--unless they too are reading specialists or elementary or special education teachers, who are the only teachers I've found who are trained in college on how to help low readers. Many content area teachers have not been trained to teach students how to read their subject's reading materials.
Now, I am not suggesting that all teachers become reading specialists (that would certainly help put me out of a job). But what I am suggesting is that every teacher take at least one reading strategies course. If you are currently in or are about to begin graduate school, try adding a class or two to your schedule. And if you can’t do that, many local intermediate units and community colleges offer courses for low cost or even for free. Here is what you, the content area teacher, will get out of it:
Strategies for teaching how your content's reading materials are organized:
Most American textbooks are written two grade levels above the level in which they are being used in school. And while story grammar is drilled into our students' heads from their early years of schooling, many students have no clue about how expository texts are structured and get confused about how to pull out the main ideas. Our students are struggling with reading nonfiction, i.e., their science, social studies and math textbooks, which is why 55 percent of those who decide to go to college have to take remedial reading courses. A reading strategies course will give you the tools to help your students navigate these dense texts, and it will provide the students with the skills to be able to do it on their own in the future.
Strategies for reading your specific subject:
Many teachers I've met felt that it is the English teacher's job to teach reading. However, most of our colleges required few to no reading courses to get our teaching certifications. We are trained to analyze literature and to teach writing. We were not trained on how to teach a student how to read his science textbook. A reading strategies course will help content area teachers teach the strategies for reading their specific content.
Strategies for teaching content vocabulary:
Many subjects are heavy in vocabulary. Reading strategies courses will give you research-based ways to teach vocabulary that actually work. The days of "write the definition and use it in a sentence" will be long gone.
Strategies for decreasing misbehavior:
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60 percent of America's prison inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. After taking reading courses, I looked back at all my "bad" students and realized most of them were low readers. Many times in order to prevent looking "stupid," students will act out so that the negative focus is on their behavior, not their ability. A reading strategies course could provide you with strategies to help these students be able to read better, which might help prevent their behavioral outbursts.
Strategies for helping your students pay attention and stay engaged:
With the world becoming so fast-paced, many students find it difficult to pay attention to a long, dry reading. A reading strategies course will provide ways to give students a purpose for reading, which will help keep their attention.
Strategies for helping spice up your classroom and getting students fighting to share:
Teachers are often looking for ways to spice up their teaching. I have heard teachers say that the only way to get through the tedious parts of their content is to lecture. A reading strategies course will provide a teacher with some new approaches. For example, after independent reading time, I used to simply ask my students to share about what they had read, and sometimes I was faced with blank stares. Now, by incorporating reading strategies, my students are fighting to share.
Strategies for helping students make essential connections and build long-term memory:
I often hear from content teachers, "But I have so much content to cover for the final exam. I don't have time to incorporate reading strategies into my course." Most reading strategies require no extra time. They simply replace old methods of teaching content. They will help your students become engaged with the texts they read and not only actually remember what they read, but make important, essential connections.
And so, while his hands contorted my back like the spine of a well-read novel, I explained to my confused chiropractor that a reading course would help make his daughter a better social studies teacher. It would open her up to an entirely new, fun, active way of teaching, and it would help her students become engaged in their readings and allow their brains to make the connections necessary to convert all those historical facts into long-term memory.
However, when he continued to look at me in confusion, I knew I had to play the reality approach--the reality that school districts today are faced with standardized tests that require every child to be reading both fiction and nonfiction on a proficient level by 2014. And so, I said the magic words, and his face softened and his smile grew wide, and my relaxed back has not stopped thanking me. I said, "It will help get her a job."