Teachers in middle and high school social studies and science classes spent as little as 3% of classroom time on reading comprehension instruction, reports a recent study on the use of comprehension strategies in content classrooms for secondary students. A Fordham University researcher found that in 2,400 minutes of direct classroom observation in 8 classrooms in 4 schools, only 82 minutes of reading comprehension instruction was observed.
“It appears that teachers in this study saw reading comprehension as an instructional add-on, rather than a way to promote students’ understanding and retention of content,” writes researcher Molly Ness. Based on her interviews with teachers, Ness found that “reading comprehension instruction in social studies and science classrooms was essentially absent because these teachers saw reading comprehension as a time-consuming detraction from their content coverage, or doubted their responsibility for or skill in providing such instruction.”
Teachers mostly used question answering for comprehension instruction, which accounted for 62 minutes overall. They also used text structure and summarization, although less frequently than question answering. More reading comprehension instruction occurred in middle school social studies than in science classes and in other grades.
“The data from this study seem to suggest that middle and secondary teachers are uncertain about the what and the how of reading comprehension instruction,” writes the researcher. Teachers could only cite 3 of 8 National Reading Panel (2000) reading comprehension strategies, suggesting that they did not have a sense of other reading comprehension strategy instructions (see list below).
Each teacher was observed for 5 hours in 30-minute increments. The 2,400 minutes of direct classroom observation were coded for non-comprehension instruction and comprehension instruction. The codes for comprehension instruction included:
- Question answering
- Question generation
- Graphic organizers
- Text structure
- Cooperative learning
- Comprehension monitoring
- Multiple strategies
Even when teachers in this study did provide reading comprehension instruction, they merely directed students to use the strategy without telling them why to use the strategy or how to do so, the researcher writes. For example, rather than coaching students on how to use question answering as a comprehension strategy, teachers merely told students that their answers were correct or incorrect.
Many secondary teachers may come to the field because of their love for the content area they are teaching, Ness writes. It is important for teacher training and professional development programs to encourage teachers to integrate literacy in content instruction. This is a long-term project as some research indicates it takes about a year to become proficient in teaching reading comprehension, she says.
“Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary Content Area Classrooms: Teacher Use of and Attitudes Towards Reading Comprehension Instruction,” by Molly Ness, Reading Horizons, Volume 49.2, 2009, pp. 143-166.