Why reading strategy instruction belongs in every content area classroom

Reading strategy instruction belongs in every content area classroom
Jennifer Serravallo
Jennifer Serravallohttps://www.jenniferserravallo.com/
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of more than dozen professional books and resources that help teachers make goal-directed responsive instruction doable in every classroom, including the NYT bestselling "The Reading Strategies Book" and "The Writing Strategies Book," both of which have been translated into Spanish, French, and Chinese. Her latest book, released in January 2023, is "The Reading Strategies Book 2.0."

While there is much attention rightly focused on reading teachers being able to support early reading skills, learning how to read never truly stops. Every one of us continues to learn to read throughout our school experience—and for the rest of our lives.

Even as adults, we are still learning ways to deepen our reading, including how to think critically about what we are reading, how to evaluate the validity of information, how to immerse and read deeply in an ever-distracting world, and more.

Reading instruction, and practice with reading strategies, must go beyond the ELA classroom be a part of every subject area. For example, when eighth grade students are issued a history or biology textbook, some will be able to comprehend it while most will benefit from instruction in how to take effective notes, integrate text with visual features on the pages, determine main ideas, explain key vocabulary and terms, and effectively summarize the information they learn.

There are strategies that can help with all of these skills. History, biology and other “reading teachers” need to teach their content and build knowledge AND teach reading strategies, opening students up to learn additional content from texts beyond what they learn from classroom lectures and hands-on experiences.

Engagement and motivation

Engagement and motivation are key to developing strong readers—across all disciplines. If students aren’t able to maintain focus or stay engaged with the texts they are reading, they will likely struggle.

Strategies that help with skills such as attentional focus, visualization, planning, and self-monitoring are great ways for teachers to help students stay engaged with the content that they are reading. One research-based strategy is to teach children to break up longer tasks into shorter ones, by marking stopping places with a sticky note, or setting a timer (Sanders et al., 2021). Another strategy is to focus on the purpose they have for reading and make a plan, and then to check in with that purpose before, during and after reading (Jacobs and Paris, 1987).

Reading teachers and complex texts

As students continue through school, they’ll need to read and independently comprehend increasingly complex texts. Going beyond reading just the words on the page to fully understand and interpret more complicated texts is a must in any classroom.

More superintendents step down: “I cannot continue working for this board of education”

In a history class, students may be tasked with writing an essay explaining the complex causes for World War I, drawing information from primary sources. In science, students may be assigned reading about competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and be asked to show what they understand about each individual author’s proposal in a class presentation. Teachers of these subjects should teach strategies for determining importance or evaluating and synthesizing information alongside content to help students make sense of texts they read, both in class and for homework.

For example, one high-leverage strategy for understanding main ideas is to teach children to chunk text into parts—the parts could be as short as a paragraph or as long as a section. At the end of each chunk, they can jot or sketch to capture the main ideas. Then, at the end of the longer piece, they can read back over their notes from each chunk, combine them, and state an overarching main idea (Schumaker, Denton, and Deshler 1984; Schwamborn et al., 2010).

Research has also shown that clueing readers into text structure sets them up to understand important information, and identify the relationships between the information. Teaching a series of strategies about how to recognize and read texts that are organized by cause and effect, problem and solution, or compare and contrast can help students synthesize and comprehened information (Meyer, 1985).

Invigorated by vocabulary

Being an expert in a topic includes knowing the words and terms for that topic; the relationship between vocabulary development and knowledge building is reciprocal (Cervetti, Wright, & Hwang, 2016); Wright et al., 2022). In many subject-specific texts, new vocabulary is defined for readers in glossaries, sidebars, or key terms boxes. But to really know the word, readers need to be able to offer an explanation that requires synthesizing information from context.

Strategies can help with this. For example, you might teach readers to notice each time a word/term/phrase appears in a text. Then, tell them to learn about that word from the context each time it appears—it might be additional information within a sentence or even visual information in a photograph or diagram where the word appears in a caption. Finally, they can put together the information they learned from each mention.

Choosing to incorporate strategy instruction alongside content learning is like the age-old “give a man a fish, teach a man to fish” proverb. When you include strategy instruction, students learn more content beyond what you could cover in your class period because they are set up to better understand what they read about those topics beyond the school day. And the strategies also help them to learn how to learn and how to think—which will help them grapple with any content, from any discipline.


Cervetti, G. N., Wright, T. S., & Hwang, H. (2016). Conceptual coherence, comprehension, and vocabulary acquisition: A knowledge effect? Reading and Writing,29(4), 761–779.

Jacobs, J. E., & Paris, S. G. (1987). Children’s metacogni- tion about reading: Issues in definition, measurement, and instruction. Educational Psychologist, 22(3–4), 255–278.

Sanders, S., Rollins, L. H., Mason, L. H., Shaw, A., & Jolivette, K. (2021). Intensification and individualization of self- regulation components within self-regulated strategy development. Intervention in School and Clinic, 56(3), 131–140.

Schumaker, J. B., Denton, P. H., & Deshler, D. D. (1984). The Paraphrasing Strategy: Instructor’s manual. University of Kansas Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities.

Schwamborn, A., Mayer, R. E., Thillmann, H., Leopold, C., & Leutner, D. (2010). Drawing as a generative activ- ity and drawing as a prognostic activity. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 872–879.

Wright, T. S., Cervetti, G. N., Wise, C., & McClung, N. A. (2022). The impact of knowledge-building through conceptually-coherent read alouds on vocabulary and comprehension. Reading Psychology, 43(1), 70–84.

Most Popular