The middle grades are a tumultuous time for children. Children are going to a larger school than the one that they attended during elementary. There are lockers, long hallways that become crowded with classmates trying to socialize, and a bell that orders them to class. Now, instead of remembering the requirements of one single teacher, they see typically between six to ten different teachers in a single week. Not only do these individual teachers have individual requirements, they are also considered to be so expert in their field of study that they can teach children! Here in lies the problem.
It is thrilling to think that professional educators are experts. As individuals with experience and training in a subject, educators are familiar with the materials, artifacts, items, and literature involved in their content area. However, that great expertise often causes the professional educator to assume that his or her students have developed the same understanding for their subject matter. As stated by Kane (2007), “middle and high school teachers often enter the field expecting to teach the topics they love to students already proficient in reading and writing” (p. ix). Although, hopefully, middle school students have been reading for years, they have not necessarily been reading the teacher’s content area. It is the responsibility of educators to teach students strategies to interpret and make meaning from content-specific material.
If the honor of helping a student explore a content area is not enough, then state and federal requirements should be. According to the No Child Left Behind Act, as described in the Quick Key Action Guide (Learning Point Associates, 2005) “adolescent literacy, or the reading and writing skills of middle and high school students, is critical to student success in all areas of the curriculum.” The same Quick Key Action Guide also describes a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that demonstrated that 68% of grade 12 students read below the proficient level. No Child Left Behind is calling for—demanding—educational reform.
To top it off, the literacy level of adolescents entering into the adult world in the 21st century will be greater than at any previous time in history. As Moore, Bean, BirdyShaw, and Rycik (1999) state, “they will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives.” Thus, literacy and all that it entails is more than a matter of being educated. It is an issue of social justice (Alger, 2007).
Obviously, literacy is not simply an elementary concern. It is also a secondary issue that encompasses all content areas—not simply language arts classrooms. In order to tackle this fundamental concern, reading comprehension must be addressed across the curriculum. However, proficient readers do not stop reading to answer questions at the end of a section of text (Kane, 2007; Onofrey & Theurer, 2007).
So what really is reading comprehension? The National Reading Panel defines reading comprehension as a “cognitive process that integrates complex skills and cannot be understood without examining the critical roles of vocabulary learning and instruction on its development” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The National Reading Panel also indicates that students must be actively engaged during instruction in order for comprehension to develop. Middle school educators should focus upon and implement the wide-spread use of comprehension strategies that foster literacy and vocabulary development.
Thus, the purpose of this staff development opportunity will be to provide educators with specific reading and vocabulary strategies that can be used within their content area. These strategies are research-based techniques designed to improve comprehension. Each content area will receive a thorough description of four literacy strategies. These strategies will also be accompanied with content-specific examples of how each strategy would function within the classroom. Not only will the strategies assist students to gain further understanding and appreciation of content based material, but they will also be improving students’ overall reading skills.