Teach Content Reading

As a reading specialist, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to coach elementary teachers in reading instruction and teach remedial reading at the middle school, high school, and community college levels. From this perspective, I’ve come to the conclusion that we teach too much reading at the elementary school level. Probably not the most popular position among my fellow reading specialists and literacy coaches, I know. But let me state my case and see if some of my colleagues would agree.

I currently teach seventh-grade English-language arts and an occasional reading intervention class in a large school district, outside of Sacramento, California. While serving in a prior position as a district reading specialist some twelve years ago, our district adopted Open Court® as our elementary K-6 reading program. Our district went “whole hog” after this program and we have achieved remarkable results in improving our elementary reading test scores. However, as has frequently been the case in the history of educational reform, initial success has its drawbacks.

As a reading specialist, we helped teachers implement a two-hour morning reading block with additional time, usually in the afternoons, for reading remediation. With state-mandated P.E. time, one hour of math, recess, and a thirty-minute lunch, this left but a few minutes a day for social studies, science, art/music, etc. Not to mention writing.

As we implemented Open Court®, reading specialists, literacy coaches, elementary teachers and their administrators tried to maintain the integrity of both the reading and math programs, while still teaching state-mandated social studies and science standards. After all, school district success is measured by test scores in these areas. And test scores drive curricular and instructional decision-making. The key buzzwords became “incorporate social studies (or science or arts or writing) instruction” into the two-hour “literacy block.” Code words for “ignore these content areas.” Reading instruction became reductive.

I’ve found this to be even more the case with middle school and high school reading intervention programs. Typically, replacing an English-language arts class or an elective with a remedial reading course reduces the amount of content area reading instruction.

With the district’s shift in instructional priorities, middle school teachers began noticing significant declines in “content-readiness” in the areas of social studies, science, and English-language arts in their Open Court®-trained students. Ironically, the über-emphasis on reading (particularly in decoding and fluency development) has minimized student practice with the thinking processes and content prior knowledge so necessary for more advanced “reading to learn” skills at the secondary levels. The academic language of social studies and science expository texts are truly wake-up calls for in-coming seventh-graders. The resulting declines in middle school test scores probably have more to due with lack of elementary preparedness (as described above) and more-challenging expository-based middle school tests than a lack of middle school teaching expertise or the middle-school concrete operational “bubble” described by many cognitive psychologists.

The de-emphasis of elementary writing instruction has ill-prepared students for both reading and writing informative and argumentative text or essays at the secondary level. Writing instruction directly impacts reading comprehension. What better way to teach the reading skills of main idea, support details/evidence/interpretation, and text structure, than through writing instruction? What little writing instruction there is seems devoted to churning out the four or five “writing application standards” at each grade level. These are full-process pieces, requiring even fourth-graders to complete multi-paragraph essays. Results can be appalling. Students know the form, but can’t write in complete sentences. Essay strategy development is non-existent. Spelling, grammar, and mechanics instruction is relegated to a ten-minute D.O.L. (Daily Oral Language) opener or as last-minute test practice.

My solution is to allocate less direct instructional reading time at the elementary level and to minimize reduction of content area classes by requiring extensive, multi-year reading intervention programs for secondary students. Less is often better.  We need to trust our content area colleagues to teach reading. Let’s revive the every teacher, a teacher of reading mindset. Additionally, we need to develop more flexible delivery methods than those advocated, say in current Response to Intervention models. Many of these models are advocating two and one-half hours of direct reading instruction. Where will it end? Teachers have to make a basic commitment to differentiate instruction and receive extensive training to teach reading efficiently. Administrators and district leaders need to support more balanced instruction, irrespective of possible short-term test score dips to achieve long-term results. More time (and frequently more money) thrown at any subject of instruction, even  a subject as important as reading, simply isn’t the answer.

Following is a great content area reading resource to help unify reading instruction at your school.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

Literacy Centers, Reading, Spelling/Vocabulary, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Lillian Lelless
    April 16th, 2010 at 16:44 | #1

    While I understand your article, I do noy agree with your premise. Obviously, your school system bought into a fix all type of program which only lent itself to instructing decoding skills and not addressing the whole reading process. You have not worked with a system that trains and encourages a balanced literacy progrm which includes read alouds, shared reading, guided reading lessons with leveled fiction and non-fiction texts, phonics/spelling, writing and reading across the curriculum, word work, and literacy centers for primary students. I am in a system that has implemented a balanced literacy program approximately 15 years ago. With the purchasing of leveled materials, ongoing teacher training,book study groups, collaboration, developmpent of lessons and a dedicated block of time for literecy, our students score high on the third grade-high school MCAS testing. We utilize a 4 layer reading support system for struggling readers that comes under regular ed. The RTI in our system includes classroom and support staff assessing students for support which includes; Reading Recovery,Reading Facilitators, Title I and a Literacy Specialist who work one on one or small group instruction for our struggling readers. These same people also come into the classroom during our literacy block to double dose those same students while including additional students who might need an extra boost. One admirable aspect of our system is that we don’t rely on one published program, but draw from many sources to enhance our repertoire.

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