Reading Deep in the Content

by Tina Spencer, M.S., and Mary Murray Stowe, M.Ed.

The current generation of adolescents is more plugged in, tuned in, and hard wired than any previous generation, but are they developing the reading skills necessary for tackling their current and future academic needs? 

The most current National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results indicate that today's youth are not making the progress necessary to acquire grade level comprehension skills (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).  While the No Child Left Behind reading initiative specific to pre-school through third grade has resulted in stronger basic language acquisition skills, comprehension of grade level text continues to be a more elusive skill (Manzo, 2008).  Given our ever-changing, technologically advanced environment, we might not expect any constants to exist related to skill acquisition.  However, Chall noted in 1983 and again in 2003 that fourth grade is the time of transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" (Chall & Jacobs, 2003). The current data indicate no significant improvement within this transition group.  These results and the notion that fourth grade is a critical time for developing comprehension skills suggest that teachers need more targeted, thoughtfully developed, and deeper reading instruction for adolescents.

Reading Next (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004), a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, outlines 15 elements of effective adolescent literacy programs to address the needs of this group. (The entire report may be downloaded at An effective program would include elements such as the following:

  • direct, explicit comprehension instruction;

  • effective instructional principles embedded in context;

  • diverse texts;

  • intensive writing;

  • ongoing formative and summative assessment of students and programs;

  • extended time for literacy.

A review of the literature reveals recurring themes surrounding these recommendations to assist in literacy instruction of this critical group. Thus, in combination with Reading Next's elements, the following have been found to be essential to effective instruction for adolescents: vocabulary instruction (e.g., Boyle, 2008; Biancarosa & Snow, 2003;Torgesen, 2007); strategic instruction (e.g., Beers, 2004; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001; Tovani, 2000, 2004); relevancy of material (e.g., Gallagher, 2004; Biancarosa & Snow, 2003; Tatum, 2005); and prior or background knowledge (e.g., Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007; Gallagher, 2004; Torgesen et al., 2007). Application of these themes and elements before, during, and after reading activities will ensure that students are "reading deeper" in the content, and thus improving their academic comprehension skills (Gallagher, 2004).

Before Reading

Before introducing reading activities, activate students' prior knowledge, frontload vocabulary, set the purpose, and "spark" interest in the upcoming reading (Flanagan,1995).  For example, anticipation guides (Rozzelle & Scearce, 2009; Tovani, 2000) prepare the reader to connect with the text and can also be used as an after-reading activity to assess knowledge gained during the reading.  Prior to reading the book, I Read It, But I Don't Get It  (Tovani, 2000), an anticipation guide could be used to assess prior knowledge. 

Before Reading
After Reading


Good readers ask questions.



Reading strategies are thinking strategies. 


The reader would agree or disagree with the statements before reading.  After completing the reading, the reader would again agree or disagree with the statements as a way of demonstrating comprehension of the concepts. 

Further, use of the Frayer Model to pre-teach vocabulary as referenced in the English SOL Enhanced Scope and Sequence PLUS ( ) will increase the students' engagement in the proposed reading.  Students analyze and categorize words based on their attributes, thus encouraging a deeper study of the vocabulary

During Reading

Students with disabilities or limited English proficiency need strategies and accommodations to access text during reading.  Various authors (Beers, 2003; Gallagher, 2004; Tovani, 2004) recommend the use of accessible texts, either through leveled texts or audio text, dependent on the goal of the reading.  For example, the Self-Questioning Strategy (SIM®) (Schumaker, Deshler, Nolan, & Alley, 1994) prompts students to ask questions as they read text to ensure comprehension.  Further, text comprehension can be enhanced through the use of strategic instruction practices (such as monitoring comprehension, using "fix-up" strategies, questioning during reading, making connections, and using non-linguistic representations), as suggested by Tovani (2000) and Marzano, et al. (2001).

After Reading

Finally, after-reading activities assist with retention of information gained during reading, build connections and deepen comprehension.  Experts recommend re-reading of the text prior to beginning other after-reading strategies for struggling readers (Beers, 2003; Gallagher, 2004; Tovani, 2004).  Re-reading the text provides students a second, less stressful look at the text for a fuller understanding of the reading.  Writing activities after reading take retelling a step further and deepen comprehension.  One such activity, "Save the Last Word for Me," allows students to critically consider the text (Gallagher, 2004).  Students choose an impactful passage from the reading and silently present it on a poster board to fellow students who then reflect on the choice.  At the conclusion of the process, the student who selected the given passage has "the last word" about what the selection meant to him or her.

Beers (2003) recommends interactive bookmarks for a variety of purposes during reading, with the messages being revealed as after-reading activities. Types of interactive bookmarks might include  Mark My Words - interesting or unusual words encountered are recorded; Marking Time - setting changes are noted; and Question Mark - questions noted are discussed after reading.

In summary, teachers can build a high-performing community of readers when they engage adolescents with thinking tools before, during, and after reading (Daniels & Zemelman, 2004).


Beers, K. (2003). When kids can't read; What teachers can do. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Biancarosa, G., &  Snow, C. E. (2004). Reading next - A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy:  A report to Carnegie Corporation of  New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. Available:

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C.E. (2003). Adolescent literacy and the achievement gap: What do we know and where do we go from here?  New York:  Carnegie Corporation of New York. Available: [pdf]

Boyle, J. R.  (2008). Reading strategies for students with mild disabilities. Intervention in School and  Clinic, 44(1), 3-9.

Chall, J. S., & Jacobs, V. A. (2003, Spring). Poor children's fourth-grade slump.  Retrieved November 19, 2008 from AFT Publications:

Daniels, H., & Zemelman, S. (2004). Subject matter:  Every teacher's guide to content-area reading. Portsmouth, NH:  Heineman.

Flanagan, B. (1995). The three-phase textbook teaching and learning model. In L. Korinek & J. Nowacek (Eds.), Preparing for transition to the 21st century (pp. 11-16). Williamsburg, VA: Virginia Council for Learning Disabilities Special Publication.

Fletcher, J. M., Lyon, G. R., Fuchs, L. S., & Barnes, M. A. (2007). Learning disabilities:  From identification to intervention. New York:  The Guildford Press.

Gallagher, K. (2004). Deeper reading: Comprehending challenging text. Portland, ME:  Stenhouse Publishers.

Manzo, K. K. (2008, November 19). No effect on comprehension seen from ‘reading first'. Edweek, November 19. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E.  (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rozelle, J. &  Scearce, C. (2009). Power tools for adolescent literacy; strategies for learning. Bloomington, IN :  Solution Tree Press.

Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., Nolan, S. M., Alley, G. R.  (1994). The self-questioning strategy. Lawrence, Kansas:  The University of Kansas.

Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males.  Portland, ME:  Stenhouse Publishers.

Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissiman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Francis, D. J., Rivera, M. O., &  Lesaux, N. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents:  A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH:  RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. Available:  

Tovani, C. (2000). I read it, but I don't get it: Comprehension strategies for adolescent readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

U. S. Department of Education (2007). National assessment of educational progress at grades 4 and 8:  The nation's report card - Reading 2007. National Center for Education Statistics 2007-496.  Available from

Date: February/March 2009