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Reading in the Content Area

by Jennifer Jordan

Suggestions for Improving Students' Reading in World History
Prereading Activities
Increasing Comprehension and Retention While Reading
Helping Students Apply The Information They Have Read
Advantages of Using Reading Strategies

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Teachers of world history have a huge volume of content for their students to master and often must rely on the textbook to deliver the basic content. Students' abilities to comprehend and remember information they read greatly determine both individual student success and the degree to which the teacher can bring in outside information and details that help make the study of history fascinating. Although students receive reading practice and instruction in their language arts classes, there are many techniques history teachers can use to improve students' reading, thus improving student performance in social studies classes and supporting the efforts of their language arts colleagues.


The first way a history teacher can impact student comprehension and retention of textbook details is by engaging in prereading activities. These activities are completed in a short period of time, in the classroom, prior to students' reading.

Activate Prior Knowledge

One form of prereading is to simply set the stage for the students by having them respond to anticipatory questions, make predictions, or practice visualizing. For example, to start students thinking about how technology changes daily life, a teacher could conduct a brief discussion about the current computer/communications revolution. Students could then describe ways in which daily life has changed over the past five years and comment on the benefits and costs of these changes. This brief, informal discussion would prime students to read about life in the Industrial Age. Before they even looked at the material, they would be thinking about the ways they've seen technology impact daily life and would be more prepared to process the information in the text.


  1. What is KWL?
    A more formal prereading technique is called KWL. Using this technique, students brainstorm what they already Know about a topic, what they Want to know about the topic, and (after finishing their reading) what they Learned about the topic. This technique works well when approaching topics to which students have had some previous exposure, such as the ancient Greeks, the Medieval period, or the fall of communism.

  2. How to Use KWL:
    1. Students divide a sheet of paper into three columns and take a few minutes to jot down what they know, or think they know, about a topic.
    2. The class discusses some of these bits of information, and then students fill in the next section with questions they have about the topic.
    3. Finally, students complete the reading assignment and sum up what they've learned in the third section of their paper.
    4. The next day in class, students can discuss what they have learned with partners, in small groups, or as a class.

Reading Aloud

Another technique that works well for students of all ability levels is for the teacher to have students get into pairs or small groups. They will then begin their reading assignment in their groups by taking turns reading to each other and discussing the ideas in the text. Students enjoy doing this, and they get an opportunity to understand the text by interacting with their peers.

Value of Prereading Activities

These are only some examples of prereading activities. Any way a teacher can get students to think about the material before they begin reading will enhance student comprehension because the students will be better prepared to process what they learn as they read.


Getting students' intellectual juices flowing about a certain topic is helpful, but it is only just the beginning for enhancing their comprehension and retention of the material they read. Some students still do not realize that they cannot learn by merely looking at the words.

Dialectical Journal

Here is an assignment that forces them to slow down, think about the content of the assignment, process their thoughts about the reading, and keep a record or "paper trail" of their thoughts. This technique, the dialectical journal, is one of the best ways of processing any kind of text.

  1. Technique The dialectical journal is a double-entry journal that students complete as they read. In the left column, students write a short paraphrase of an idea they think is important or a detail that interests them. They include the page number so they and others can easily locate the passage. In the right column next to their paraphrase, students write their response. The response could be a thoughtful question about the passage, or it could be a connection from the student's experience.

    If students are doing this assignment correctly, the comments on the right side are much longer than the paraphrases on the left side. The object is to get the students to engage in a dialogue with the text and keep a record of their thoughts. Writing comments makes students slow down as they read and forces them to process the information. Writing a short paraphrase makes them put the idea into their own words instead of mindlessly copying information without critically evaluating what they are writing.

    Students come to class the next day with their completed journals. They may have temporarily forgotten some of their ideas, but they have created a written record that jogs their memories. The journal then makes a great discussion tool. Students have already thought critically about some aspects of the text. They also have made judgments about what they consider to be important.

  2. Journal Assessment There are many ways the journal can be graded. One way is to assign a specific number of entries and then simply check to see if the student has completed the assigned number. The student responses could be evaluated to ensure that they reflect active thinking. It would be possible to assign a grade for students participating in a discussion using their journals as starting points. Most importantly, the journals are far more interesting to the teacher and the students than standard worksheets, and they put responsibility on the students to decide what is important in the text.

  3. Dialectical Journal Example: Suppose students have been assigned to read about Japan's Feudal Age and create a four-entry dialectical journal as they read.
    Paraphrases Student Response
    The samurai developed their own code of values known as bushido. (p. xx) The emphasis of loyalty to one's lord was really obvious in Shogun when all the samurai were willing to unquesioningly give their lives if the Shogun commanded it.
    The shogun held the real power. (p.xx) If Japan had an emperor, why did they give the power to the Shogun?
    Food surplus leads to population growth. (p.xx) This is like the agricultural revolution that came to Europe and led to a population increase, too.
    Peasants were armed and "The warrior does not care if he's called a dog or beast. The main thing is winning." (p.xx) This seems a little different from the idea of being samurai. I know they cared about winning, but the idea of being called a dog or a beast is undignified.

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are aids that present and organize information in a visual way. They can be used in several ways: to summarize information, to compare and contrast, to show cause and effect, and to classify diverse facts and ideas. (See a list of graphic organizers that you can download in the Links section at the end of this article.)

  1. How to Use Graphic Organizers
    Graphic organizers may be used in a variety of ways:
    • as an introduction to the material in the chapter,
    • as a basis for review,
    • as a springboard for discussion or writing activities,
    • as a vehicle for helping students with various learning styles.


Once students have completed their reading assignment, there are many ways teachers can get them to use the information from the text.

Circle Discussion

One of the most effective ways to have many students actively thinking about what they have read is to conduct an inner/outer circle discussion. This is a formal discussion with definite rules.

  1. Technique
    • For homework, all students write a teacher-determined number of questions about the assigned text. These questions are to be used for discussion.
    • One way to get students to write productive discussion questions is to tell them that the answer to their question cannot be just one word. It should take several sentences to answer the questions the students write.
    • As students gain experience writing questions, the teacher can require a certain number to involve higher-order thinking skills such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
    • The teacher checks that students have their questions as they enter the class. Those students who have not completed their homework assignment must write questions before they are allowed to participate.
    • The class is then divided into two equal groups. One group will be the inner circle, which discusses the questions students have written. One member of the inner circle group acts as the moderator who is responsible for keeping track of participation and making sure the discussion does not get bogged down or stray off track. The moderator does not discuss but does call on volunteers to ask and answer questions.
    • During the time the inner circle group is discussing, the other group sits in a larger circle around the inner circle. Members of this outer circle are not allowed to participate in the discussion. Their role is to take notes about what is said.
    • When the period is half over, the groups switch places and roles.

  2. Assessment of Circle Discussion
    Teachers may grade this activity in a variety of ways.
    • They can give a homework grade for the questions.
    • They can give a grade based on the number of times students participate in the discussion and add something new.
    • They can grade the notes for length and/or content.
    Teachers may choose how they want to grade this activity based on the circumstances surrounding the lesson.

  3. Advantages of Circle Discussion
    First, it is student-lead, making the students responsible not only for learning the material, but also for functioning as a productive, focused group. Second, the students gain valuable practice in thinking about and writing questions about history. Finally, it forces all students to stretch beyond the classroom roles most comfortable to them. Just as it requires the usually quiet students to speak up, it also requires the usually vocal students to keep quiet and listen.

Writing-to-Learn Techniques

  1. Short and Informal
    Of course, teachers cannot afford to spend an entire class period discussing every reading assignment. Writing-to-learn techniques provide many choices for getting students to process and use information they have gained from the text.

    The idea behind writing-to-learn is that by requiring students to write, teachers are requiring students to think. These writing activities are usually short and informal; they can be graded or not graded depending on the teacher's and class's needs.

    Writing-to-learn activities can take many different forms limited only by a teacher's imagination. Here are a few examples.
    • As a "ticket" into or out of class, students can jot down the three (or whatever number is appropriate) most important ideas in a reading.
    • If the teacher wants them to practice constructing or analyzing arguments, the assignment can be modified to jotting down the most important idea and two supporting details. These quick jottings can be turned in for the teacher to scan or be discussed in pairs or small groups.
    • Another variation of this activity is for students to get in small groups and reach a consensus about the three most important concepts. This discussion gets them involved in evaluating relative importance of concepts in addition to building social skills.

    Many teachers have tried having students write summaries of their reading only to find themselves wading through a pile of semi-plagiarized rehashings of the textbook. Some students seem to have trouble weeding the details from the main ideas. Having students write a "one-sentence summary" gets them really focusing on a main idea and deciding which details are less important. It also enables the teacher to quickly learn what students think they know about a topic.

  2. Role playing
    Another use of writing-to-learn is to help students apply the information they obtain from the text. To get students to project themselves into a time period or imagine humans existing in times and places greatly removed from their local experience, teachers can ask students to write a journal from the perspective of a historical or imagined character. To practice looking at topics from varying perspectives, students can then take another role from which to write their journal entries, making sure to express different viewpoints. For example, a student could write from the perspective of a conquistador upon reaching the Americas. He or she could then write from the perspective of the Native Americans who met the Spaniards. He could put himself in the role of a factory worker describing working conditions during the Industrial Revolution and then contrast that perspective with the viewpoint of an owner of a factory.

    Of course, the possibilities for this kind of journal-writing are limited only by the scope of the world history course. The endless variations of writing-to-learn activities provide a multitude of options for students to process and apply information they gather by reading the textbook.


Although the surface tasks of a world history course deal almost exclusively with historical content, a student's success in the class is actually dependent on his or her ability to comprehend and remember information from the textbook. Many students still need to practice fundamental reading and writing skills. By guiding their students through prereading activities, requiring them to slow down and record their thought processes while reading the text, and by having them apply the knowledge gleaned from writing-to-learn techniques, teachers can both help their students improve academic skills and master the content of a world history course.


Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1987.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Making of Meaning. Upper Montclair: Boynton/Cook, 1981.

Calkins, Lucy McCormick. The Art of Teaching Writing. New ed. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1994.

Kirby, Dan, and Tom Liner. Inside Out. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1988.

Thompkins, Gail E. Teaching Writing, Balancing Process and Product. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Macmillan, 1994.

Rinsky, Lee Ann and Rose Wassman. Effective Reading in a Changing World. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.


Jones, Raymond C. "Strategies for Reading Social Studies Text"
Practical tips on reading strategies, with outlines for graphic organizers and numerous links to other resources.

Graphic Organizers
Flow Chart (PDF, 10 KB)
Concept Web A (PDF, 10 KB)
Concept Web B (PDF, 10 KB)
T-Table (PDF, 10 KB)
Venn Diagram (PDF, 10 KB)
Time Line (PDF, 10 KB)
Before & After Chart (PDF, 10 KB)
Table (PDF, 10 KB)
Causes Chart (PDF, 10 KB)
Effects Chart (PDF, 10 KB)