READERS  IN THE CONTENT AREAS


                         John Arul Phillips





                My kids can't read their textbooks! But,

                every teacher is a teacher  of  reading! 

                Both  of  those positions are the result

                of the dominant role the textbook  plays

                in the  secondary schools. Many teachers

                place the responsibility for learning on

                the   textbook,   or  on  the  students'

                inability to  learn  from  the  textbook

                (Thelen,1985 p. v). 



              This is prevalent in  most  secondary  schools  and  yet

         little  has  been  done  to  address  the  problem.  The poor

         comprehension of prose material refers to those found in  the

         content  areas  such  as  in science and the social sciences. 

         The purpose of this article is firstly to discuss the concept

         of   learning   from   text,   secondly   to   describe   the

         characteristics  of  poor readers based on research evidence,

         thirdly,  is to discuss metacognition and  its  role  in  the

         comprehension process, and finally to suggest an approach for

         assisting  poor  readers  understand  prose  material  in the

         content areas. 



              In the secondary school under the  KBSM  (or  Integrated

         Secondary  School  Curriculum),  students  are  introduced to

         subjects such as history, geography, science, health science,

         commerce,  and economics as separate disciplines.  With  each

         subject taught,  there are specific textbooks  together  with

         perhaps  workbooks,  worksheets  and reference materials from

         which learners are  expected  to  extract  information.  Many

         content   area   teachers  assume  that  their  students  can

         comprehend  what  they  read  based  upon  their  ability  to

         communicate and sound out words.  Furthermore,  some teachers

         are of the opinion  that  reading  skills  should  have  been

         acquired  in  the primary school and that secondary school is

         for the mastery of content.  Few would deny that `content  is

         king'  but  the  zeal with which teachers try to `get through

         the curriculum' often  results  in  weak  learners  (or  weak

         readers)  being  left  on their own to resolve their learning


              Success in the content areas or the school subject areas

         is very much dependent on the efficiency and effectiveness of

         learners' in comprehending their textbooks and related  prose

         materials.  The  dominance of the textbook is most evident in

         Malaysian secondary schools and the printed page continues to

         be the major source of information for students whether  they

         be in the form of books,  journals, magazines.  pamphlets, or

         presented on a  computer  screen.  Reading  comprehension  or

         understanding written content is the crux of the reading act. 

         Students  cannot  learn  unless  they  can comprehend reading

         material, and they cannot remember what they read unless they

         understand it. 

              Learning  from  text  at  the  secondary  school   level

         requires  the  skill of having to cope with a variety of text

         structure.  The text structure of  social  science  materials

         present certain peculiarities that make special demands on the

         reader.  Specialised technical vocabulary and symbols such as

         maps, globes, statistical tables, graphs;  and text structure

         that is characterised by  cause-effect  pattern,  comparison-

         contrast pattern,  sequential events pattern, and fact versus

         opinion pattern,  are features of  social  science  materials

         (Lunstrum  and  Taylor,1978).  For  the sciences,  Davies and

         Greene (1984)  identified  seven  types  of  text  structure,

         namely;  instruction texts,  classification texts,  structure

         texts,  mechanism  texts,  process  texts,  concept-principle

         texts  and hypothesis-theory texts.  Unfortunately,  research

         has demonstrated that  a  sizeable  proportion  of  secondary

         school  students  are  poor  readers,  and their inability to

         handle textbooks and supplementary materials is most serious. 

              Hence the role of reading in  the  secondary  school  is

         most  evident  especially  when  it  is realised that not all

         students are able to learn  from  text.  When  written  prose

         materials are the vehicle for learning, content area teachers

         have a significant role in showing students how to learn. 



              Why  is  it that some students are able to understand an

         assigned reading after having  only  read  it  once?  Whereas

         other  students  have  to  read  the  same text three or four

         times.   These  learners  realise  that  rereading  may   not

         necessarily  be  effective in trying to understand a passage.

         Research has  revealed  that  comprehension  failure  may  be

         attributed  to  the  text processing characteristics of poor

         readers who among other things;

              - seem to be unaware of their purpose for  reading,  and

         are relatively insensitive to  the  demands  of  reading  for

         meaning and tend to concentrate on the decoding of individual

         words   and   phrases  and  are  less  able  to  detect  text

         inconsistencies (Di Vesta, Hayward & Orlando,1979). 

              - are less apt in modifying their reading rate according

         to the purpose of reading,  that is,  when to slow down  when

         material  is  difficult  and  when  to  speed up reading when

         skimming or to get a general impression (Smith,1967). 

              - are not as efficient in extracting main ideas  from  a

         passage  and  tend to dwell on details and subordinate ideas

         (Brown and Smiley,1977). 

              - are less able to grasp the logical  structure  of  the

         text,  that  is,  a  lack of understanding of how and why the

         ideas are interconnected (Owings et al. 1980). 

              - experience difficulty in relating their past knowledge

         to what they are reading (Sullivan,1978). 

              - are less sensitive to semantic and syntactic  cues  in

         making  predictions about information that they are uncertain

         about (Irakson and Miller.1976). 

              -  are  less  likely  to  take  remedial  measures  when

         comprehension failures occur,  such  as  to  reread  previous

         segment   of  text  in  search  of  clarification  (Garner  &


              The poor reader may be summarised as  one  who  is  less

         able  to  take  charge  of his or her own cognitive processes

         while reading.  They are not as flexible as good  readers  in

         adapting  their  processing to the demands of the task and to

         capitalise  on  the  structure  or   contextual   constraints

         inherent  in  texts.  In  other words,  poor readers are less

         efficient in monitoring their understanding of  the  material

         read or are deficient in metacognitive skills.  Hence, when a

         teacher assigns reading in a history,  geography,  science or

         economics class,  he or she "cannot expect  all  students  to

         `read  more  carefully',  `figure things out for themselves,'

         `look it up',  or `ask someone for help' when  so  often  the

         student  is  unaware  that  something has `gone wrong' in the

         first place" (Langer, 1982, p.45). 



              The  term  metacognition was introduced by psychologists

         to refer to the knowledge and control people have over  their

         own   thinking   and   learning   activities   (Flavell   and

         Wellman,1977, Flavell,1978).  It deals with "the individual's

         knowledge about the task,  possible strategies that might  be

         applied  to  the task and the individual's awareness of their

         own   abilities   in   relation    to    these    strategies"

         (Taylor,1983,p.270).   Its   increasing   role   in   reading

         comprehension is attributable to the influence of research in

         cognitive science.  Metacognition plays an important role  in

         reading  comprehension  and it refers to what a learner knows

         about his or her cognitive  processes  (conscious  awareness)

         and  the  ability  to  control  these  processes by planning,

         choosing and monitoring. 

              Brown (1980) identified reading strategies as  instances

         of  metacognition  and  described  metacomprehension  as "any

         deliberate planful control of activities that give  birth  to

         comprehension"  (p.456).  Metacomprehension involves at least

         two separate components;  that is awareness and action (Baker

         and Brown, 1985). 




                                --> AWARENESS

                              1           -> purpose 

                              1           -> what one knows

                              1           -> what one needs to know

         METACOMPREHENSION -->1           -> what facilitates

                              1                  learning



                                --> ACTION

                                          -> checking

                                          -> planning

                                          -> evaluating

                                          -> revising

                                          -> remediating


              Figure 1: Components of Metacomprehension

                          (Brown, 1982)




              Awareness of one's own cognitive behaviour during

         reading includes;

              - awareness of purpose of the reading assignment,

              - awareness of what one knows about the reading task,

              - awareness of what needs to be known,

              - awareness of the strategies and skills which facilitate

                or impede learning from text.

              Action  is the ability to use self-regulatory mechanisms

         or cognitive monitoring to ensure the  successful  completion

         of the task such as:

              -  checking  the  outcome  of  any  attempt to solve the


              -  planning  one's  next  move,  

              - evaluating the effectiveness of any attempted action,

              - testing and revising one's  strategies  for  learning,

                and  remediating  any  difficulties encountered by

                using compensatory strategies


              The  successful reader is one who is able to monitor his

         or  her  understanding  of  what  is  being  read  and   this

         metacognitive  skill  is  apparently  not  developed  in  all

         students.  Linked to reading, metacognition involves `knowing

         what you know',  `knowing what you need to know' and `knowing

         the utility of active intervention' (Sanacore,1984). In other

         words,  to  be an efficient and effective reader,  the person

         should be able to monitor his or her degree of understanding,

         be aware of the knowledge possessed, be conscious of the task

         demanded   and   know   the   strategies   that   facilitates

         comprehension.  However,  Baker  and  Brown  (1984) point out

         that though,



                  ....  it  is  tempting to  conclude that

                  ineffective    monitoring    of    one's

                  cognitive  processes  during  reading is

                  the  cause  of  poor  comprehension,  we

                  caution    against    such   precipitous

                  conclusion. The majority of studies have

                  shown  that  ineffective  monitoring  is

                  associated with poor comprehension,  but

                  not that it is the cause. It may be that

                  poor comprehension reduces  the  ability

                  to monitor one's ongoing activities;  or

                  perhaps   a   third   factor   such   as

                  impoverished  background  knowledge,  is

                  responsible    for     both     problems




              Nonetheless,  it is evident that one of the reasons  for

         comprehension failure is the inability of learners to monitor

         their comprehension.  Comprehension monitoring ability differ

         between  poor  and  good  readers as evidenced by the varying

         processing strategies adopted by  each  group.  The  question

         that  is  of interest is whether instruction in monitoring of

         one's own  comprehension  can  assist  learners  to  be  more

         efficient  readers  in  the content areas?  Existing research

         suggest that instruction in comprehension monitoring  can  be

         successful  and should be attempted by content area teachers,

         even though some might view this as outside their  repertoire

         of skills and responsibilities, and that it should be left to

         reading specialists.  If comprehension and content mastery is

         the goal of instruction, then content area teachers will have

         to  instruct  students in metacognitive skills that will help

         them in learning new cognitive processes. 

              Beck  (1976)  identified  three  steps  in  learning new

         cognitive processes:  (1)  altering  "automatic  thoughts"  -

         self-verbalisations  and  images  that  one  is  conscious of

         using; (2) recognising and altering error-producing cognitive

         processes;   (3)   discovering   and   altering   underlying,

         previously unrecognised "schemas".  Based on these principles

         the following metacognitive approach is suggested for helping

         poor readers comprehend prose material in the various content

         areas (see Figure 2). 














                       * introduce a skill

                       * show examples and non-examples

                       * exercises to practice the skill


                   MODELING BY THE TEACHER

                       * `think aloud' of the modeling process

                         by the teacher/expert

                         - identification of comprehension failure

                         - "fix-up" strategies



                       * `think aloud' of the modeling process

                         by learners in different situations

                       * comparison of their modeling process

                       * silent modeling




              Figure 2:  An Approach Towards Helping Poor

                         Readers in the Content Areas


         Step 1: Explanation

              The teacher decides which skill that is  to  be  taught,

         lists the steps to follow when executing the skill, why it is

         important and when students will need to use it.  Examples of

         such comprehension skills are,  context  clues,

         relating relevant prior knowledge to new information,

         paraphrasing/summarising effectively,  identification of text

         structure,  self-questioning and inferential  reasoning.  The

         teacher  emphasises  that  comprehending  text  is  a problem

         solving task that requires a line of reasoning or  a  way  of

         thinking.  For example, in learning how to use context clues,

         the   teacher   explains   how  the  semantic  and  syntactic

         structures  of  text  may  provide  clues  in   understanding

         difficult  words  or phrases.  The teacher lists the types of

         contextual aids that may be  used  by  the  reader  such  as;

         definition,    linked    synonyms,    examples,    modifiers,

         restatements, contrast and cause-effect (Vacca,1981). 

                The   teacher  describes  the  reasoning  process  and

         presents several examples and non-examples that can  be  used

         when  explaining  the process.  It should be evident that the

         technique of using context clues  is  mostly  an  inferential

         process  that  requires  the  reader  to  see  an explicit or

         implicit relationship between  an  unfamiliar  word  and  its

         context  or  to connect what he or she already knows with the

         unknown term.  Simultaneously,  the teacher  anticipates  the

         kinds  of  problems students may have when and how to use the

         reasoning process and selects passages that may  be  used  to

         clarify misunderstandings (Herrmann,1988). 


         Step 2: Modeling by the Teacher

              Besides merely explaining the comprehension, the teacher

         seen as the expert models the reasoning proces involved.  The

         teacher  "thinks out loud" stating WHEN and HOW the reasoning

         process should be used.  The teacher reads a passage  to  the

         class,   does   self-questioning  and  describes  the  fix-up

         strategies the teacher will use.  During this  whole  process

         the  teacher  thinks  aloud the mental processes each step of

         the way. 

              The teacher provides a model of the thinking process  by

         stating what is going on inside his or her head.  The teacher

         is assumed to be the `expert reader' while the student is the

         novice.  While making inferences, for example,  the following

         `inner dialogue' might be the sequence of cognitive processes

         going on inside the head of the teacher-expert. 



              Given this text, I'm required to make inferences. 

              OK,  That  means  the  message  is not explicitly

              mentioned.  Hmmm!   How  do  I  draw  inferences? 


              I need to `read between the lines'.  Let me first

              identify   the  explicit  information.   [TEACHER

              READS] Do any of the words or phrases  explicitly

              stated  provide  clues as to the implied message. 

              Yes!   this  phrase  seems  to   imply   that.... 

              Furthermore,  if  I connect the first sentence of

              paragraph 1 and the first sentence  of  paragraph

              2,  I  could  infer  that...   [TEACHER  DRAWS  A

              CONCLUSION] One of the causes for this event  may

              be  inferred  from  the following words....  Yes!

              this event most probably resulted in ... and this

              is implied in this sentence. 




         The  teacher checks how the students interpreted the modeling

         information asking them to tell or show when and how  to  use

         the  reasoning process.  If,  however,  the students still do

         not understand,  the teacher provide  cues  in  the  form  of

         prompts,  analogies, metaphors, or other forms of elaboration

         which  help  students  refine  their  understanding  of   the

         reasoning  process  (Herrmann,1988).   Teachers  share  their

         thinking  through  externalising  their  inner  dialogue   by

         verbalising  the  questions  they  are asking themselves.  By

         sharing their strategies, teachers can provide their students

         with models of mental processes. 


         Step 3: Application

              The student performs the same task under the guidance of

         the teacher.  As students describe what is going  on  `inside

         their  heads'  they become aware of their thinking processes. 

         The  teacher  shapes  students'  evolving  understandings  of

         reasoning  processes  by  asking them to explain how they made

         sense of the text  and,  on  the  basis  of  what  they  say,

         providing  additional  explanation  t  help  them reason like

         experts.  Similarly,  as  they  listen  to  their  classmates

         describing  their mental processes,  they develop flexibility

         of thought and an appreciation  for  the  different  ways  of

         solving the same problem. 

              In the student participation phase,  students are  asked

         to  pose questions,  spot confusions,  form hypotheses,  find

         supporting evidence and suggest remedies to failures.  In the

         silent reading phase,  students do their own  monitoring  and

         the   teacher   is   available  to  suggest  strategies  when

         difficulties are encountered. 





         DiVesta,  F.J.,  Hayward,  K.G.  and  Orlando,  V.P.  (1979). 

           Developmental trends in monitoring for comprehension, Child

           Development, 50, 97-105. 


         Garner,  R.  (1981).  Monitoring  of  passage inconsistencies

           among poor readers:  A preliminary test of  the  `piecemeal

           processing' explanation, Journal of Educational Researcher,

           74, 31, 159-162. 


         Garner,  R.  & Kraus,  C.  Monitoring of understanding  among

           seventh graders: An investigation of good comprehender-poor

           comprehender   in   knowing   and   regulating   behaviors. 

           Unpublished manuscript,  University  of  Maryland,  College



         August, D., Flavell, J.H.  and Clift, R., (1984).  Comparison

           of comprehension monitoring of  skilled  and  less  skilled

           readers, Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 1, 39-48. 


         Flavell, J.H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring:

           A  new  area  of cognitive-developmental inquiry,  American

           Psychologist, 34, 10, 906-911. 


         Sanacore,  J.   (1984).   Metacognition  and  improvement  of

           reading: Some important links, Journal of Reading, 707-713. 


         Taylor,  N.E  (1983).  Metacognitive  ability:  A  curriculum

           priority,  Reading Psychology:  An International Quarterly,



         Brown, L. (1980).  Metacognitive development and reading.  In

           R.Spiro, B. Bruce & W. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical Issues in

           Reading   Comprehension:    Perspectives   from   Cognitive

           Psychology,   Linguistics,    Artificial   Intelligence   &

           Education, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 


         Brown,  L (1982).  Learning how to learn from reading.  In J. 

           Langer   and   M.    Smith-Burke   (Eds.),   Reader   Meets

           Author/Bridging    the   Gap:    A   Psycholinguistic   and

           Sociolinguistic Perspective.  Newark,  Del.:  International

           Reading Association. 


         Hermann, B.A. (1988). Two approaches for helping poor readers

           become  more  strategic,  The  Reading Teacher,  (October),



         Irakson, R.L. & Miller, J.W. (1978). Sensitivity to syntactic

           and semantic cues in good and poor  comprehenders,  Journal

           of Educational Psychology, 68:787-792


         Lunstrum,  J & Taylor,  B.  (1978).  Teaching Reading in  the

           Social  Studies.   Newark,   Del.:   International  Reading



         Owings, R.A., Peterson, G.A., Bransford, J.D., Morris, C.D. &

           Stein, B.S.  (1980). Spontaneous monitoring and regulations

           of  learning:   A  comparison  of  successful   and   less

           successful   fifth   graders,    Journal   of   Educational

           Psychology, 72:250-256. 


         Smith,  H.K.  (1967).  The responses of good and poor readers

           when asked to read for different purposes, Reading Research

           Quarterly, 3:53-84. 


         Sullivan,  J.  (1977).  Comparing strategies of good and poor

           comprehenders, Journal of Reading, 48:36-50. 


         Thelen, J (1985).  Foreward.  In J.W. Harker (Ed.), Classroom

           Strategies   for   Secondary   Reading,    Newark,    Del.:

           International Reading Association. 


         Vacca, R.T. (1981). Content Area Reading, Boston: Little,

           Brown and Company.




Jurnal Pembacaan Malaysia (Malaysian Journal of Reading) 1992.

vol.1. 11-17.