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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Reading: Big Ideas


Reading is a complex process that involves interactions among the reader, the text, and the context. Meaning does not reside solely on a page of text, with the intent that the reader will extract meaning from that page. Rather, meaning is actively constructed by what the reader brings to the text and how this knowledge reconciles with the author’s purpose. Reader factors include background knowledge and experiences related to a topic; purposes for reading; questions asked by the reader before, during, and after reading; knowledge and use of strategies applied while reading that support understanding key concepts; and the motivation the reader has to begin and stamina the reader has to stick with the text. Text factors that influence the complexity of the text include language structures; vocabulary; text structures and organization of ideas; text features; and author’s purpose. The context, or situation, for reading may depend on the purpose for reading, the discipline being studied, and the environment (e.g., in-school or out-of-school reading). All of these elements become more intricate and unique to a discipline as students advance through the grades.

This unit explores the significant components of reading comprehension that relate to effective reading comprehension and learning across disciplines.


Comprehension is the goal of all reading and learning. Instruction in how to comprehend a text must continue in the middle and high school grades to meet the increasingly complex texts and learning demands of each discipline. Duke, et al. (2011) have proposed 10 essential practices for teaching reading comprehension. It is important that all teachers realize the role that texts play in their disciplines, and teachers’ critical roles in connecting students to the text-based information of their discipline. Facilitating and promoting text-based comprehension involves:

  • Building disciplinary and world knowledge
  • Providing exposure to a volume and range of texts
  • Providing motivating texts and contexts for reading
  • Teaching strategies for comprehending
  • Teaching text structures
  • Encouraging students in discussion
  • Building vocabulary and language knowledge
  • Integrating reading and writing
  • Observing and assessing
  • Differentiating instruction

(Duke, Pearson, Strachan, & Billman, 2011).

Reflect: Which of these practices do you routinely address in your instruction? Which practices are most helpful to your students in understanding key concepts and ideas?

Prior Knowledge
Prior knowledge is the understandings students have about a topic based on previous learning and personal experiences. Prior knowledge related to a topic being studied significantly affects one’s comprehension and learning of new information. In essence, what readers know about the topic and about how to read the text before they start the reading will affect what and how they learn both during and after reading. These understandings may relate to commonplace or everyday knowledge they have picked up from personal experience and social interactions; disciplinary content; text structure; text features; language structures; and strategies for learning new information. For example, students may come to a unit in social studies with one or more of the following types of prior knowledge of the time period or events that took place in the past that relate to the unit: knowledge of the historical event and key people; how to identify organizational text structures often found in history texts (e.g., cause and effect, problem/solution); how to use different text features that support informational text (e.g., headings, captions, timelines); or how to synthesize and corroborate ideas by comparing and contrasting sources on the same topic.

Often, new disciplinary learning is developed based on previous knowledge. Students acquire prior knowledge through receiving previous purposeful instruction, wide reading of academic and out-of-school texts, personal experiences, viewing videos and movies, and discussing topics with teachers and peers. As students engage in disciplinary literacy, they continually expand and revise their understandings. It is important for teachers to assess what prior knowledge is necessary for effective comprehension of new content and what their students already know. Based on this assessment, teachers decide what knowledge students need to develop, how to help students access this knowledge using a variety of resources, and how to help students connect what they know to new learning. It is important to note that even when students possess prior knowledge, they often need reminders to activate and connect it to specific reading/learning situations.

Video and Reflection: Watch Teaching Content Through Literacy to see how a teacher accesses and relates students’ prior knowledge to what they will learn in the lesson. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about and jot down notes to address these questions: 1) How do you prepare students before they read texts? 2) What strategies do you use to access their prior knowledge and connect it to new learning?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice what areas of literacy Ms. Gilbert focuses on to prepare students to read new text.
  • Reflect: 1) How did this lesson support students in reading the new text? 2) What did Ms. Gilbert learn about the students’ prior knowledge, and how did she use this knowledge to prepare them for reading? 3) What else might you do to access and build prior knowledge before reading?

Setting a Purpose for Reading
Many students, especially struggling readers, have difficulty determining important information during and after reading, particularly as the disciplinary texts become more complex. Having a specific purpose for reading will support students’ comprehension of important text ideas, focus their attention on the text and accompanying text features, and provide motivation for learning new content. Too often, students are given a generic purpose, such as reading a chapter to answer questions at the end. In this case, the purpose is simply to complete a task after reading. In contrast, a specific purpose should address the text content—important information, key concepts, and author’s purpose or point of view. For example, in history, students may read with the purpose of understanding what various authors believe were the causes of the Civil War; in science, they may read to compare and contrast features of sustainable and nonsustainable energy.

The practice of setting purposes for reading is related to readers’ prior knowledge: The purpose statement, which identifies what the reader should be able to do after instruction and/or reading, should be based on what prior knowledge they have and what is being taught. A familiar method for connecting prior knowledge with purposes for reading is the KWL strategy (Ogle, 1986). With this practice, students determine what they already know about a topic, what they want to know through reading and discussion, and, finally, what they learned after reading. Charting these understandings helps students engage in the process of reading to learn. To support this process, teachers must have a clear understanding of what needs to be learned about a topic; in many instances, students have difficulty identifying what they want to learn due to limited understanding of the topic. Both teacher and student understandings influence the teaching that will occur.

In the earlier grades, teachers usually set purposes for students before they read. However, the goal of this important component of reading is for students to learn how to set their own purposes as independent readers. As students become more proficient readers in each discipline, teachers may continue to model setting purposes while encouraging students to determine their own purposes, build upon their knowledge, and think more critically about text ideas. In order to do this, they must have a general understanding of the topic that then develops as they move from initial to more complex texts and tasks. Setting a purpose often occurs before reading; however, as students read, they may revise their purposes and set new goals for learning. Again, this sophistication develops as a student gains an expanding view of the topic.

Video and Reflection: Now you will watch Reading and Writing in History, in which several experts/researchers in the field explain the critical elements in approaching historical documents with specific purposes. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the purposes for reading texts in your discipline. How do you prepare students to understand and use these purposes as they encounter new texts?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, take notes on the overarching goals and specific purposes for reading historical texts and documents.
  • Reflect: What are the key ideas the experts in historical reading provided? How did the classroom clips support these ideas? How do these concepts relate to reading in the real world? How is the framework for approaching a text in history similar and/or different from your discipline?


Writers organize their ideas within different text structures to communicate and emphasize important information as well as their purpose for writing. Identifying the text structure will assist readers in understanding important ideas during and after reading. It also will provide a model for their own written discourse. Narrative text has a basic structure that includes setting, characters, problem/conflict, plot/episodes to resolve the conflict, and resolution. As texts become more complex, this format may become more intricate, expanded, and detailed, but the core structure remains the same. On the other hand, expository text, which comprises most of disciplinary reading by students in school and in later workplace settings, often contains multiple text structures, which can initially present a challenge to readers as they try to make sense of text ideas. Common structures of expository text are:

  • Description: Information is organized around main ideas followed by supporting details
  • Sequence: Information is presented in a specific order based on chronology (e.g., events, steps in a process)
  • Compare/Contrast: Key concepts are compared for similarities and differences
  • Cause/Effect: Topics are presented based on a relationship between causes and effects
  • Problem/Solution: A problem is introduced with subsequent information that leads to a solution

These expository text structures may be used to present written text or visuals/graphics to highlight the important ideas to understand.

Challenges in Using Expository Text Structures
Teaching students to identify the different structures of text that authors use is an important practice to help them organize information, determine key concepts, and understand an author’s purpose or point of view. One of the challenges students face when reading texts in different disciplines is the use of multiple text structures within a particular text or document. As they read texts with varying text structures, they must shift their thinking to identify the organizational pattern used to communicate information. Furthermore, within the structural organization of a text, students are often confronted with: a high concept load; information for which they may have limited prior knowledge; discipline-specific vocabulary and discipline-specific academic discourse; accompanying visuals to understand important ideas; and the challenge of determining the best way to approach a text to learn new information.

Reflect: Read these excerpts from texts in science [PDF] and history [PDF] that include multiple text structures. As you read these passages, determine the predominant text structure(s). Then, respond to these questions:

  1. What are the text structures used to present the information?
  2. How did you use these structures to assist you in learning the information?
  3. What was challenging about the organization of ideas in the text?


Extensive research has been conducted to investigate the reading strategies that proficient readers use to comprehend and interpret text. An initial summary of the research findings (Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992) identified seven essential strategies for meaningful comprehension of text:

  • Determining importance in reading (key concepts, text structure, author’s purpose)
  • Making connections while reading (to prior knowledge and texts)
  • Asking questions (to set purposes and clarify understanding)
  • Making inferences
  • Visualizing
  • Synthesizing important ideas
  • Monitoring understanding and using “fix-up” strategies

These general strategies are common to all effective reading and, often, explicit instruction in using each one begins in the elementary grades. It is important to note that even from the earliest years, strategy instruction should occur in isolation but should be contextualized within a real reading experience. Specific strategies should be taught as needed to support proficient reading. As students read more complex texts in middle and high school, they need to combine these strategies with other literacy practices specific to individual disciplines to read and think about information presented. For example, in social studies, readers consider the source(s) of a text (e.g., the author and any possible biases the author might have) and the context in which it was written (e.g., time and place when text or visuals were created) to determine, interpret, and connect key ideas or events. In science, readers may emphasize text features (such as charts or diagrams) and structure to support their understanding of important information. In math, they might focus on the precise mathematical definition of important words, generate specific questions that will aid in problem solving, and create a visual diagram that outlines a process for solving problems. Monitoring understanding is central to using all of the other strategies so that students can regulate their learning and repair any misunderstandings.

Reflect: What strategies do you teach and promote to support students in reading texts within your discipline? How do you contextualize this teaching and learning? Which strategies are most effective in helping students to identify, analyze, and draw conclusions about important ideas? Why?


It is commonly agreed that there is a strong relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (McKeown, Kucan, & Beck, 2008; Stahl, 2003). Thus, as students engage in reading and responding to texts within each discipline, they need to have an understanding of important words before they read or have strategies for determining word meaning as they read. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002, 2008) provide a framework for the types of words readers encounter in all texts, based on a three-tier model:

Tier 1 Words: Everyday, basic, and high-frequency words that, when pronounced correctly, are familiar to native speakers of the language (e.g., notebook, table, excited, begin).

Tier 2 Words: Words that are more sophisticated and refine or extend understanding of known concepts; in essence, words mature readers encounter frequently in spoken and written language. Many of these words have general utility across disciplines and thus would qualify as general academic vocabulary. Examples of Tier 2 words are contempt, gallantly, fallible, sustain, and reiterate.

Tier 3 Words: Words that are encountered less frequently in general reading and are often limited to use in specific disciplines (e.g., algorithm, mitosis, mummify, hyperbole). Sometimes, Tier 3 words have multiple meanings, as is the case with the word product, which has general definitions that are likely known to students before they encounter a different meaning of the word in mathematics.

Reflect: Read a portion of text that you use in your curriculum. List key vocabulary from the text that relates to Tier 2 and Tier 3 words (3–5 words for each tier). Then, reflect on these questions:

  • How would you present and teach these words in each Tier to assist students in comprehending the text?
  • Which tier(s) of vocabulary do you typically emphasize in your instruction?
  • Which tiers are most challenging for your students? Why?

Discipline-Specific Vocabulary
How and why vocabulary is constructed within each discipline is important to understanding concepts and learning words independently. Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) explain this by comparing terminology in science and social studies. They explain that in science, specific vocabulary (Tier 3) is often constructed from Greek and Latin roots. Analyzing and understanding the precise meanings of these word parts will assist students in learning new words. In contrast, they report that social studies terminology often focuses on “metaphorical terms” (p. 10) that represent particular perspectives on an event or group of events such as “the Gilded Age” or “the Dark Ages” (p. 10).

The Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of teaching general academic and discipline-specific vocabulary to support comprehension and deepen understanding of texts. The challenge for students is to understand the foundations of vocabulary structures and use within each discipline and to use that knowledge to understand new concepts (Zwiers, 2014).

Choosing Words To Teach
The goal of vocabulary instruction in each discipline is to assist students in learning new words independently, to develop elaborated word knowledge as they encounter words in new contexts, and to connect this learning with new information. In deciding which words to highlight and teach, teachers need to consider several factors related to their readers, the texts, and the contexts for reading. These include:

  • Understanding the needs of students in the classroom and matching these needs with instruction. For example, ELL students may need more instruction in Tier 1 and Tier 2 words. Focusing on the use of cognates that correlate with their native language may support ELL students in learning new vocabulary. Students who are struggling readers may need additional instruction in Tier 2 words that represent familiar concepts but are difficult to read.
  • Selecting those words that are critical to understanding key concepts in the text. These may be Tier 2 or Tier 3 words that are critical for comprehension.
  • Identifying words that are not defined in context. If words are identified in context, they may be reviewed but do not need to be explicitly taught. However, students may need to be reminded to use context to determine their meanings.

Vocabulary Instruction
A critical component of vocabulary instruction is engaging students in learning new words and terminology before, during, and after reading. Before reading, teachers may present words for which students have limited or no prior knowledge. Instruction is explicit, with modeling, explanations, and questions for students to situate the meanings within different contexts. During reading, teachers may highlight words as needed to clarify misunderstandings and promote comprehension. After reading, they may return to key words and concepts, engaging students in using these words to respond to their reading. During each part of the reading process, students are engaged in making connections between the new words and known concepts or situations.

Deep learning will occur when students have multiple exposures to words that are critical for understanding the important information and for answering essential questions related to the unit. These exposures may involve reading, oral language, and/or writing.

Video and Reflection: Watch Comparing the Language of Multiple Sources in which there is an emphasis on key vocabulary in preparation for beginning a new unit of study. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about how you determine important concepts and related vocabulary before beginning a new unit or text. List at least three ways in which you present and teach key vocabulary that will enhance their learning.
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider how Mr. Martinez presents and engages students in learning new words and connecting them to their own lives. How do these words reflect both texts the students are reading?
  • Reflect: Consider how Mr. Martinez engages students in meaningful learning of new vocabulary words. How did he help students connect vocabulary words and relate them to the larger concepts (essential questions) in this lesson/unit? In what ways does this lesson compare with your introduction and instruction of important vocabulary?


The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize the value of closely reading a text to comprehend, interpret, and connect important ideas. Close reading is a reading approach that provides opportunities to analyze text ideas, text structures and features, vocabulary use, and author’s purpose. The goal is for students to engage in a deeper understanding of text ideas and to connect those ideas with their existing prior knowledge. Close reading is particularly useful to students when reading complex text, as it helps them focus deeply on a short piece of text or passage in order to analyze and evaluate the important ideas being presented.

Close reading involves rereading the same text for different purposes. With each rereading, students gain a deeper understanding of the text ideas, the way they are constructed and communicated, and the author’s purpose. A close reading involves many of the strategies that proficient readers use to make sense of a complex text. For example, close reading promotes setting purposes for reading, accessing and using prior knowledge, organizing and interpreting information, determining meanings of essential terminology, and refining and revising understanding based on new learning. It is especially useful as students engage in increasingly complex text within each discipline.

During a first reading, students may read with little preparation to gain a general understanding of the information being presented. In a second reading of a portion of text, students may focus on the organization, structure,  text features, key vocabulary (usually Tier 3), and the overall purpose. Subsequent readings involve going deeper to interpret and evaluate ideas (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Lapp, Moss, Johnson, & Grant, 2012; Moss, Lapp, Grant, & Johnson, 2015; Shanahan, 2012).

Teaching Close Reading
Lapp et al. (2012, 2015) have proposed an instructional framework designed to ensure that all students gain access to complex texts through a process of close reading. This framework involves the use of text sets—multiple texts of varying difficulty levels on the same topic. The process begins and ends with all students reading the most complex text in the set. The teacher begins with the whole class reading the most complex text or passage within the set. Throughout the process of reading, annotating, and collaborating, the teacher carefully observes the students’ engagement and developing understanding of the ideas presented in the text. If, at the conclusion of the close reading experience, the teacher identifies that some students are unable to successfully read and annotate the text and engage in collaboration and conversation about the text because of a lack of background knowledge, language, comprehension, and reading skills, he or she should meet with them in a smaller group using one of the other texts in the set to build the needed knowledge. Once this group has learned the additional information and skills, they can return to the initial complex text and use this new knowledge to successfully read the more complex text. When finished, they can engage in the extension activity.

While the teacher is meeting with the smaller group, the larger group of students can be engaged in a task that involves sharing, using, or expanding their newly learned information through an extension activity. Inviting students to create the ways they share the information supports their developing voices. Types of extension activities become endless once students have a choice in deciding how to share their new knowledge. For example, some may choose to write using RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic; see video Power Writing for Science), create a recording in which they share their learning, or interview a peer regarding their perceptions of the text.

This proposed instructional framework carefully incorporates the components of the gradual release of responsibility model, which promotes independent learning:

  • Identify the purpose for reading.
  • First reading: Encourage students to try reading the text independently and, while doing so, annotate and take notes that support their understanding of what the text says.
  • Discussion: Students work in partners, groups, or as a class to collaborate and discuss their understandings, inferences, and questions regarding what the text says.
  • Second reading, Option #1: Modeling and demonstration: If, while observing students participating in whole- or small-group collaborations and viewing their annotations, the teacher decides that some are not fully comprehending the text because they are unable to fluently read the text, the teacher or another student who is a proficient reader may read the text aloud. This is optional. It should occur only if the teacher feels that students need to hear the text being read by a proficient reader. Oftentimes, a student’s comprehension is compromised because he or she is unable to fluently read the text. This option is also supportive of students who are learning English as an additional language.
  • Second reading, Option #2: Independent reading: If the teacher or another proficient reader does not need to read the text aloud, students independently read the text a second time. Questions asked by the teacher should push students to look more deeply at how the text works by focusing on the language and structures the author used to convey the information.
  • Additional readings: There is no set number of times a reader should return to the passage. However, if the text isn’t complex enough to require multiple rereads, it probably should not have been chosen for close reading. Questions asked during additional reads should push students to more deeply understand and evaluate the meaning of the text.

Close Reading Activity
A critical element of close reading is multiple rereadings of texts to “dig in” and gain a deeper understanding of what the text means. This interactive activity involves reading a short text multiple times with a different purpose for each reading and making annotations that reflect important ideas, questions, confusions, key vocabulary, and overall understandings. Click here to begin.

Video and Reflection: Now watch Fostering Close Reading to see how one teacher uses close reading to support students in understanding a text. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What difficulties do your students demonstrate when reading a long, dense, and/or difficult text? How do you support students before and during their reading of these texts?
  • Watch the video: 1) What steps do Ms. Miles and the students use in their close reading? 2) What strategies does Ms. Miles use to focus students on important information? 3) What do students say about how close reading helped them understand the text?
  • Reflect: 1) How did this lesson on close reading assist students in understanding the text ideas? 2) How did the process of close reading lead students to understand and respond to the essential question? 3) How might you use this classroom lesson on close reading in your own instruction?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


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