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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Reading in English


While teachers are preparing students to participate in the world of college and career, they are also helping them become better readers for participation in personal interests and in civic life. And when it comes to motivating students to become engaged in their literacy development, these personal and civic engagements are sometimes initially more important than reasons related to career and college. This seems even more so in a world of technology and online communications. Personal and civic interests are also crucial in helping develop lifelong learning.

CareerFocused Reading Instruction in English
Reading practices in English class can focus on career-specific areas, such as reading like a journalist, author, editor, lawyer, critic, etc. According to employment websites, such as and Careerbuilder, people with a strong background in English studies often hold positions such as social media manager, technical writer, lawyer, grant writer, librarian, editor and content manager, or nonprofit executive director. These positions emphasize critical reading; intertextual understanding; reaching unique as well as diverse audiences; and appreciation for metaphor, allusion, and narrative.

Reflect: How often do you talk with your students about the role of English class in helping them prepare for work in the real world? List as many places in the world of work as you can where English skills are prominent. Reflect on how you can share this information with your students.

Video and Reflection: Watch English in the Real World: A Sports Journalist, in which Ken Shulman shares his experiences reading and writing as a journalist. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What would you tell your students about how and where journalists use reading and writing in their profession?
  • Watch the video: As you watch the video, write down how Shulman integrates traditional forms of reading and writing with multiliteracy practices.
  • Reflect: How does Shulman advance a broader social goal through reading and writing in English as a journalist?

Reading Within, Across, and Beyond the Classroom

Reading and writing practices in English studies have both discipline- and career-specific content or focus as well as content that transcends college and career focus. In order to read well, students need to read beyond instruction-based reading for school. Students engaged in voluntary reading have a greater inclination to read and tend to do better in instruction-based reading. They also have better study habits. Voluntary reading supports school reading because it grows students’ vocabulary and background knowledge base—which is key for all readers (Krashen, 2004). Because voluntary reading supports school reading, it is important to promote reading that engages students and that will cause them to want to read on their own and in their free time. However, such reading may not always conform to the type of reading that is promoted in schools. Students may want to read humor, comics, fantasy fiction, etc. It is important not to confuse efforts to engage students in voluntary reading with instruction-based reading expectations. And it is important to recognize how reading that engages students is promoting their academic reading ability and further developing their understanding of their world.

Reflect: How do you incorporate independent or self-directed reading? Describe three ways you can introduce and encourage reading for pleasure among your students.


The previous section explored some contextual, instructional, and social topics related to reading in English studies. This section will describe some strategies that incorporate or address ideas that were highlighted. They are grouped by language experiences, close reading strategies, and intertextual reading. These strategies will help you work with all students, enhance their awareness and understanding of academic language, read challenging texts, and appreciate the relationship among texts that are thematically based or conceptually related. The strategies are especially helpful for English language learners.

Language Analysis Strategies

Contrastive Analysis

  • In contrastive analysis strategies, teachers demonstrate in writing and orally how one dialect, language, or informal use of speech contrasts with academic language. In these strategies, teachers provide samples of language for the class to review that come from students, YouTube, or other sources of authentic communication. One sample should be academic English. The samples are then contextualized so students know when, where, or how one is used versus the other. Salient features of the language samples are identified and recorded, sometimes using graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams or David Hyerle’s (2009) Double Bubble Thinking Map. After contextualizing and categorizing features in conversation and in writing or graphic representation, students practice the oral pronunciation of the academic sample.

Reflect: How many languages do your students speak? List as many as you can, including varieties of English.

Studying Cognates

  • Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.  For example, in Spanish, the word abrupto translates to “abrupt” in English; abdicar becomes “to abdicate”; pasivo becomes “passive.” Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh also shares cognates with English. Examples include “cummerbund” from kamar bandh, meaning waist band or waist cloth; “cot” from Khāt; “guru” from Guru, meaning an intellectual or spiritual guide or leader—any person who counsels or advises. One way to help ELL students learn English—and assist all students in developing an appreciation for language and language diversity—is to help them identify cognates from their language and English. Teachers can introduce students to cognates by creating cards that list one word from the cognate pair or triplet and having students move around the room to locate and talk to other students whose card matches theirs. Once the pair or triplet find each other, they can talk and speculate on meaning and then verify and apply that meaning during additional language awareness activities.

Sorting Interactive: Learning About Language Through Cognates

Teaching Greek and Latin root words, prefixes, and suffixes helps students develop vocabulary for reading, writing, speaking, and thinking. This is especially helpful when the words have a related meaning. Including a list of Spanish cognates in the content can help students learn academic English, whether they are ELLs whose first language is Spanish or simply students of language. The following activity highlights Spanish and English cognates that share Latin root words and have a related meaning. Because each word has layers of meaning, especially when used in actual communication, the activity can be adapted with more words, more complex words, and opportunities to use the words in conversations, in presentations, or in writing assignments. Click here to begin.

Reflect: How can you display or refer to cognates in your classroom? What are other first languages of your students that have cognates with English? What is an example?

Close Reading Strategies

Close reading is a careful and purposeful reading and/or rereading of a text, using text-dependent questions to guide reading toward a specific purpose that the teacher sets at the beginning. The teacher can set a purpose to focus on an author’s use of language in order to enhance the contrastive analysis and cognate activities discussed in the previous section, or it some other area such as figurative language or aesthetic appreciation. Close reading can also involve different kinds of annotation and partner talk.

Key Word Notes

  • In this strategy, reading material is chunked into four sections. After completing a chunk of reading, students circle three words that were most meaningful to them in the passage. They then take turns explaining their selections to another student. Students proceed in this way until they have read and discussed words from the four chunks of text. After completing the last chunk, students write a paragraph or more about their understanding of the reading material (Rothstein, 2007).

Critical Response

  • Reader response theory (Rosenblatt, 1978) says that how a reader feels about his or her reading should guide how he or she responds to the text. No matter how we as teachers may want to push students into a cognitive expression about what they are reading, they first need to emote. And even when they are engaged in critical conversation, their ideas come from their emotions. We can build the emotional response into the reading and writing activities with journal prompts, anticipation guides, quick writes, student interviews, and similar strategies. In order to extend the response, Marzano suggests that we bring out and validate students’ emotional response and then help them systematically examine their response critically.

Questioning the Author

  • In this strategy, students process any text by imagining themselves in conversation with the person who wrote it. Begin by having students brainstorm what they might want to ask the author based on the initial and most obvious features of the text—the title, author’s name, subheadings, illustrations, etc. Continue this process during reading, focusing on more detailed information from the text. After completing the reading, determine which questions can be answered by rereading portions of the text and which questions require additional research outside of the text. After students answer questions on their own, in a group, or with the class, they may consider sending additional unanswered questions to the author’s web page, blog, or email address, where possible (Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kucan, 1997).

Identifying Theme Through Close Reading

Video and Reflection: Watch Identifying Theme Through Close Reading to see how a teacher prepares her students for a close reading. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: How do you set up a close reading activity for or with your students?
  • Watch the video: Note how Ms. Johnson sets up this reading activity in the video. How do the various instructional supports help students in their close reading?
  • Reflect: Students wrote about one of the book’s characters as a way to explore the theme after the reading. What are some other ways to help students demonstrate their learning from reading complex fiction?

Annotating Text
Annotation is an important tool in close reading. Annotation involves selecting symbols to represent different reading experiences (such as a question mark when you have a question or encounter confusing information, and a plus sign for new information, etc.) and recording those symbols near areas of the text where that experience occurs when reading. Annotation is not an end in and of itself. Annotation helps extend the conversation orally or in writing to help expand understanding.

Annotating Text Activity
You will now complete an activity in which you will begin by annotating a reading—an excerpt from Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave—then expand the annotations into a written response about the passage.

Reflect: Describe the annotation techniques during close reading that you prefer, and how you use them to gain a deeper understanding of the text.

Intertextual Reading Strategies

Every text can be connected to another text. With each additional reading, we expand, nuance, or reinforce our understanding of concepts presented in the reading. Three strategies for reading intertextually include:

Literature Circles

  • Literature circles scaffold students into having academic discussions. Students read multiple selections on one theme or by one author. They come together to discuss the reading with specific roles or focus areas of the text, such as vocabulary or plot, or of the reading process, such as asking questions, or summarizing. Roles are assigned in order to teach students how to discuss their reading and ideas. Roles should be refined as needed to promote fluid academic discussion or abandoned when they impede discussion.

I Search

  • Students identify an area of interest or a question they would like to explore about a topic under study. Students brainstorm a list of all possible places they can go to learn more and answer their questions. In considering sources of information, students should consider outside experts to interview or talk with. When writing up what they have found, students are encouraged to write using their informal voice rather than academically, so as to personalize the activity. Later, the I Search can be transitioned into a formal academic presentation.

Video and Reflection: Watch Comparing the Language of Multiple Sources to see a teacher help students understand ideas about American identity by bringing together poetry reading and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in his English class. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What are some ways that one text can be explored in relation to one or more other texts?
  • Watch the video: Mr. Martinez incorporates choice by allowing his students to respond to the two texts in different ways. How does this help his students respond thoughtfully to their reading?
  • Reflect: After the readings, students will read the play Zoot Suit, which also explores identity development in the United States. What nonfiction texts could Mr. Martinez have used? What nonprint texts could he have used?


Instructional format refers to the way the teacher structures a lesson. When establishing the instructional format, the teacher should be purposeful (how will the activities in the lesson plan support the instructional goals?); dynamic (how will the teacher ensure the pacing of the lesson does not drag on and take up too much time?); stimulating (how will the lesson incorporate novelty to ensure fresh attention from students?); and ritualized (how will students have a sense of familiar structure?). Several different instructional formats are described below. They should be applied based on the instructional goal.

Large-Group Instruction

Large-group instruction is often overused. This is generally because teachers feel they have extensive knowledge and information to impart to students. While large-group instruction is important for some instructional goals, students can get lost in excessive amounts of teacher talk from the front of the room. Instead of being the primary and most frequent approach, it should happen in small chunks and at various times during the teaching/learning process. Teacher talk should be supported by visuals and other supports or illustrations in order to make the communication comprehensible (Krashen, 1989). While these external supports are helpful for English language learners in particular, all students can benefit from this full presentation of ideas. Teachers can and should read to their students in large-group format as a means of student engagement and also to model language use and expression and verbalize and model their cognitive process to students while reading. This process can be supported with visuals strategically placed around the room to reach all students. Teachers can model close reading practices, supporting their demonstration with PowerPoint presentations or other visuals. Large-group instruction is also an appropriate format for book talks, where teachers or librarians introduce books to students that they might find interesting. Book talks are not only an opportunity for teachers to introduce books, but also to model the process of selecting a book for personal reading.

Small-Group Discussions

Small-group formation should be purposeful, flexible, and dynamic. Teachers should have a specific academic purpose or task for grouping students in a particular way. The grouping should be flexible so students don’t feel stuck or tracked, especially if the temporary grouping structure is based on ability level. Group structures should vary from pairs, triplets, and quads. The purpose and activity should also vary.

Don’t worry if some initial conversation appears off topic. This is how students process, build community, and survey context. Adults do this very thing when they are initially grouped together to perform jury duty, practice salsa in a dance class, or carry out some other formal function. To help students stay on track overall, they should also be given explicit instructions and roles in small-group work. They should also have time to practice the task given in groups before they are assessed. Roles are assigned in order to teach students how to discuss their reading and ideas. You can refine the roles as needed to promote fluid academic discussion or allow them to be abandoned when they impede discussion. The idea is not simply to provide students with something to say regardless of how closely they connect to other discussants, but to help them have academic discussion with others.

Reflect: List examples of when you provide large-group instruction, and why. Then, list examples of when you have provided opportunities for students to work in small groups, and why. How do the two grouping formats support student learning?

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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4