Integrating reading skills across the curriculum helps students learn, say experts at CIES

By Jillian Slutzker

March 11, 2016

Vancouver—Early grade reading has been a major focus of international education donors and implementers in recent years, resulting to increased funding and focus on boosting literacy skills among primary school students.

But beyond the early grades, students need additional support to master reading as a means of learning content, said experts on a panel called “Reading to learn: Improving subject area teaching” at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in Vancouver on March 10.

“Even though we have a tremendous focus on grades one through three, we know we have to be concerned about what happens after grade three,” said Diane Prouty, Senior Education Research Specialist at Creative Associates International.

When students hit grades three and beyond, the demand for reading is greater as reading becomes a means of learning content, said Prouty. Yet most subject area teachers, do not recognize the fact that they are indeed reading teachers as well.

Addressing this challenge “starts everywhere,” said Marcia Davidson, Senior Reading Specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “We need to start in pre-service, in-service and in the classroom.”

Creating reading teachers out of subject teachers in Morocco

The connection between student performance in content areas, like science and history, and reading became evident to middle school teachers and program implementers in Morocco under the Improving Training for Quality Advancement in National Education project—funded by USAID and implemented by Creative.

While the project aimed to boost middle school instruction and student performance, “we realized we could not improve student’s overall achievement if we did not work on reading,” said Abdelkader Ezzaki, literacy specialist at Creative and director of the project.

Through a follow-on program called Reading for Academic Skills and Individual Development in Middle Schools, Creative worked with the Ministry of Education to better integrate reading skills across subject area curriculum as a means to learn content and train subject area educators in supporting reading instruction across the curriculum.

“What we would tell teachers is that it’s in the interest of your content area subject to improve student’s reading,” said Ezzaki.

Students’ performance in reading improved over time, he said, showing a 13.68 percent increase in reading test scores, while a control group of students increased only 4.33 percent.

Performance in content areas also improved, said Ezzaki, and content area teachers began to view reading skills as a key part of their own curriculum.

Professional support for teachers in Tanzania and Pakistan

In learning environments defined by traditional “chalk and talk” pedagogy—where teachers rely on drills and rote memorization with little student engagement—reorienting teachers toward new methods that support student learning and reading across the curriculum is a major challenge, said Prouty.

But with the right professional development support, including ongoing coaching and mentoring and teaching resources, educators in traditional environments can be transformed into effective reading teachers across the curriculum.

For example, in nearly 900 primary schools across Tanzania, the USAID-funded Tanzania 21st Century Education Project supported teachers with training, ongoing mentoring and teacher’s guides to incorporate the basic principles of good reading into lessons across the curriculum. It was implemented by Creative.

“You can’t do content area reading if you don’t understand the basic principles of what constitutes reading,” said Prouty.

The teacher’s guide offered a menu of 50 types of activities for vocabulary and comprehension for math science and other subjects, and gave teachers the freedom to choose which strategies to apply for particular lessons.

The professional development program was such a success, said Prouty, that primary school teachers trained by the project were selected by Tanzania’s Ministry of Education as master trainers to take the training program to a national scale.

In Pakistan, where traditional, less effective teaching methods are also common, for the first time in the country’s history, Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission is working to integrate reading instruction coursework for teachers-in-training into curriculum in teacher training institutes. The pre-service training is supported by the Pakistan Reading Project—a nationwide USAID-funded program aimed at improving the quality of reading education in 23,800 schools. It is implemented by Creative.

The pre-service training is changing teachers’ attitudes about reading instruction before they step into classrooms of their own, said Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Education Associate at Creative.

“Their knowledge of reading is growing,” said El-Ashry, citing a survey of 91 students in the pre-service training courses across eight teacher training institutions. .

“They have started to look at themselves not just as teachers in the school but as change agents in their communities.”

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