Research Notes September 2013

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Language Structure: A Key to Content Comprehension

Do you have students who can read but struggle to comprehend their science and history textbooks? Why do so many adolescents struggle to comprehend this reading despite the fact that their word recognition skills are on grade level? How can content area teachers support students' reading development while not losing their focus on the curriculum?

These are the challenges that most content area teachers face as they design their instruction to meet the needs of their students and the Common Core literacy standards. Science, history, and other subjects present major challenges to students, and a great part of the challenge is linguistic. (Halliday, 1993) Functional linguists believe that many of these challenges can be solved if students are explicitly taught the language structures that are characteristic of each content area.

Secondary School Instructional Shift

During the elementary grades, an important part of instructional focus is on developing the basic reading skills of decoding, automaticity and accuracy. Research and curriculum development experts have focused much effort on developing the best practices for these areas in an attempt to make literacy attainable for all children. Scott & Balthazar (2010) highlighted a common belief that students who receive this instruction in their early school years will continue to develop their literacy skills without further explicit instruction. Unfortunately reading and writing assessment data does not substantiate this hypothesis for secondary school students. (Scott & Balthazar, 2010)

When students enter middle school and high school, the instructional focus shifts away from explicit reading instruction as content becomes the center of attention. Students must read to learn. This instructional shift is often when students begin to struggle to comprehend and keep pace with their classmates and the disparity between readers becomes increasingly evident. Scott & Balthazar (2010) highlight that well over half of all older students in this country do not read and write at proficient levels despite the elementary emphasis on the development and implementation of research based reading instruction. Secondary teachers, who struggle to support these students, emphasize vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies. While these are important strategies, a growing number of experts and researchers are concluding that this approach “will still fall short because it fails to help the students deconstruct the content-specific linguistic features unique to curricular subjects… they argue that what is needed is disciplinary literacy." (Scott & Balthazar, 2010) The International Reading Association (2006) believes “the key to developing discipline specific reading skills and strategies is understanding how knowledge is presented in characteristic patterns of language in each subject area and explicitly teaching the ways language constructs knowledge in the content areas.

In an effort to understand these content-specific linguistic features, researchers studied content area textbooks. These analyses “have helped clarify the distinctive language patterns associated with learning content within academic domains." (Anstrom et. al., 2010)

Their research highlights that content meaning is often constructed using technical and abstract language, which condenses large ideas into fewer words. These ideas are then linked with connectives whose meaning may be unfamiliar to students. The ability to understand this language of school, often referred to as academic language (AL) or academic English (AE), is “foundational to academic access and success." (Anstrom et. al., 2010) However, many students struggle with this complex language because the grammatical patterns and functions are unfamiliar and very different from conversational language patterns. Recent research details the critical importance of explicitly teaching students to comprehend these discipline-specific language patterns. (Shanahan & Shanahan 2008) . Hollis Scarborough from the Haskins Laboratory highlights that an understanding of these language patterns and the structure of language are necessary components of skilled reading. (Birsch, 2012) Unfortunately, these skills are often “overlooked when thinking about improving reading comprehension and content knowledge." (Scott, 2009)

Explicit Teaching of Content Area Language Patterns

At the secondary level academic language instruction often focuses on content vocabulary. However, research cautions that “a focus on academic vocabulary alone is not sufficient as features of academic English include not just specialized vocabulary, but also complex grammatical structures and [language] patterns." (as cited by Anstrom et al., 2010) Successful instruction needs to target these structures and patterns at the sentence level because many students struggle with comprehension at sentence level. (Cheryl Scott, 2009) Students can decode the words and they can read fluently, yet they fail to understand what they are reading. Additional strategies that are commonly used to address these difficulties include questioning the author, predicting, summarizing, making connections and visualizing. While these strategies are all valuable, many assume students can already make sense of the complex language patterns used in academic texts. Many students' ability to succeed will be dependent upon their teacher's ability to teach them “discipline specific reading skills and strategies" which reflect an understanding of “how knowledge is presented in characteristic patterns of language in each subject area." (Cheryl Scott, 2009)

Unfortunately many content area teachers at the middle and high school level are not trained to teach their content specific language patterns, but, as Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) highlight, language instruction and content cannot be separated. Anstrom et. al. (2010) cite research emphasizing that teachers working with students who struggle with AE “should have the kind of linguistic and practical knowledge that allows them to help students see how grammatical choices lead to differences in the ways that ideas are portrayed in texts." This knowledge will help them teach their students to comprehend the complex language patterns in the content readings. This instruction is vital to a student's success because as Scott (2009) highlights, if a student cannot understand complex sentences, no amount of comprehension strategy instruction will help. The National Council of Teachers of English stresses that content area teachers' instruction needs to “allow students to engage in critical examinations of texts." (IRA, 2006) This instruction should include sentence level analysis that dissects, deconstructs and re-constructs the text in an effort to help the students comprehend content area reading. Once these struggling readers are able to comprehend the specific language patterns in the different content areas, they will be able to read to learn in the content classroom.

Teachers at Delaware Valley Friends School

At Delaware Valley Friends School, language is not a hidden curriculum. Students are explicitly taught the content specific language patterns needed to understand their content area reading. For example, our freshman history teacher, Gray Goodman, worked with his students to help them complete sentence level analyses of the assigned readings. The students dissected, deconstructed and re-constructed the text readings. These language-based activities in history helped the students comprehend their content area reading which in turn allowed them to actively participate in class discussions and competently respond to comprehension questions and essay prompts.



Helen Mannion, M. Ed., CALT, is Director of Language and Literacy Remediation and Director of Teacher Training at Delaware Valley Friends School. Helen received her BA from Bucknell University and her M.Ed. from Benedictine University in reading and literacy. She is a Certified Academic Language Therapist who focuses her research and curriculum development on language and literacy instruction.


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  • Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008) Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content area literacy. Harvard Educational Review. 78(1), 40-59.
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