Improving Reading Comprehension within Content Courses

Brian Letourneau 
Social Studies Teacher
Hanover High School
Hanover County Public Schools

Listen to Brian discuss his action research project


Over the last few years of my teaching experience, I have found in my high school history classes that my students, many of whom are above average according to SAT scores and attendance rates at 4 year universities, struggle to critically read and comprehend primary sources and other secondary sources which are not the course textbook. The ability to critically read to derive meaning/comprehension, understand the nuances of language and argument development, and to evaluate a source’s context and subtext are critical to the mission of my school and my profession as a social studies educator at large: to prepare students to become informed and active citizens. In my discussions with colleagues both in my school and at the district level, content teachers may model how to read sources related to our content field (i.e. lab reports, historical letters), but often fail to incorporate research-based content reading instruction into their regular classroom plans (myself included). Based on these conversations and my experiences with my own students, this study emerged with the following questions in mind.


  • How can content teachers successfully assess the reading levels of their students?
  • How do generally high achieving high school students grapple with challenging texts?
  • What content comprehension reading strategies prove most successful in helping students become better critical readers?


In order to answer these questions, I have examined my 11th grade IB History of the Americas I students (n= 36) over the course of the 2016-17 school year. For the first cycle of this research project, my focus was to develop quantitative and qualitative methods to ascertain my students’ reading levels as well as their strategies for comprehending difficult texts. After analyzing this data, the second cycle focused on introducing my students to a variety of research-backed comprehension tools for improving success with challenging readings. After accumulating and breaking down the results of formative assessments after the introduction of each method, the third cycle’s focus narrowed to test two of the successful methods from cycle two over a longer amount of time. In order to do this, I used one of my class sections as the test group which included regular use and instruction on two comprehension tools, and my other class conducted the same readings, but without the focus on the same tools. By the end of cycle 3, quantitative data showed the implementation of two interventions– clearly defining the purpose of the reading and having students revisit their highlighted annotations to reflect on significance– had brought on a small increase in performance on formative comprehension assessments. For cycle 4, I will examine these two interventions versus the integrated use of a picture/visual along with the assigned readings.

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