What To Do if They Can’t Read the Textbook

 In Support for Struggling Readers

In the literacy block, there are always lots of choices of fiction to meet the various reading levels of the students. Not so much in the content areas, where there is often only one option for accessing the information. Why does textbook reading present such a challenge, even for capable readers?

Well, there are the usual issues with nonfiction: density of information, technical language, unusual text structures and conventions, and an assumption that the reader is bringing certain background knowledge to the reading. And, in the past, engaging and readable prose was often sacrificed in the interests of presenting the facts in content area textbooks.

Although there have been improvements in the quality of writing and appearance of content area textbooks, many are still written well beyond the reading level of the students for whom they are intended.

There are numerous strategies for Navigating Nonfiction Text that students can – and should – learn. But sometimes they’re not enough.  Here’s a radical idea:  instead of making all readers adapt to the textbook, how about adapting the textbook to the readers?  Here are five (sometimes controversial) tips for making textbooks more accessible to struggling readers:

  1. Preteach key vocabulary. This not only lowers the readability of the text, but also provides essential background knowledge.
  2. Provide an advance organizer or outline of key ideas. Advance organizers can take different forms, but all serve the purpose of guiding students to recognize key ideas and understand relationships between what they already know and what they will be learning.
  3. Dismantle the textbook!  For some students, the very size of a textbook can be intimidating; simply giving them one chapter or section at a time can help mitigate the challenge.
  4. Pre-highlight key ideas, so struggling readers know what to focus on.
  5. Mark up the textbook. Insert labels or sticky notes with word meanings or explanations. Add subheadings where appropriate and useful. Replace unnecessarily difficult vocabulary (as long as it’s not key to the content). Shorten sentences by inserting punctuation and capitals.

Obviously you can’t make these accommodations for every student in the class.  But for your most vulnerable learners, it might be the bridge to understanding the material in their content-area classes.

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