Content-Focused Reading Interventions or How to Fit Into a Size 4 Dress

  • 16 February, 2015

Blast from the Past: Originally posted February 16, 2015; re-posted on November 9, 2017. This is very timely as this issue has arisen anew about a half dozen times over the past month. Given that, I would add to the original post that core reading programs should include content objectives, content texts should be added to summer reading lists, IEPs should include statements about how content knowledge exposure will be protected, and schools should ask parents for help when the students need to be removed from content classes. If you have other ideas post them to comments, or to me on Twitter, Facebook, or Linked, or just email me. If I get enough I'll post another blog specifically on this knowledge protection issue.

Teacher question:

  I would like your thoughts on some instructional practices that I am seeing an increase in amongst the schools that I work with What do you have to say about decreasing or eliminating science/social studies instruction for those students who have not met proficiency in reading (as determined by a screener or other assessment tool) to allow for RTI time?

Student question:

        Ah, the "how do I fit into a size 4 dress for my sister's wedding?" question. I say that because we all deal with problems of trying to fit too much into a small space, whether we're still in the condo with the second baby or sneaking our SUV into the compact car spaces at Whole Foods.

      In this case, we want to give kids 8 hours of teaching in a 6-hour day. Of course, that rarely works (I can almost hear the seams stretching). How can we provide students with the reading instruction that they need while ensuring that they learn lots of content, too? Kind of makes you want to drown your sorrows in a pint of Haagen-Dazs--which could help with the reading problem, but I wouldn't advise it if you're still working on size 4. 

      Generally, I’m not a big fan of the practice. Many years ago, Harry Singer and his colleagues found a close relationship between what students knew about social studies and science and how well they were learning to read. These were secondary school students, but you get the idea. If we reduce kids’ opportunity to develop content knowledge, then we undermine their futures as readers.

        Of course, this question is not asking about older students. Research also shows that if students don’t master basic reading skills early on, then their later content learning will be seriously undermined. It is a disaster if kids leave the primary grades without strong reading skills, and undermining content knowledge to get there carries its own problems.

      Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. What is a school supposed to do? If a child is struggling to develop phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency skills, then providing additional tuition in those subjects is a proven way to advance early literacy.

        That’s where the conundrum is. If you don’t intervene well and early with sound reading instruction, then kids are likely to be dogged by low literacy in all their later subject matter courses. But if you do use science, social studies, art & music (etc.) time to fix the reading skills, then you reduce the knowledge that should play a big role in later reading.

      I’ve always sided with the reading intervention idea, but mainly because the content coverage in so many primary grade classrooms is so thin. The negative impact of missing those subjects is likely to be less detrimental than continuing to be a laggard in reading, so reading it is.

      Now I think we should be less accepting of that position, or at least we should try to make it a harder choice. Here are some practices and policies that can ensure  students gain both the reading skills and the subject matter content:

 Preschool literacy

    One way to ensure that most kids can read well in the elementary school grades is to advance their language and literacy skills early on. Preschools should include literacy play (e.g., post office, library, restaurant, newspaper office, writing center), story time, lots of books, and explicit instruction in phonological awareness and letter names and sounds. Whatever they learn before kindergarten and first grade, they don’t need to learn in kindergarten and first grade.

 Universal full-day kindergarten

      This content/reading rivalry is a competition for time. You can split the difference or prioritize, but the best thing for kids would be to expand the resource. More instructional hours means more opportunities for reading AND content instruction.

 Rigorous instruction in social studies, science, and the arts

      Many schools follow the tests. If there is a reading and math test, teachers and principals focus heavily on instruction in those subjects and everything else can go jump. Sadly, this means that kids get shortchanged. Let’s preserve dedicated time for teaching these things—increasing reading instruction without doing that is cheating.

 Reading social studies and science texts

        Teach reading using social studies and science texts. This can mean both including informational texts in the “reading books” and teaching reading using the regular textbooks from the subjects. If kids are going to practice prediction or summarizing or any other reading skill, why can’t they do that within Chapter 4 of the classroom science text?

 Longer academic days

      Again, we keep trying to squeeze an awful lot into too small of a space. I’m a big fan of afterschool and summer programs for kids. Often these are offered by zoos, parks, museums, libraries, scouts, and other non-school institutions. If we want our kids to be really good readers and to know a lot about their world, we need to make sure that the opportunities to learn go well beyond the school day (that way, when a student needs to miss a class because of reading or math, he/she isn’t missing everything). 

 Commitment to success

    When a student enters any kind of remediation, there should be a clear and meaningful goal for such teaching. And, then we ought to be aggressive about making sure they reach these goals. I’d say the same thing about content instruction; we need to make sure this teaching has powerful and clear objectives that we make a serious effort to accomplish. Too often we are rigorous in determining schedules and which teachers are to work with a remedial student, but we aren’t as dedicated to accomplishing real outcomes. 

Parent help

      Another way to expand learning time is to engage parent involvement. Not all parents can or are willing to help, but many are and we should take advantage of the resource. Parents can help with various aspects of reading instruction and activity, and the same is true for involving them in exposing their kids to rich content.

Make sure there is a content plan

      Often IEPs and the like emphasize the reading skills that have to be learned, but they are silent about what content needs to be mastered. In that sense, they can operate like tests... steering teachers to overemphasize some things and to ignore others. Don’t just figure out how to deliver high-quality reading instruction to such students, but also figure out how this will be done while preserving the content learning everyone else will get.

      All of these approaches can help to get more into a small space. They can increase learning opportunity, which could prevent or reduce the need to pull kids out of their content classes. I doubt we’ll ever be able to do away with pullout instruction (any more than we can get by without size 6 dresses). But I suspect we could reduce the ill effects of this approach while ensuring some real benefits. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Susan Allred Jun 13, 2017 04:22 PM


It is my belief that the problem is the approach of more of the same, longer is wrong. What are the skills students need and then what are all the key content elements they need. Integrate the two as opposed to the factory model of isolated delivery. It requires comprehensive planning but no content needs to suffer. If we can't revamp to provide learning instead of mastering isolated skills, we are preparing these students for our past not their future. If such an integrated approach isn't feasible then how can RTI be built to use other content area skills?

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 04:23 PM


What is your response to the kindergarten children that do not have preschool opportunities before kdg? H

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Content-Focused Reading Interventions or How to Fit Into a Size 4 Dress


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.