Reading and Writing in Content Areas


By Kathy Varone, M.S.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

This module does not focus on one particular English structure or process, as many of the other SEA Site modules do. Instead, its purpose is to provide the site visitor with many different general ideas for incorporating reading and writing activities into content courses. These ideas will have application to virtually any type of course and, if implemented, will contribute to students' ongoing English language acquisition and their academic success. Site visitors can also incorporate ideas from the other SEA Site modules that focus on specific English structures and processes into the various reading and writing activities described in this module.

For a variety of reasons, many teachers of deaf students shy away from requiring reading and writing assignments in content area courses. We need to provide our students with as many opportunities as possible for interaction with reading materials and also opportunities for using writing as a tool for learning and analyzing information.

Reading and writing activities not only help build literacy skills; they can also be used as a means for exploring ideas in content areas, analyzing information learned in content areas, and organizing this information for later retrieval.

This module contains suggestions for before-reading, during-reading, and after-reading activities, as well as vocabulary building and other general activities. Specific techniques discussed in this module include:

  • Activating Schema
  • Predicting
  • Developing Questions
  • Preparation for Answering Questions
  • Marginal Notes
  • Role Playing Good Reading Habits
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Quiz Questions
  • Summary Writing
  • Outlining
  • Creative Testing
  • Active Participation in Preparing for Class Activities
  • Research Opportunity
  • TV Viewing
  • Related Readings
  • Learning Logs
  • Writing Predictions
  • Creative Writing
  • Student-Generated Vocabulary Lists
  • Concept Circles
  • Concept of Definition Word Maps

Incorporating Reading and Writing Activities into Content Area Courses

The ideas that follow will not necessarily be new ideas for most of the visitors to this site; they are ideas that have been used by myself, my colleagues at NTID, and I am sure by many other teachers nationwide with varying degrees of success. Sometimes trying the same idea with a different class or with a new twist will produce very different results.

When trying to decide on which ideas to include in this module, I thought about how much time would be involved in implementing them in the classroom. I tried to choose activities and assignments that required the least amount of preparation for content area teachers and that could be easily integrated into any curriculum. Most of the activities can also be used at any level, from elementary to postsecondary with little or no modification.

Before-Reading Activities

To prepare students for a reading and to help them become more motivated to read, try the following reading strategies. Often, doing a little preparation can go a long way in helping students understand difficult texts.

Activating Schema

Before beginning a reading, ask students to activate their schema on the new topic during class time. For example, write the title of the chapter or article on the board and ask students to write down whatever they already know about that topic. Related ideas are fine also.

Then ask them to skim the article to further activate prior knowledge. They can free-write for two or three minutes on anything that comes to mind about the topic and then share their ideas with the class.

To save time, you can skip the free writing activity, and ideas can be shared through discussion only. By connecting new ideas to existing knowledge, students can fill in gaps in their readings.


Before beginning a reading, ask students to make a prediction about what the text will discuss based on the title and a brief preview of subheadings, pictures, graphs, etc. Emphasize that thinking about the material and making a prediction is more important than being right or wrong. Briefly discuss the students' predictions.

Developing Questions

After students have previewed a reading, ask them to write two or three questions they would like to find the answers to in their reading. For example, if they are about to read a chapter on "The Milky Way Galaxy," ask them what they are curious about and to come up with some questions about that idea. This gives them a more personal reason for reading.

Preparation for Answering Questions

If you are assigning questions for students to answer after they read, explain the type of questions you are asking. For example, are the answers to the questions explicitly stated in the text? Do the students need to think about what they have read and come up with their own answers?

Asking students to read through the questions during class before reading a passage is good preparation for a reading also. This not only gives them an opportunity to ask for clarification if necessary, but gives them an additional purpose for reading. Moreover, it becomes a guide for what is important to look for and remember in the text.

To guide students to a more active approach to reading, and to encourage them to check their comprehension, try the following:

Marginal Notes

Encourage students to use a system of marginal notes instead of a highlighter while they are reading a text. This will be a new activity for many students and will require a great deal of practice for students to feel comfortable with it. For example:

After reading a paragraph from a longer text, students can summarize the main point and any major details in the margin. (Pencils should be used to make corrections easier.) These notes should be written in students' own words as much as possible to make sure they are understanding the concepts being presented.

Students can also write questions they have about the information to help them remember to bring up a specific point in class.

To show that they are relating existing knowledge with new concepts, students can write examples from their life that are related to ideas in the text.

Students should also be encouraged to write definitions for new vocabulary they encounter in the text.

Note: If students are not permitted to write in their texts, a similar process of notetaking can be done in a notebook. Copies of articles can also be distributed for practice with marginal notations.

Role Playing Good Reading Habits

Using a short passage, try role playing how experienced readers might actively engage themselves with a text. Here are some examples of what you might try:

Talk about what images are forming in your mind as you read a portion of the text.

Make predictions as to what the next paragraphs might explain.

Show how you check your understanding by keeping an "internal summary" of ideas. This can be done after each paragraph or section by stopping and saying to yourself, "This paragraph explained the causes of ____. The most common cause is ____."

You can demonstrate how an experienced reader might use marginal notes.

Finally, show what you do when you come across unfamiliar vocabulary (look for synonyms, antonyms, definitions, and other contextual clues).

Students often finish a reading, close the book, and don't think about it again until they arrive in class. The following activities can be used after a reading to help students analyze concepts for a deeper understanding of ideas and organize information for later retrieval:

Graphic Organizers

Encourage students to use graphic organizers (charts or concept "maps") to help them visualize concepts and key relationships between ideas from their readings. These should be started right after students have completed a reading, whereas revisions and additions can be done after class discussions.

It's a good idea to show students several examples of graphic organizers and explain which ones work well with different text patterns. Many reading skills texts have examples of various graphic organizers with explanations of how they might best be used. Here is an example of one type of graphic organizer for comparing two concepts:

Chart that says with 2 Concept blocks at top, branching to one block that says Similarities, and then several empty single blocks chained below that

Quiz Questions

After students read a chapter or section of a chapter in the course textbook, ask them to develop questions for a quiz. (This can also be done with other reading materials.) This activity forces them to analyze the information in the chapter and decide on the most important concepts to remember.

Formulating questions can also help them to organize the concepts into logical chunks of information for easier retrieval. Working in groups on this activity is helpful for further discussion of concepts.

Students can then present their questions to the class and see who can answer them correctly. The students trying to answer the questions may offer suggestions on how to write a question more clearly so that it can be easily understood. Teachers might also offer suggestions for revision of questions. Other SEA Site modules, for example, "WH-Questions" and "Passive Voice" can be useful for teachers in providing guidance in using structures that will be more easily understood by students.

Summary Writing

Ask students to write a summary of the main points of a text or passage. Figuring out what to include in a summary is often a difficult task for students, so passing out a handout with the criteria for a good summary can serve as a reminder to students.

Modeling the process of good summary writing during class is also helpful. For example, when students have finished a portion of text, begin a discussion of the most important points from the text. Write all the points that students suggest on the board. Discuss which ideas should be included in the summary. In addition, show how ideas can be paraphrased and written in the student's own words.

Remember to emphasize that minor details,specific examples, and opinions should not be included in a summary of a text.


Writing outlines is also a good way to organize and remember concepts. The emphasis here should be on how students see the relationships between ideas being presented. Don't worry if students don't use the correct Roman numerals or other markers. What is important is that they are able to distinguish the main ideas from the supporting details and organize the information in a logical format.

Creative Testing

To evaluate how much of a text students understood, and to see how confident students are when answering questions about a text, you can try the following quiz method I saw used by a colleague, Vicki Robinson, in a physics class at NTID. This method also encourages valuable small group discussion of concepts. Here's how it works:

Students read an assigned number of pages for homework. (The number of pages assigned usually depends on the level of difficulty of the text.) They are told that they will be quizzed on the information the next day.

When the students arrive for class the following day, they are each given a quiz and asked to complete it individually. The quiz involves a series of TRUE/FALSE (T/F) questions where the students are required to write three answers for each question.

Here's an example of a quiz question:

Newton's third law of motion is: For every force (action), there is an equal and opposite force (reaction).

If students feel strongly that this statement is true, they would write T, T, T as their three answers to the question. If they are fairly confident that this statement is true, but not totally sure, they could write T, T, F. If they feel strongly that this is an incorrect statement, they could answer F, F, F, and so on. Each question is worth three points, so it is possible to receive partial credit.

After students answer all the questions, their papers are collected by the teacher. Then the students are divided into groups and given the same quiz. Students discuss the questions, give their opinions, and try to support their answers with information they remember from the text. They write their own TRUE and FALSE answers to the questions again based on the discussion with their group.

The teacher collects the papers and has the option of keeping both scores for each student, combining the scores for both quizzes and recording the average, or keeping the higher of the two scores.

Active Participation in Preparing for Class Activities

Make handouts for the activities you do during class that have several steps such as science labs or other group activities that require a process. Make sure that what you are asking students to do is written clearly with all the details they will need to complete the task. Then try the following:

Ask the students to carefully read through what they will be doing. When they are finished, use a document camera or an overhead projector to display what they have just read.

Students can take turns explaining the process and writing the steps in summary form on the board or another overhead transparency.

If a student has difficulty explaining a step, point out the step on the displayed text and ask other students to assist in analyzing that portion of the text. Unknown vocabulary or syntax may be interfering with comprehension, and oftentimes other students will be able to help out.

The students can then demonstrate their understanding further by going ahead with each step of the task, getting feedback from other students and from the teacher.

This activity forces students to read carefully and analyze portions of text instead of waiting for the teacher to explain what they will be doing.

Research Opportunity

When you are finished discussing a topic for class, ask the students what else they would like to find out about the topic. They can research the topic further and find related topics to read and write about.

For example, as an extra credit assignment, students could find an article on the web or in a magazine related to a topic they have just covered in class. They could read the article and write a short summary of it to present to the class.

Emphasis here would be on content, but students could take advantage of any English tutors or instructors to make sure they have expressed their ideas clearly.

TV Viewing

Ask students to watch close-captioned educational programs and other dramas related to topics you are studying in class ("CSI" for a class on Forensic Science, "Law and Order" for a Social Studies class, "West Wing" for a class discussing politics, etc.). These shows can be taped and left on reserve for students, making it easier for them to take notes if necessary. Teachers can develop questions about the content for students to answer individually or in groups.

A writing assignment can be developed from this activity that asks students to explain how realistic they think the program was, based on what they have learned in class or from their texts. They could use specific examples from class or texts to support their reasoning.

Related Readings

Look for related newspaper articles and bring them in for students to read and discuss during class. These can be used as a springboard for new units or as reinforcement of concepts being taught. Students can also bring in articles related to course content that interest them. Discuss content, new vocabulary, idioms, etc.

Learning Logs

To encourage students to reflect on what they are learning in a course or what they are having difficulty with, ask them to keep a learning log. Students should have a separate notebook for their logs, with entries at least once a week for the duration of the course.

Every couple of weeks, collect the learning logs and respond to them in a way that encourages students to reflect further on problems and concerns they are having. Similar to journals, students write in their logs in their own language.

Each log entry can have specific questions to answer to guide students in their writing. Some examples of questions to use after students have read a chapter in their text are listed below:

What interesting material did you learn in this chapter?

Which part of the chapter did you enjoy the most? Why?

What new vocabulary did you learn in this chapter? How have you tried to remember these words?

Were there parts of the chapter that were more difficult to understand than others? If so, why do you think they were more difficult? How did you finally come to understand the difficult parts?

Which questions at the end of the chapter did you get wrong? Did you make careless errors?

What part of the chapter you just read would you like to learn more about? How can you pursue this topic?

What questions do you still have about this chapter?

If you want students to reflect on a class activity or another type of assignment, you can modify these questions or you can develop your own questions.

Writing Predictions

During labs or other activities when students are asked to predict what will happen, ask them to write their prediction in their notebooks. This ensures that everyone will at least think about the question, try to come up with a prediction, and put it into words (active, rather than passive, participation in class activities).

Share some of the students' responses on a document camera or an overhead projector. Again, emphasize the importance of making the prediction, not being right or wrong about it. During the course of the activity, as students collect more information, they can modify their predictions.

Creative Writing

Try adding some creative writing assignments to course content. Sometimes students become bogged down with trying to adhere to discipline-specific forms of writing. With creative writing, students are free to explore a concept or process in a fun way and still show their understanding of course material. Here are a two examples:

For a biology class, ask students to "become a slice of pizza" and write about what it feels like to be eaten. They could describe the process of digestion from beginning to end from the point of view of the slice of pizza.

Ask students to put themselves in a soldier's shoes who is writing home to a girlfriend. This assignment could coincide with various historical time periods the class is studying and could include details about specific battles or other events.

No doubt you are using some form of vocabulary practice exercises in your courses to help students learn unfamiliar vocabulary. Here are a few ideas to add to your repertoire of activities to help students gain a deeper understanding of concepts.

Student-Generated Vocabulary Lists

After students have read an assigned reading, ask them to form small groups and identify several words they would like to learn more about. (Teachers can choose a specific number of words depending on class size.) When all the groups have chosen their words, write them on the board with the corresponding page and paragraph numbers from the text.

Ask the groups to do the following for each word they have chosen:

Discuss how the word is used in the text.

Define the word using contextual clues and other resources.

Discuss why they think the word is important to learn.

When all groups are finished, ask each group to present the results of their discussion. The instructor can write the definitions on the board and other class members can contribute their ideas. Students later record all of the definitions in their notebooks for further practice and review.

The teacher now has a list of student-generated words for use in follow-up activities. Modeling how this process is done will help guide students in their discussions and presentations.

Concept Circles

Concept circles (Vacca & Vacca, 1996) serve the same function as categorization activities, but they seem to be more fun for students. Here are three examples of variations on the concept circle. For each concept circle, draw a circle and divide it into quadrants.

1. Put words or phrases in each section of the circle, and direct students to describe or name the concept relationship shown in the sections.

Name the concept represented by all of the parts of the circle: _____________

circle graph divided into 4 quadrants labeled clockwise: hard drive, mouse, keyboard, monitor

For this example, the concept to be entered in the blank would be "computer."

2. Put words or phrases in each section of a concept circle and direct students to shade in a section containing a word or phrase that does not relate to the others in the circle. Then ask them to identify the overarching concept.

3. Leave one or two sections of a concpet circle blank and ask students to fill in the section(s) with a word that relates to the terms in the other sections. They then identify the overarching concept represented by the circle.

Concept of Definition (CD) Word Maps

"CD instruction supports vocabulary and concept learning by helping students to internalize a strategy for defining and clarifying the meaning of unknown words. The hierarchical structure of a concept has an organizational pattern that is reflected by the general structure of a CD word map" (Vacca & Vacca, 1996, p. 149).

CD word maps work best with words that function as nouns. Here's how a CD map works:

In the center of the CD word map, students write the concept being studied.

Working outward, they then write the word which best describes the general class or superordinate concept that includes the target concept. (What is it?)

Students then provide at least three examples of the concept as well as three properties. (What are some examples? What is it like?)

Comparison of the target concept is also possible when students think of an additional concept that belongs to the general class but is different from the concept being studied.

See the diagram below for a CD word map.

graph with item in center that says CONCEPT and items in circle around and each connected by a line to the center, labeled clockwise: Broad Definition or Category (what is it?), Properties (what is it like?), Illustrations, Comparisons

The goal of CD mapping is not for students to have a pile of maps for each vocabulary list they need to study. Instead, students need to see and understand how the process works so they can internalize it and apply it as needed.