Teaching Developmental Reading Skills for Targeted Content Focuses

Student reads in high school
Reading in the subject areas. Todd Aossey/Getty Images

Developmental Reading is the name given to a branch of reading instruction designed to support students in content area classes, such as social studies, history, and the sciences. Developmental reading programs teach students strategies for engaging content texts, such as textbooks, articles, and resource books that they will encounter in high school and beyond, in higher education settings. 

Developmental reading does not address basic reading skills, such as phonemic awareness, decoding, and vocabulary. 

Many community colleges offer developmental reading courses to help students who are not really prepared for the rigors of college-level courses, especially technical textbooks.

Strategies for Success in Developmental Reading

Often students with disabilities are so overwhelmed by the amount of text they see in their content (social studies, biology, political science, health) classes that they will sometimes just shut down without even looking for information they need. Their typical peers may never actually read a text since they can often use text features to find the information they need. Teaching students, especially students with a history of difficulty with text, how to use text features will give them a sense of command over the text and help them read strategically as part of test preparation and study skills.

Text Features

Helping students recognize and learn to use text features is a foundational part of developmental reading. Teach students to first scan the text, reading captions and titles and subtitles, and they will be better able to understand and remember the content of the text. 

  • Illustrations: the pictures, of course. 
  • Photographs: yes, they are photographs rather than illustrations.
  • Maps: often to be found in social studies texts, and can typically be pivotal to understanding content.
  • Captions: found under illustrations, photographs, and maps, captions usually label what the student sees, often offering import information for unlocking the meaning.
  • Titles: tells specifically what the author intends you to find in the chapter or article.
  • Subtitles. the subtitles show how the author organized the information and can help students find the specific information they need.
  • Index: in the back. Very important to know how to use it.
  • Glossary: often word (new content-specific vocabulary,) will be boldfaced in the text, and students need to know that the glossary has a definition.


Getting students to prepare for approaching a text is an important part of success in reading. SQ3R was the standard for many years: Scan, Question, Read, Recite and Review. In other words, scanning (using text features) was to lead to questions: What do I know? What do I want to know? What do I expect to learn? Yes, that is prediction!