Teaching kids to read non-fiction is tough. To some kids, reading non-fiction is the worst of the worst, but it doesn’t have to be. I believe that, at the root of every non-preferred activity lies an insecurity or perceived inability to accomplish the task. While general reading strategies are helpful for all students in all genres, in this past unit, my students and I developed a list of seven strategies that we noticed ourselves using throughout the unit. Some of them are obvious; others were new to me! There were, also, some teacher strategies that I realized were especially effective for getting kids to think differently about reading non-fiction.
(1) Preview, question, and set a purpose.
Jumping into the text without thinking can be a detrimental mistake when it comes to reading–especially non-fiction. In order for students to have any sort of independent footing when it comes to reading anything, they need to be given structured opportunities to preview the text, ask some questions, and use those questions to help them generate a purpose for reading and learning. This routine is one that needs to be articulated and practice, with teacher support, many times before it becomes a natural application of their reading practice.
(2) Predict text structure using headings and text features.
Along with number one, if students are previewing and asking questions, they should notice that the text is littered with text features. While these text features provide some strong hints at the central idea, as well as multiple main ideas throughout sections of the text. Further, these headers could lend themselves to laying out the structure of the text. This may not always be the case, but it’s worth a shot! Predicting text structure ahead of time not only activates thinking around a text; it also provides a foundation while students read. They are able to ground themselves in their prediction, constantly assessing and trying to find whether or not their predicted structure was correct.
Once they read the whole text, they can then assess their prediction at the end, allowing for critical thinking about the craft and structure of a text, lending itself nicely to parallels between text structure, main idea, and key details.
(3) Differentiate between whole-text and paragraph text structure.
This is super important. Text structure was new to me when I started with this group of students a year and a half ago. Through the teaching and learning process, my team and I realized that text structure can mean a variety of things, and that within an intermediate grade-level text, there could be a number of text structures, ranging from whole-text-level to paragraph-level.
(4) Look for repeated or related words within paragraphs and whole texts.
This was a new one for me this year, and it didn’t occur to me to use it until one of the kids pointed it out. We were reading a text on guide dogs, and the main idea of one section was clearly that puppy raisers are one of the first steps in the process of raising a guide dog. One of my students so astutely pointed out, “Mr. France, it even says ‘puppy raisers’ a bunch of times.” Immediately, we added this to our chart and have used it ever since. Now, I see kids highlighting repeated or related words all the time!
(5) Do not front load knowledge; instead, ask students to discuss their background knowledge–even if it’s wrong.
Too often, we provide students with a bunch of background knowledge prior to reading a text, but this effort will be in vain, should the teacher provide too much support. Oftentimes, when providing background knowledge, it’s all on the teacher. He or she inadvertently shares his or her background knowledge, providing way too much support ahead of time, frequently removing a great deal of the rigor from the students. Instead, try and find ways to help students channel their own background knowledge, neither affirming nor refuting the preconceptions they may have on a topic. Instead, take their background knowledge, and ask them to affirm or refute that knowledge on their own by using it to set a purpose for reading.
This could be as simple as saying, “It sounds like you have some background knowledge on this topic. Perhaps you should read to see if the background knowledge you have is correct.”
This takes the ownership off of you and puts it directly in the hands of students, preparing them for the times when they are forced to conquer non-fiction text on their own. It teaches them to take what they already know and activate it on their own. This practice, however, needs to be repeated many times before it sticks.
(6) Think aloud, think aloud, think aloud!
I can’t stress this enough. Kids need models of good thinking, and any book you read on reading comprehension will say that. But don’t forget to engage the kids! Think-alouds that are entirely teacher-centered should be in short supply, similar to the gradual release model. Instead, after modeling a handful of times, start to include the kids thoughts in your think alouds by building upon what they say at their tables.
Student: “I’m noticing the title says “What are tornadoes?” so I think the text is going to help us define tornadoes.”
Teacher: “So you’re saying that the title is helping us see that the author is going to define tornadoes. I agree, and now I’m wondering about the text structure the author might use to help define tornadoes. What do you guys think?”
And the class discusses. By building upon spontaneous student thoughts, but always relating back to some of the core effective non-fiction reader strategies, the students have become partners in the think aloud, instead of the teacher being the only one permitted to participate in thinking aloud. Additionally, if this process is continuously repeated, students will begin to predict your responses, internalize those responses as their own, and naturally build upon each other’s thoughts, instead of you having to do it for them.
(7) Bring text structure and text features into writing.
All literacy concepts require flexibility and critical thinking, and they need to be taught in several different contexts. Children will not see the relevance, specifically, in learning to read non-fiction and employ the aforementioned non-fiction reading strategies if they do not see where else it can serve them. By bringing concepts like text structure, text features, and author’s purpose (relating it to reader’s purpose) into writing, students will have another pillar on which they may stand when conquering non-fiction.
Check out this example below. My students are writing an argumentative piece on the life existing (or not existing) elsewhere in the universe. Due to the rich instruction around craft, structure, and comprehension of non-fiction texts, I was able to seamlessly relate this to structuring an argumentative piece. The products from reading and writing non-fiction look strikingly similar, but our learning process was entirely different.