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Increasing ELL Student Reading Comprehension with Non-fiction Text

By: Kristina Robertson
One of the most important skills students learn as they transition into middle and high school is how to get information from a non-fiction text. This skill can be especially challenging for ELLs, who may not have had much experience working independently with expository texts. This Bright Ideas article offers ways that teachers can help ELLs work effectively with non-fiction texts and includes strategies for introducing components, structure, and purpose of expository texts.

Kids need to be able to learn to read text for meaning … (and ask themselves) "Do I know why I'm reading this? Do I know what information I'm looking for?" … We're always delivering the curriculum in a way that draws on language and reading skills.

— Dr. Nonie Lesaux

Do you remember buying used textbooks in college? If you were lucky, you got one that was highlighted by a skilled student, giving you clues to key information from the book that you needed for your coursework. If you weren't lucky, you got a textbook that had practically all words highlighted on each page and you were looking at a sea of neon pink, yellow, or blue, which could be very distracting. My guess is that a lot of high school students head to college without ever having learned to interact effectively with non-fiction texts. Since books are a precious resource in K-12 education systems, students aren't allowed to highlight or mark in them, and may rely more heavily on the classroom instruction and peer interaction than their reading material to grasp the main idea of a lesson.

Of course it's not just a question of highlighting important information — it's a question of learning key concepts and vocabulary by becoming familiar with different kinds of text, by learning to use a textbook's tools and structure, and by monitoring one's own comprehension of non-fiction text. Without ever having developed these skills, students will have a tough time when it comes time for them to learn information independently in more advanced coursework and in college.

This is especially true for English language learners, who are challenged by learning a new language and new content in that language at the same time. Teachers can help prepare ELL students to successfully work with non-fiction, (or expository) text, however, in many ways — and the earlier the better. Starting early is important because if elementary school classrooms have a predisposition towards fictional stories and literature, students may struggle when they get to fourth grade and need to engage effectively with non-fiction texts in order to learn new content.

In Colorín Colorado's Reading to Learn: ELLs in Grades 4-6 webcast, featured panelist Dr. Nonie Lesaux addresses this transition:

There probably is a fourth-grade slump, but the question is whether we're just picking something up in fourth grade that's already been there for a lot of years for a number of kids, and/or whether, in fact, there are differences in the comprehension demands of the curriculum, and certainly that's a question …(because by fourth grade) we have reading that cuts across a number of areas of instruction, so reading is not just relegated to reading instruction but rather we need to have good reading comprehension skills for math, for science, for other areas of the curriculum.

While some of those challenges relate to reading instruction in content areas, they also relate to improving the instruction non-fiction texts for ELLs so that students can work successfully with content-area material. In this article I will highlight components of non-fiction texts and effective strategies to help ELLs gain the skills needed to not only understand the content, but understand how the text structure works so they will be able to access content effectively throughout their education.

Introducing text

First, let's look at definitions of types of text:

Fiction Non-fiction
Narrative: The main purpose of narrative text is to tell a story. Narrative text has beginning, middle and end, characters, plot or conflict, and setting. Usually, narrative texts are written from the author's imagination. Expository: The main purpose of expository text is to inform or describe. Authors who write expository texts research the topic to gain information. The information is organized in a logical and interesting manner using various expository text structures.

To increase ELLs comprehension of non-fiction expository text, teachers need to provide:

  1. explicit instruction on how expository text is structured.
  2. models of "what good readers do" to get information from expository text.
  3. opportunities for practice so that ELLs can identify and interact with the text
  4. opportunities for peer interaction with the content of the text in order to increase comprehension.

Let's look at these steps in more detail:

1. Provide explicit instruction on how expository text is structured.

Teachers need to spend some time introducing students to the format of expository text. This is a lesson intended to teach students how to get information from non-fiction text rather than on the actual content of the text. That instruction can be done once students are familiar with the text format and structure.

Help students recognize the structure of expository text. Introduce the various parts of the text, such as the table of contents and the glossary. Discuss how these different parts are used for informational reading, how the text is organized, where different parts will be found in a textbook, and how they compare with one another.

For example, have students compare the index and the glossary, and discuss what they would use each section for. You might try asking a question such as, "If I want to know the definition of a word, will I look in the index or glossary?"

Elements that are important to introduce include:

Sections of a Textbook Visual Cues Graphic Elements
  • Table of contents
  • Glossary
  • Index
  • Titles and headings
  • Bold print
  • Bullets
  • Maps, graphics, and pictures
  • Sidebars
  • Captions

Although it may seem very obvious to teachers, something as simple as finding bold words and identifying their definition in surrounding text may be new concepts to developing readers. As students are instructed to find different components of the text, ask questions such as, "What does this graphic tell us? Why do you think the author wanted to put that there?" Make it a thinking exercise so the students will internalize the knowledge.

Chapter walk

One way to help students become familiar with new kinds of books is through a chapter walk, which can be used with fiction or non-fiction text. Students preview the chapter before starting their first lesson in a new unit, looking for headings, graphics, pictures, important words, and key information. Students can discuss what they've noticed and what they think will be covered in pairs, gropus, or with the entire class. Once students have become comfortable with a new resource, this exercise can be used to preview content for future lessons and activate background knowledge.

This strategy can also be used with fiction books by using illustrations and chapter headings or important words in the text.

Types of text

For older students, teachers can spend some time helping them understand the different types of text they will encounter, such as descriptive, sequence, and cause and effect. This document posted by U-46 School District in Elgin, Illinois provides an overview of five expository text structures, associated signal words, and related graphic organizers.

2. Provide opportunity for ELLs to practice interacting with the text and identifying key components of the text.

Giving the students to practice these skills will build confidence and offer many learning opportunities. Practice activities can be done to demonstrate how to get information from the expository text. For example, ask students to look for the main idea of a text, and then to explain what "clues" they saw that supported their answer. Students might say things such as, "The main idea is usually in the first paragraph." Or, "I saw the summary written on the side of the page." Engaging the class in discussion about these key components will give all students a chance to demonstrate learning.

Other strategies include:

  • Making predictions: One method is the Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DR-TA), which encourages students to be active readers. DR-TA is a process where the students listen to a brief summary of the text, review a few key words or pictures, and then make a prediction about the content of the text. As they begin to read the text, the teacher asks more questions about how their predictions match what they're reading.
  • Word splash: Students receive handouts with key words and phrases from the text "splashed" randomly across the page. The students spend some time making clusters of information that goes together. They can do this by circling groups of words, highlighting them in different colors, or drawing lines. The class discusses what they've learned from their clusters and what they predict they will learn from the text. Once again, when they begin to read the text they should make note of which parts of their prediction were correct and how they know that based on "evidence" in the text.
  • Practice highlighting: Students can practice highlighting text on worksheets or by using this method: Give each student a clear plastic overhead sheet and a "write-on/wipe-off" marker. Have the student paperclip the plastic sheet to a page in the textbook and work together to circle new vocabulary words and underline key points. The plastic sheets can be wiped off and used again.
  • Margin bookmark: One way to allow students to practice making notes is by using margin bookmarks. Prepare scratch paper "bookmark" strips that fit in the crease of the textbook and within the margin of the print, or that can be attached to the outside margin using a paperclip. Students can use these bookmarks to make notes in the margin. Give them specific tasks such as, "Write the definition of one of the bold words in your own words," or "Write one fact, one question, and one thing that is important for you to remember." Provide examples so that students see how they can interact effectively with expository text.
  • Define the important information: As evidenced by those textbooks full of highlighting I mentioned at the beginning of the article, if a student doesn't know what's important, then everything is important. I like to have the students do an activity I call "Pack the Suitcase" so that they can start identifying the most important information in the text. In order to do this activity, give the students a short text (no more than two paragraphs) and a small envelope with a picture of a suitcase drawn or glued on it. Pass out pieces of scrap paper and tell students that they need to:
    1. review the text
    2. write "an important point" on each piece of paper
    3. "pack" them in their suitcase.
    Students can use as many or as few pieces of paper as they want. When the students are finished, tell them they are going on a trip but that they packed too much — they must look in their suitcase and take out half of their items. Students will really have to decide which items (points) are most important to bring on the trip. Finally, have students "travel" to the other side of the room and sit with a partner and "unpack" the suitcases. See if they have the same points, and discuss any differences and how they identified what was important in the article.

3. Model "what good readers do" to get information from expository text.

As good readers, teachers sometimes forget how mystifying and overwhelming text can be for students. I can recall many years of math classes where I looked around at my classmates in puzzlement and wondered how they figured all the answers out! Looking at the textbook didn't help me because I didn't understand what I was looking for. I believe ELLs ofent have a similar experience, but if teachers model "what to do" when approaching expository text, ELLs will become more successful readers.

Here are some strategies to try:

  • Think aloud*: Read an introductory portion of the text to the class. Pause to model what you are thinking out loud, such as by describing what you know about the text. For example, a teacher may look at a chapter with a picture of a volcano and bold words in the text such as lava, magma, and geothermic. The teacher could say, "Hmmm … I see this picture of a volcano and I notice bold vocabulary words. The words look very scientific and technical. I bet this will be a reading about science. I think I will learn facts about volcanoes and how they work."
  • Demonstrate how to figure out vocabulary: As you come to new vocabulary words, pause and think about how you can figure out what that word means. Show how you look for clues such as commas after the word that contain a definition, or show how the word is related to something else you know such as a root word or cognate in another language. Finally the teacher may want to demonstrate how to ask someone next to you for help with the word, or refer to your personal dictionary of new words that you've created for the unit.
  • Use a graphic organizer: Determine what you need to know in the text and show how to complete a graphic organizer. Talk about how the graphic organizer will help you remember the important information in the text. For example, if students need to determine the characteristics of an active volcano vs. an inactive volcano, the graphic organizer can follow a comparison outline and students fill in the correct information as related to the topic. Be sure to emphasize that this kind of activity can be used in any classroom and with any content. The student just needs to determine what they want to know and make an "organized picture" of the information so they will remember.
  • Model "fix up" strategies*: Proficient readers know when they "missed" something or what they are reading doesn't make sense. Developing readers tend to "just keep going" hoping that eventually it will all make sense. Of course, this makes it much more difficult to comprehend the content and it leads to frustration. Show students how you "double check" information when you don't understand it or it doesn't make sense. Read a section of the text aloud — especially a complicated portion — and stop to reflect. Say out loud, "What did I just read? That didn't make sense. Let me go back and read it again." If it still seems confusing, ask the students for ideas about how you could "check" your understanding of this information.
  • Determine if it's "In the Book" or "In my Head": In the Question Answer Relationship (QAR) strategy students are taught to identify if information is in the book (literal) or in their head (inferential). Teachers can demonstrate this by using questions to model how they figure that out. For example, a literal question might be, "What are three characteristics of an active volcano?" An example of an inferential question is, "Are volcanoes dangerous?" This can be a very important skill to develop because many developing readers spend a lot of time scouring the text looking for an answer that is not defined literally in the text.

*Strategies from, "7 Keys to Comprehension: How to help your kids read it and get it!" by Susan Zimmerman and Chryse Hutchins. See Hotlinks for further information.

4. Increase peer interaction with the content of the text in order to increase comprehension.

Giving students the chance to interact with their peers about new content will engage them and offer more opportunities to practice talking, writing, and thinking about what they have learned. You can do this with the following strategies:

  • Develop study guides to guide ELLs through content area textbook reading. Study guides will focus student attention on the major ideas presented, and can include graphic organizers as described above, key vocabulary, and guiding questions. These study guides can be very helpful in preparing for final exams and students can use them to "quiz" each other. More advanced students can develop their own study guides in partners or in groups.
  • Assign reading partners. Pair ELLs with friendly fluent readers. Ask partners to read aloud to each other, alternating sentences or pages. After the first student reads, the other student summarizes what they heard. Then the two partners switch roles.
  • Encourage student engagement. One strategy is the "Say Something" activity. Students take turns reading aloud, and following the reading, each student 'says something,' such as asking a question, making a comment, making a connection to something already read, or responding personally to the text. The exercise also engages students as readers and gets them thinking about the text. For ELLs, teachers may want to have a "phrase wall" displayed so they have a sentence structure to begin their comments. Examples such as, "That reminds me of…" Or "Do you know…" or "That's interesting because…"
  • Have students re-tell what they have learned. After students read a section of text, have them re-tell it to a partner or write a few summary notes in their notebook and switch notes with a partner. The partner can add notes, questions or comments to the author's notes.

For more tips on supporting reading instruction in the ELL classroom, take a look at our reading tips for teachers, as well as some reading comprehension strategies. You may also find some helpful tips from the AdLit.org Strategy Library.

Spending time working with text structure and guiding ELLs in how to access expository content effectively will have huge benefits for your students now and in the future. Textbooks are like other classroom tools, such as microscopes or computers. Without the proper introduction and practice, the student will only get a fraction of the information the teacher hopes they will gain. As teachers work with students to discover the secrets to using expository text for learning, they will be rewarded by deeper discussions and learning in the classroom. Most importantly, having learned these strategies, your students will be equipped to interact with a multitude of academic texts throughout the rest of their education.

Kristina Robertson (2008)

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