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Dr. Joanne Meier

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Teaching nonfiction text features

July 22, 2010

How much nonfiction do your students read? Probably not enough, according to Jay Mathews at the Washington Post. In a blog entry from February 2010, he uses the What Kids Are Reading report that describes what 4.6 million students in grades 1-12 read during 2008-2009 as evidence.

Teaching nonfiction can be difficult; it relies on background knowledge that some students may not have, and because it contains different types of features, it reads differently than fiction. Kids can learn to navigate nonfiction. Here are some resources that might help.

Nicki Clausen-Grace and Michelle Kelley, two educators, offer up a great teaching tip for helping students navigate features of nonfiction text that students might overlook. With an Interactive Text Feature Wall, teachers help students brainstorm a list of text features that exist in nonfiction. These might include headings, pictures, captions, maps. A bulletin board is divided into sections, and using magazines, newspapers, and other print resources, students cut out and mount the examples into the correct area on the mural.

A similar idea from Classroom 2.0 uses text mapping — a scroll made from several pages of the book glued together. Students in going on a "treasure hunt" in search of text features. Features are highlighted and labeled. Scrolls help students see the text in its entirety and can be marked up depending on your instructional focus.

Scholastic offers a 5-Day Unit Plan for introducing nonfiction. The lesson sequence begins by asking kids to identify the special feature of nonfiction text and ends by understanding how to check comprehension and asking kids to apply what they've learned to their writing. Several handy resources are used during the five day plan, including a simple handout describing five non-fiction text structures.


Its nice to see more being written about the value of non-fiction reading comprehension exercises in improving reading ability and overall aptitude. However, it is important to note that while they may be popular, not all reading comprehension exercises are created equal. Some do a good job of quizzing students on vocabulary or the information they have just read, but leave out what is arguably the most important ingredient: critical thinking. Critical thinking questions teach students to manipulate bits of information which can be used to formulate their own answer – one that may not be clearly outlined in the text. At ReadTheory.Org, we believe in the power of critical thinking. And, we think it can be taught not only at the intermediate and advanced level , but at the beginning level as well. Well, thanks again for your article post, and thanks for reading my reply. Hopefully we’ll see some of you at ReadTheory!

To add one more comment, I do think the teaching of text features and structures must be combined with authentic reading, so students see the value of using their understanding of both to gain meaning from their reading. Their learning of these concepts must be combined with real world activities to ensure students truly learn and use this information effectively and efficiently.

In my district, we use Stephanie Harvey's Nonfiction Toolkit. She specifically has lessons on text features. I have found it is not enough to name the text feature, but the child must also be able to explain its purpose. Otherwise, why would knowing what the text features are be important? They are there for a reason. I also think teaching text structures is important. Again, they must be taught along with why the author would choose this text structure. Knowing the organization of the text (compare/contrast, sequence, etc.) enables students to more easily identify the author's message and the important information.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio