Following Bread Crumbs: You can teach nonfiction text features to boost reading comprehension in the middle school classroom

Because integrating language arts into any subject is a critical cross-curricular skill, we need students to master non-fiction reading to be able to learn, innovate, and think creatively. How can we, as teachers, support this by teaching strong nonfiction reading skills? This is part two of a five-part series on supporting your middle school students in improving nonfiction reading skills.

When you hit three-years of teaching experience, it’s like you’ve landed back into your awkward teenage years. Your classroom is organized, behavior management is on point, and communicating with parents becomes more natural. Looking  around at your more experienced peers, you can’t help but wonder why their students’ reading test scores are going through the roof and your students are struggling with the most basic nonfiction texts. 

Part of the answer here is experience. There are basic steps in teaching nonfiction reading skills, but to really make them alive you have to do the work. Simply displaying a poster with the nonfiction text features is not enough to improve students’ reading comprehension. Assigning your students weekly nonfiction articles with no practice or instruction to support their understanding will not lead to progress. Accelerate your skills in teaching reading comprehension (and improve student learning) to help your students find a storybook ending with nonfiction texts.

Tip 1: You’re never not reading. During a recent lesson, a student suddenly shouted out, “Mrs. C, we’re reading more in your class than in language arts!” While I know this isn’t true, I did do a fist pump. That’s right, we’re never not reading. The reinforcement of nonfiction skills is not a one-and-done lesson. Students need to practice scanning a text for nonfiction text features every time they are given a text to make this a natural practice.

Tip 2: Getting to know the text features

Using nonfiction text features to preview a text is like following a trail of breadcrumbs into the forest. The author provides clues as to the main ideas in the text by adding images, captions, diagrams, and subtitles. Use your knowledge of nonfiction text features to model your thinking as you read a nonfiction text.

Start with a scan and preview. When my daughter was a toddler, we always took a book walk before reading a story together. As we’d flip through the pages, I’d ask questions like, “Wow, I wonder what happens next?” and “Why do you think that happened?” By modeling my thinking as we flipped through the pages, I was hoping she’d internalize these questioning and predicting skills. 

As students scan a text with their eyes, they should be looking for: 

  • Images and diagrams. Why did the author include these pictures and graphs, and how do they support the main idea of the text?
  • captions
  • Titles and subtitles. What am I about to read about? Why is the text broken into these subsections? 
  • Bold words. Am I going to learn new vocabulary words? Do I already know any of these words?
  • Proper nouns. Who are the main “characters” in this text? Why are they or their organization important?

Tip 3: Do a quick probe. Now that students have give then text a thorough preview, do an informal assessment probe. Have students write one sentence, on a sticky note, on you learning management system as a discussion question, or turn and talk with a neighbor to answer this question: What is this article about? I think students will be surprised by how much they actually understand about the topic based on a quick scan of the nonfiction text features. This will also provide you with quick feedback to help you to identify which students will need 1:1 help as they deeply read the text.

Tip 4: Take a break from the text. Modeling how to preview a text, practicing looking for nonfiction text features, and giving students time to read independently is a lot of work (the classic I do, we do, you do cycle). Before you deeply read the text, take a break from it! Teaching the nonfiction text features and giving students time for practice is enough work for an entire class period. Wait to do a deep read of the text until the next day.

My hope is that you’ve walked away with an outline for teaching nonfiction text features in your middle school classroom. Next week, we’ll look at a specific type of text that is critical in science and many other content areas: reading a multistep procedure. Enter your email below to receive blog updates from Crosswalk Curriculum.

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