Learning from Little Red Riding Hood’s Mistakes: 4 Tips for Teaching Students to Accurately Read a Multistep Procedure

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 three of a five-part series on supporting your middle school students in improving nonfiction reading skills.

You might remember that Little Red Riding Hood received a very detailed set of steps for delivering her basket of goodies to grandma’s house. And, that she managed to ignore some of those steps which led her to peril! Sometimes being a middle school teacher is a lot like wandering through the forest on your way to grandma’s house. You have a basket of precious cargo and you have to deliver it safely through the wolf-infested wood. You can take the right path to persuade students that following the steps in a multistep procedure is worthwhile…and less dangerous than veering off trail!

You know science labs are great for engaging kids and for reinforcing reading and writing skills. So you plan fun science labs for your kiddos and are dismayed when they bypass the multi-step procedure and start doing the lab…incorrectly. Labs have the potential to teach important science concepts and to reinforce nonfiction reading skills, but now you just wasted valuable class time and only ⅓ of your students finished the lab properly. 

Teaching multistep procedures as a subset of nonfiction reading skills can help you support your students in developing a better understanding of science concepts and improve their nonfiction reading comprehension. But did you know that many standardized state tests actually expect students to demonstrate proficiency with multistep procedures as a part of reading in science and technical subjects standards? A few years ago I was able to take a deep dive with state testing data and realized I’d been totally missing the boat. I cared about teaching students to follow a lab procedure but didn’t realize how high the stakes were for the students. 

Teaching a multistep procedure doesn’t have to be dangerous…or boring!

You can help your students improve their reading test scores, work independently, and walk bravely through the dark forest of nonfiction reading by teaching them multistep procedure skills.

  1. Model your thinking. One of the best things about teaching a multistep procedure is that kids get to DO something! It’s easy to hook your students when teaching them to read multistep lab instructions when they know they’ll get to do hands on work. The other day, we were doing the fermentation in a bag lab and within seconds of glimpsing my student walking around with a baggie of water, I knew he hadn’t followed the procedure. “Step 1: Add 1 tsp of yeast to the bag.” The water isn’t even added until step 4! Start your multistep procedure instruction by modeling how to read the instructions for a science demonstration. Then, require students to read the instructions for a small-group lab prior to getting their supplies. This will keep them motivated to read the instructions, and will support them in “seeing” your thinking as you read.
  2. Let students follow a broken procedure. Take a procedure from your lab that is missing an essential step, or take out some important details. As you start to hear the rumblings of discontented students (“Wait, how much baking soda do we add?“), stop class for a catch and release protocol. Ask, “Okay, what is happening with your procedure?” Solicit responses, and then work to fill in the blanks to make the lab procedure more coherent.
  3. Be a little wicked. On my first day of junior high, our biology teacher gave us an overly complicated multistep procedure for us to follow. Before releasing us to follow the directions, he said, “Make sure to read the entire procedure before you start!” I did not heed his advice. I started right away at step one and did all sorts of crazy tasks, like putting a star on the fourth line and writing the word “science” upside down and backwards on line 8. Why were some students just sitting there with their paper turned over? That’s right…the last step said, “Write your name on the paper and flip it over.” Yeah…read all of the directions first! It will save you work! I strongly believe you should not do this activity when you’re first getting to know your students so that their first introduction to them isn’t an untrustworthy act.
  4. Write a procedure. Writing is a great tool for improving reading skills. Writing provides insight into the author’s purpose and the importance of each step as part of the lab. Have students try to do each others’ procedure for a simple activity, such as making a sandwich or tying their shoes.

You can help your students follow the steps to safely arrive at grandmother’s house…or to the end of the science lab. Try these four tips for nonfiction reading success!

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