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Mini-course: Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Nonfiction Reading Comprehension

Mistake #1:  Assuming your students can use nonfiction reading strategies effectively

Most students who struggle with nonfiction lack the strategies needed to comprehend complex, grade-appropriate text. Research shows that comprehension increases when students receive direct reading strategy instruction as they read compelling content.

Asking questions is not always a sign of frustration.

Students experience frustration at different times during reading.

Traditionally, students were inundated (almost exclusively) with fictional text in the early grades. As they got older they often weren’t able to use strategies required to comprehend nonfiction text effectively. Nonfiction is particularly challenging because of its unfamiliar vocabulary and new concepts.

Kids often don’t have the necessary background knowledge to make the connections needed to read with understanding. Since they are not getting meaning from text, they might complain that the text is “boring,” or they might say something like, “I read it, but I don’t get it.”

Comprehension increases when students learn and practice proficient reading strategies. Students need to learn how to “get into the author’s head,” to see why information was organized and presented in a particular way.

These reading strategies include:

  • making connections
  • creating sensory images
  • inferring
  • questioning text
  • determining importance
  • using context clues
  • examining organizational features of text
  • using the text’s graphic and print features

Students need to be taught reading strategies in context.  In other words, after the strategy is explained and modeled, students need to practice it by reading substantive text and answering questions that require that type of strategic thinking.

Here are a few simple suggestions that demonstrate how this can be done.

Creating Sensory Images
Many nonfiction books don't have engaging images.

The images are created by the student as they are reading the text.

We’ve all experienced a time when we were so “into” a book we could almost taste, smell, and feel the physical sensations we would actually have if we were in that situation.  We almost get lost in the book and may be startled if someone interrupts us while reading.  This is the goal of making sensory images (visualizing).

The National Reading Panel reports that struggling readers “gain significant learning benefits when they receive explicit and intensive instruction in visualizing.”  When readers make mental images, they can more clearly see different relationships within a text.  If students are not “seeing the movie in their head” as they read, they will not get all they can from the text. “Students should be aware of their five senses and use all of them to create sensory images and deepen comprehension.”

To teach students how to create sensory images as they read, try this 3-step method:

Students must learn how to create sensory images.

Sensory images may be from the cover page or other images throughout the text.

  1. Ask them to identify phrases that help them form a picture in their minds.
  2. Encourage students to stop and take the time to draw simple pictures of new concepts, terms, or ideas as they read. You may even have them draw a cartoon or graphic version of the assigned nonfiction text. This will also help them summarize the important points of the text.  
  3. At the conclusion of the lesson, have students share their ideas with each other and with the class.
Questioning Text

There are basically two types of questions:

  1. Questions we ask because we wonder about something
  2. Questions we ask because we are confused

Students should be encouraged to ask questions before they read, while they read, and after they read. This helps them to stay focused and clear up any confusion.

One simple way to do this is to give students a graphic organizer such as the one pictured below. (Students may work individually or in pairs).

Before Reading
Questions Answers
  • What do I know about this text just by looking through the pages before I start reading?
  • What questions do I have now?
During Reading
Questions Answers
  • What do I know about this text now?
  • Which of my previous questions were answered?
  • What new questions do I have?
After Reading
Questions Answers
  • What did I learn from reading this text?
  • What questions do I still have?
  • How can I find out the answers to these questions?

Examples of questions that can be used to assist students with understanding the text.

Let’s look at this in more detail…

Before Reading

Before reading have students preview the topic by glancing at the organizational features of the text. They may look at the title page, table of contents, headings, pictures and captions.

Once they have previewed these features, they will be ready to jot down some information and use it to ask a few predictive questions that they think the author might answer. An example is: From the table of contents, title, headings, and pictures, I see this is text is about deadliest animals, and that there are some dangerous jellyfish, snakes, insects, and frogs. My questions are: Why are these animals dangerous?  How can I protect myself from getting hurt? Do these animals hurt other animals or just human beings?

During reading

During reading have students jot down:

  • what they now know about this text
  • which of their previous questions were answered
  • and what new questions they have

An example might be: I know from the text that jellyfish have tentacles with tiny stingers.  I wonder if jellyfish choke other animals with their tentacles, poison them with their stingers, or both?

After reading

After reading have students jot down:

  • the most important things they’ve learned
  • the questions they still have
  • and how they might find out the answers to these questions

Have students discuss how the nature of their questions changed over the course of their reading, and talk about why they think some questions weren’t answered.

Bonus Suggestion

Another useful activity using non-fiction text is to have your students create 3-5 evidence-based questions for a specific text.  An example might be: This book was called, Deadliest Creatures. Use the text to answer the following questions:

  1. What exactly do jellyfish do to make them an “underwater danger?”
  2. Even though Taipan snakes have the most deadly venom, rattlesnakes kill more people than taipan snakes. Why is this?
  3. Of all the animals described in this book, which one is least likely to hurt humans and why?

Students can also create text-based answer keys and then use their work to ask and answer each others’ questions.

Come back next week and find out how to avoid mistake #2: Providing text without a specific reading focus.

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