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Mistake #2: Choosing nonfiction text that is too difficult or giving assignments without a specific reading focus

sleepingWe know that students come to us with very different needs and abilities.  Continually giving students text they cannot comprehend only increases their frustration and makes them feel that reading is boring or useless.

If students are always given text that is too difficult, they begin to associate school or the reading subject as pointless.   They may either give up reading altogether or just do “fake reading” so they don’t get in trouble.

Students who have not read or understood the text often get away with it in class.  How does this work?  The unprepared student just waits for a more knowledgeable classmate to make a comment and then piggybacks off of what that student says.  Sometimes students even piggyback off of what the teacher says.

There are some important things to keep in mind when selecting suitable text for students and using it for instruction:

  • Remember to take into account what your goal is for using a specific text.
  • Make sure what you select is well-written, accurate, clear, and not too difficult.
  • If it contains new or unfamiliar concepts or vocabulary, you my need to do some specific pre-reading activities.
  • Any text you select should be a good example that will lead students to be more passionate about what you are trying to teach them.
FACT: A Simple Way to Summarize These Points

How well-written is the text? Will it keep the students engaged?

How accurate and/or up to date is the information?

Is the text clearly written?  Are new terms defined? Are there graphics that help depict meaning?

What you are trying to teach?  What are your instructional goals?  How relevant is the text?

Marc Aaronson (2014) asks, “Why do we stress ‘imagination’ and ‘story’ as the pleasures of (and keys to) reading? Why not ‘thinking,’ ‘learning,’ and ‘understanding’?” Look for nonfiction that is engaging, has passion and voice, reveals evidence, and contains argument.  This way students will find the reading to be exciting as well as informative.


You must also teach (and then have kids practice) the strategies they need to make difficult text understandable. If you think about the text beforehand, you will be able to help students understand it better.

Here’s how to do this

Pre-read and think about the strategies that you use to construct meaning.

  • Consider vocabulary activities you can give to students prior to reading.
  • Think about what new concepts you should explain before students read.
  • Consider which strategies kids will most likely need to understand the text.
  • Identify places in the text that are most likely to cause difficulty for your students.
  • Decide what you want kids to do with this info. (E.g., How will they hold their thinking?  What type of notes do you want them to keep? Would a specific graphic organizer help them take notes?, etc.)

Teaching students how to take notes is important.  Once you set the focus for reading, you can teach them how to take notes that will promote the goal for reading the text.

For example, your goal is to have your students take a stand and make a convincing argument for it.  You may have them take notes on a T-chart, like in this example:

Directions: Explain what you want the students to read and how you want them to take notes.
Pros Cons

Students can write the pros of the argument on one side and cons on the another.  After that they can group the pros and cons into categories for making their arguments.

If your goal is to have students understand the main points of a piece of nonfiction text, you need to teach them what to look for.  To do this, have them review the titles, headings, subheadings, topic sentences, and first and last paragraphs.  Instruct them to look for repeated concepts and ideas.  Have them look at the examples used.

createThen give each student three peel-able dots to place next to what they think are the most important themes of the text.  (They can move them if they find something more important.)  Students can then work in groups to present their reasoning.  Finally, the group goal is to agree upon the three main points and present that to the class for discussion/debate.

It is important to think about the type of note-taking that will help students comprehend the text and hold onto the information that you want them to have.  You may give them a menu of options for making notes.

Come back next week and learn some ways to avoid mistake #3: Watering down information for struggling readers.

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