What the Mind Needs to Do to Read Nonfiction
Many children are not strategic readers of nonfiction text; they dive into reading nonfiction the same way they approach a story or a novel. But if students are to become literate readers in a world filled with an abundance of information, they need to be good readers and strategic readers. Strategic readers
- establish goals for reading;
- select reading strategies appropriate for the text they are reading;
- monitor their reading to determine if they are comprehending or not; and
- have a positive attitude toward reading.
When we bring nonfiction text and content in our classrooms, we are giving our students an invitation to know things deeply. If students are able to comprehend the text, they can be independent, strategic users, consumers, and creators of information. Here are five ways to help students become strategic readers of nonfiction text.
1. Teach text types and purposes.
Students are likely to encounter three broad categories of informational texts: texts that are common in their day-to-day lives, texts that can be found in the general classroom, and texts that are found only in content area-specific classrooms. For each type, the key to understanding the text is recognizing its specific purpose and employing the appropriate thinking skills to comprehend the text.
- Day-to-day text examples include letters, journals, advertising, instructions, notices and signs, catalogs, and forms. The thinking skills that are required to understand this type of text include understanding conventions of writing, noting differences in language features, distinguishing fact from hype, seeing bias, understanding logical sequences, understanding nonfiction conventions, handling complex layouts of information, and understanding and evaluating the effectiveness of messages.
- General classroom text examples include biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, photographs, journals, essays, historical documents and speeches, periodicals, interviews, articles, reports, and media accounts. Comprehension of these texts requires thinking skills like analysis, synthesis, logical reflection, metacognition, and creative thinking.
- Content area-specific classroom text examples include lab reports, technical diagrams or models, legal briefs, and legislation. These texts require background knowledge in the content area to understand discipline-specific text conventions and terminology.
2. Teach specific nonfiction structures.
Teach your students the different types of nonfiction text structures and how to analyze text to determine its structure type before they begin reading. This way, the text structure can buoy them along as they work through a text. Research shows that skilled readers with a good understanding of nonfiction text structure have fewer problems with comprehension (Pearson & Duke, 2002).
Nonfiction text structures include the following types:
- Descriptive. There is a main topic with descriptive details; information begins with general facts and then moves to specific details.
- Cause and effect. A causal relationship is shown between events and often involves a chronological presentation of events with definite links between at least two events.
- Problem-Solution. A problem and possible or actual solutions are conveyed.
- Question-Answer. A question-answer format is used to organize sections, headings, and content.
- Chronological or sequential. Events are organized by time or steps in a process.
- Narrative informational. The text has elements of fiction—including characters, setting, and plot—and it reads like a story, but it is built around facts and real events.
- Compare and contrast. Ideas and information are connected and compared.
3. Teach understanding; avoid coverage.
Too often, we get stuck in the feeling that we have to read to students or tell them information in a textbook to ensure learning, but we have to shift from our brains doing the work to letting our students' brains doing the work. Our students need to be independent learners and information consumers; you can ensure this by going deeply into teaching a couple comprehension strategies. For example, you can help students grab and retain the main idea of nonfiction texts by teaching them to ask "why" questions.
When students ask why questions, they learn and remember more information (Pressley & Wharton-McDonald, 1997). By asking why questions, students orient themselves to the main idea and details through reading and rereading to answer their questions and figure out why the new ideas in the text make sense.
4. Teach vocabulary through concepts.
Students who are skilled readers learn quite a bit of vocabulary through incidental reading (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987). However, just because students can learn vocabulary through reading, it doesn't mean that we should assign students to read nonfiction texts and let them "have at it" and hope word meanings sink in deeply. Rather, we need to teach students to focus on recognizing and exploring key vocabulary terms in informational text.
I recommend teaching deeply only a few words—the key is choosing the right words to teach. We might gravitate toward the low-frequency but intriguing words that appear in nonfiction text. These words are usually discipline-specific and may not be the ones to teach before reading. Often, students can figure out the meaning of these words while reading. We need to teach the words that appear frequently in the text and hold meaning that is essential to comprehension.
Word learning strategies also help students learn new vocabulary and give them the power to tackle nonfiction text without giving up. Word learning strategies include
- Examining clues in the text.
- Locating clues outside of the sentence (e.g., figures or text boxes) that contain the target word.
- Substituting a word or expression for the unknown word and checking for context clues that support the substitution.
- Making predictions about word meanings and then discussing with a peer or the teacher to confirm a prediction.
- Revising ideas about what the word might mean to fit the context of the sentence.
5. Teach summary skills.
Teaching students to summarize is teaching them to focus their attention, and this is important for guiding students to own their reading. Two types of thinking are needed for summary writing, the ability to
- Make selections, or judgments, about what information should be included or excluded.
- Make reductions by condensing ideas and information, substituting general ideas for specific ideas, and avoiding unnecessary detail.
Teaching students to make generalizations about a text will strengthen their selection and reduction skills by engaging the brain in deletion, generalization, and construction. All three processes are truly helpful in teaching students to write summaries, so we want them to engage in these processes as much as possible.
Engage a New Generation of Readers
With the world of information changing rapidly, it isn't enough to teach strategic reading strategies for only the printed texts that students encounter in our classrooms. We have to teach strategic reading strategies for all texts that students encounter and use on a daily basis.
Our job as teachers is to help students sustain attention and comprehension while reading all forms of nonfiction texts and apply these skills to multiple literacies. By bringing all forms of nonfiction into our classrooms and giving our students the cognitive tools to understand, access, and manipulate the information, we can unleash the world for them.
Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. America Educational Research Journal, 24(2), 237–270.
Pearson, P.D., & Duke, N. K. (2002). Comprehension instruction in the primary grades. In C. C. Block & M. Pressley (Eds.), Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices (pp. 247–258). New York: Guilford.
Pressley, M., & Wharton-McDonald, R. (1997). Skilled comprehension and its development through instruction. School Psychology Review, 26(3), 448–466.
Nancy Akhavan is an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno. Akhavan is also an author, speaker, and education consultant.
ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 3. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.