How to teach nonfiction reading can feel like a daunting task, especially when it is the students least favorite task to complete. There is always an exorbitant amount of information that is dry dry dry to read! However, with the right tools and techniques, reading non-fiction can become easier and even more enjoyable. The essentials of reading non-fiction are: selecting a text, having the right tools, teaching students their way around the text, teaching students to scan and close read, using collaborative discussion groups for material not understood, and reflection of learning. Students need to know how to summarize nonfiction text prior to reflection. How to teach fiction vs non fiction is very different. See below.
How to Teach Nonfiction: Selecting a Text
Nonfiction With Text Features
Have you ever tried to read an academic book that was above your reading level? Yikes! Be sure to select a text that is at the appropriate reading level for your students or students will quit feeling frustrated and “stupid” (as they say). Choose a topic that students can connect to as best to your ability. Here’s an example of how this translates, if you are teaching about the brain, try an article on how a lack of sleep affects the teenage brain while at school. I try to choose three separate articles with different topics that cover the same material at different lexiles (levels). You may say that you are using a textbook and do not have a choice, but that simply isn’t true. There are plenty of articles online, or in programs like CommonLit, Newsela that provide up-to-date, free resources. The ultimate goal is to make sure that you have a performance objective in mind so there is a roadmap to where your students need to end up. Do your backwards planning by beginning with your objective in mind. Decide what academic strategies they should practice, and what content they need to retain.
Grab the Essentials
When it is time to teach your non-fiction text, make sure everyone has a hard copy of the text with pencil, pen, and highlighters. This can also been done digitally with all the digital tools available through various programs. I prefer to have students grapple with real paper if possible. If I can, I offer them a choice. In addition they must have a quiet space or room to work in. Try some mindful breathing exercises prior to the reading. This can be fun, calming, and help students to gain their focus. They will also gain some mindful exercises to practice on their own. If this is not possible in the classroom, send the assignment home for homework and have students use collaboration the next class day to discuss the text.
How to Teach Nonfiction: What are Some Nonfiction Text Features?
Ask yourself, what academic skills do I want my students to practice in this exercise? Some examples of academic skills are: critical thinking, effective communication, Socratic inquiry, process identification, collaboration, listening, writing, and reflection skills, etc. Once you know the objective of the lesson and which academic skills you want students to practice, have students scan through the text (using the academic skills) reading the basics first such as the table of contents, the preface, author’s note etc. Next they can move on to the headings and sub-headings. This provides the student with a roadmap or general idea to where they are going and how they will get there. Another strategy I have used in the past is to have students complete a textbook scavenger hunt. Students are to look up all the information you add to a list of things on a page for a textbook scavenger hunt. Students work in groups, and you can even provide a prize (piece of candy) to the group who completes the work first. If you have a scavenger hunt, here are some categories to consider: table of contents, index, glossary, captions, photos, and add specific questions and page numbers for students to find. One rule, is NEVER have students read a text book from cover to cover! It is a fact that they will not retain that much information. Focus on the chapters of most important and supplement information with different materials outside of the text. For example, I once observed a math teacher show a video about a woman who had such a high interest rate on her car loan that it would take her three times as many years to pay it off. It was such an entertaining way to learn about percentages.
How to Teach Nonfiction: Provide Students with a Graphic Organizer
Provide students with a graphic organizer of a skeletal outline of the heading, sub-headings, main ideas, and any other pertinent information you feel they will need to comprehend the material. They can fill in the graphic organizer as they read through the information. Provide students with a KWL graphic organizer and ask them, what do you already know about the topic? What do you want to know about the topic? and once complete, what did you learn about the topic? Start with how to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction.
More specifically in the “K” section, add subsections with the following questions:
- What do you know about the topic?
- What do you expect to learn about the topic?
In the “W” section add subsections with the following questions:
- What do you want to know?
- What do you think the author is trying to provide
In the “L” section of the KWL chart add the following questions:
- What did you learn?
- What did the author prove?
- How does the author communicate key ideas in the book?
- What do you agree/disagree with in the book?
- What do you still need to know from the book?
How to Teach Nonfiction Reading Strategies: Markup the Text
First have students read the first and second paragraph in the chapter. This lays out the topic and main points that will be covered within that chapter. Have students go to the sections only that they need to comprehend, ponder, and digest. Have students number the lines in the text. Second, have students circle the main idea, underline the keywords, write questions and wonderings in the margins, and highlight words they do not understand. You do not need to use this same formula, but be sure to use a formula and have them write what they are doing at the top of their paper. For example, have students draw a circle=main idea, underline=key words, highlight=words they do not know, etc. This way when they go back to study their notes later it will be simple for them to review their work.
How to Teach Nonfiction: Use Collaborative Discussion Groups
Prior to placing students into collaborative discussion groups, some preparation must go into it first. For example; how will students be grouped? How will the groups be monitored to ensure all members are participating? How will students be expected to record their learning? Prior to entering the group, have students come up with a question based on a concept or problem that they do not understand. Students will articulate their specific question. Group members will use collaborative inquiry to support the student presenter in clarifying confusion and checking for understanding. Upon arriving at a solution, students identify generalized steps/processes that led to the solution. Students will appropriately use related academic vocabulary throughout. Students will take turns presenting their questions, and supporting each other through the process of resolving the problem. Once students have completed all their questions, you need to decide how the information will be presented.
Group members need to be given a list of the following expectations:
- Respect ideas/thinking of others
- Use inquiry to gain a deep understanding of content discussed
- Actively participate
- Contribute to group
- Communicate openly with teacher
- Rotate to all groups and model higher-inquiry (if needed)
- Support students in developing critical thinking skills
- Handle classroom management.
How to Teach Nonfiction: Grouping Students
Arrange students into groups of four to seven by using one of the below methods:
- Use grade data to select the content focus of the group
- Divide students by the content of specific questions
- Use key terms to group students
- Group by students who need to develop the same same skills or knowledge
Have students arrange their chairs or desks into semicircles close to either a whiteboard, easel, chart paper on the wall. If there is no wide space to use, place butcher paper across student desks. It is best that everyone can see and is somehow facing one another. Collaboration works best when everyone feels like an equal, and all members have equal opportunity to participate.
How to Teach Nonfiction: Record of Learning
Students can turn in notes from their collaborative session, and reflect in writing, or they can verbally reflect what they learned out loud to the class. This depends on what grade level you teach. This could be difficult for a middle school student, but easier for students in high school. Know your students and make the decision as to how they will submit a record of their learning. I prefer to give them the option of sharing aloud, or turning in their notes with reflection.
For how to teach nonfiction writing, visit my blog post on how to write a narrative nonfiction. How to teach literary nonfiction writing is much different than reading nonfiction and most of what applies here, will not apply in a narrative nonfiction unit.
Here is a list of literary nonfiction that I use in my classroom:
Substitute Literary Nonfiction
I would love to hear how you teach nonfiction text features! Please comment below for how you teach nonfiction writing.