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Helping Students Comprehend Nonfiction Texts


 As students get older, the texts we use to teach them get increasingly more difficult. Also, teachers rely more heavily on nonfiction texts to teach higher-level concepts. Further, the skills students use to comprehend nonfiction are different than for fictional texts. Most of us would agree that content area teachers in middle and high schools are much more comfortable focusing on content instruction than on reading and english essay writing processes. 

What’s the problem? For students who struggle with reading, these issues combine to create a common dilemma that teachers observe daily in classrooms around this country. Teachers are faced with middle and high school students who are not equipped to get information from texts. The good news is that teachers have many students who are able to comprehend content area texts in a way that does enhance learning. The "not-so" good news is that classrooms also have a number of students whose struggle with comprehending content material contributes to a reduction in learning. What’s a teacher to do? Some content area teachers are skilled in techniques to bridge the gap between reading and learning for students who struggle. For other teachers, this dilemma presents a greater challenge. Of course, the very best advice is for teachers facing this challenge is to work collaboratively to share ideas, practice and model effective strategies, and continue to grow professionally via readings, workshops, and self-reflective practices. Teachers will continue to grow in their knowledge of best practices and ways to reduce the comprehension gap that exists between skilled readers and those who struggle. However, it is critical that we have immediate access to a few tips that can help reduce daily comprehension challenges students face when reading nonfiction material. The following menu of ideas will help students comprehend nonfiction texts. Although these tips are geared for students who struggle with texts, they would certainly be helpful for all students you teach.

1. Look for abstracts (these give a brief summary statement). If no abstract exists, write one for students and/or have them write one. Teacher-generated abstracts usually occur prior to reading, student-generated ones usually occur after reading.

2. Point out beginning/ending statements or paragraphs. These parts of the text give good clues to: what you will read, author perspective, and conclusions.

3. Turn headings into questions. Ask yourself "What about...?" Then as you read, look for the answer.

4. Use post-it notes or highlighters to mark significant information. Point out author tips like bold print words, bulleted items, references to figures, charts, and diagrams. Locating significant information should be demonstrated by the teacher using "think-alouds". Ability to distinguish between significant details and insignificant details takes practice!

5. Locate the organizational pattern(s). The basic patterns of organization include (but are not limited to) compare/contrast, time order, description, sequence, and cause/effect. Identifying signal words and phrases is helpful.

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