Teaching Nonfiction to Struggling Readers

By Addie Albano on October 18, 2011
  • Grades: 6–8

Some of my fondest elementary school memories are of our weekly trips to the library. The sight of newly bound books captivated me, and I savored the smell of the paperbacks, something I still relish today. However, when the librarian stated that we would be focusing on nonfiction, my reaction was always less than jubilant. My classmates and I would exchange disappointed glances as we awaited a discussion on biographies, which is what I believed exclusively comprised the nonfiction genre. If you were a struggling reader, the idea of focusing solely on another’s accomplishments seemed particularly torturous. Unfortunately, I kept this view of nonfiction throughout my education, and even now veer away from the biography section of Barnes and Noble.

Had I experienced the diverse ways that we present nonfiction today, however, my views may have been altered dramatically. However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The introduction of the Common Core State Standards has brought about sweeping instructional shifts within the ELA classroom, most notably affecting the balance between informational (55%) and literary (45%) texts for 8th grade students. This will alter the way teachers approach their curriculum; in fact, it already has. It also adds increasing pressure to cure students' inevitable lack of interest in all things nonfiction, especially that of students who are reading below benchmark. With this new focus on nonfiction, do you find yourself in a nonfiction drought, or are you looking for ways to incorporate more informational text into your lessons? Here are some refreshing ways to spice up your presentation and capture your students' attention. These strategies can be differentiated to fit the needs of all students, regardless of reading ability, although they particularly target those who perform at the lower level.

Fast Fives

I begin each ELA class with a “Fast Five,” which consists of five minutes'worth of standards-based activities in the areas of grammar and proofreading, comprehension, and literary elements,to name a few. This is the perfect time for me to reinforce the nonfiction concept students struggle with most: the 5 Ws and one H (Who? What? When? Where? Why?andHow?).A quick and easy way for students to decipher this information is by allowing them to sort it into small chunks,usinga “Fist List.” This handy tool also functions as a great assessment piece during tests or quizzes or as a ticket in or out of the door. A double fist list (using both hands) allows for scaffolding by increasing the number of questions asked and level of difficulty. When implemented consistently,you can expect to see a sizable increase in accuracy.

Reinforcing the Fundamentals

Struggling readers are often more receptive to learning when given fun approaches to the fundamentals. Scholastic Printables  is the perfect resource since activities can be modified to fit the needs of your particular students. Crossword puzzles, word searches, and flash cards are all ways students can learn about the elements of nonfiction and enjoy themselves at the same time. These nonthreatening activities allow for progressive mastery and foster risk-taking in future lessons.

Presentation Is Everything

One thing that makes nonfiction different from fiction is the overwhelming number of elements that bombard the page, including captions, titles, headlines, etc. This creates an illusion of difficulty from the beginning that dissuades many struggling readers from continuing. Teaching Students to Read Nonfiction is a wonderful book thatgives students the knowledge necessary to read nonfiction with confidence. Each lesson includes color transparencies of model texts withhints that foster student success. I have found that my students appreciate the side captions detailing the most important pieces of information as well as the beautiful graphics and distinguishing fonts. In addition, since the text offers lessons in multiple formats, they often forget that they are viewing nonfiction! For those who need extra attention, a "before and after" reading strategy worksheet could provide much needed supplementary support.

Assessment, Assessment, Assessment

To find out if students are indeed progressing, continual assessmentstudent is a must. Two of my favorite evaluation sheets are a nonfiction checklist and a comprehension worksheet. These essential staples alsoact as running records. Theycan be reviewed during in-class conferencing or parent meetings. Visual representation of progress is essential for students who lack confidence and are continually striving to reach reading benchmarks.

For more resources on how to teach nonfiction in the classroom,check out Hi-Lo Nonfiction Passages for Struggling Readers and Teaching Comprehension with Nonfiction Read-Alouds.

How do you teach nonfiction in your classroom?


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