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Navigating Nonfiction Text in the Common Core Classroom: Part 1

By Genia Connell on April 18, 2013
  • Grades: 3–5

Common Core has become the new language of education, and while 45 states and the District of Columbia have currently adopted the standards, how to best implement them in your classroom is still a work in progress for many teachers like me.

I hope to help you out by sharing ways in which I’m helping my students meet the Common Core State Standard benchmarks for these three anchor standards:

  • CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • CCRA.R.5  Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  • CCRA.R.7  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.


Introduce Nonfiction Text Features to Your Students

When we teach fiction to our students, the focus is on story elements. With informational reading, however, students need to be aware of text features. I help my students become familiar with the text features so they are able to meet the following grade specific standards when the time comes:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.5 Use text features and search tools (e.g., key words, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.7 Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.5 Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7 Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

Because scaffolding is an integral part of the Common Core, with each grade level building upon knowledge gained from the previous one, I like to make sure my students have a very solid foundation in identifying and understanding the importance of each feature. To do this, I use the three activities described below.


Big Books, in 3rd Grade? Yes, Please!

I haven’t been a big book user since I taught 1st grade. That changed this year when I discovered Introduction to Nonfiction Write-on/Wipe-off Flip ChartWe went through the book page by page during our mini-lessons. I found this sturdy, spiral-bound book was not only a wonderful resource for introducing the text features, but also a frequent reference book for my students whenever they wanted more information about a particular text feature.  


Non-fiction flip book

Kids looking at non-fiction book


Text Feature Scavenger Hunt

Once my students gained a rudimentary understanding of text features, I wanted them to practice what they learned with informational text. Using old copies of Scholastic News we had saved, students scoured the pages, looking for as many text features as they could find. They cut out and glued the various text features onto the text feature scavenger hunt pages they had previously glued inside a folded piece of construction folder. When students couldn’t find a particular text structure, they illustrated it themselves!  These text feature scavenger hunt papers became our informational reading folders.

text feature scavenger hunt

Text feature scavenger huntText feature scavenger huntText feature scavenger hunt


Text Feature Posters Created by My 3rd Graders

When I am really proud of something my students have done, I tend to go around showing it to everyone like I'm a 5-year-old who just got a new bike. That's exactly what I did with the text feature posters my 3rd graders created.

Knowing that an integral part of the Common Core is for students to demonstrate their understanding with integrated technology, I provided my students with the tools and my abiding confidence to create text feature posters that were Pinterest-worthy! Here’s exactly what they did:

  • Each student selected one text feature for which they wanted to create a poster.
  • On a printed template, they wrote the name of their text feature, defined it, and then explained how that text feature helped the reader. (I noticed many students returning to the big book to help them with this one.) 
  • Next, using our Storia nonfiction library, the boys and girls browsed through books to find an example of their text feature.
  • When they located a good example, they took a picture of that page from the e-book and emailed it to their student folder on the school server.
  • Students used their technology skills to type in the information from their rough draft onto a new template, insert the picture they had chosen, then change fonts and background colors. Some even added arrows to make their text feature more prominent.
  • Finally, each student printed their posters in color, making them ready to be displayed.

You can see a few of my 3rd graders' posters below. I’ve also included the template they used if you would like your students to create their own text feature posters. My students were thrilled when I told them that other teachers at our school saw their posters and wanted copies. My kids love knowing their work is being displayed in several rooms around our building and in the school library as well!  If you would like to show my students' posters to your class, just click any of the images below to download a copy.

title text featurelist text feature

text feature table of contentstimeline



Introduce the Vocabulary

The more terms a student knows about a specific subject, the easier it will be for him to understand text related to that subject. Making complex text easier to read and understand is definitely one of the tenets of the Common Core and a good enough reason for me to make vocabulary work an important component of my informational and content area reading.

The Common Core expectation for grades 3, 4, and 5 is the same: Determine the meaning of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases in a text relevant to a (grade specific) topic or subject area.

In order to meet this standard, I find following Dr. Robert Marzano’s  "Six Steps to Effective Vocabulary Instruction" from his book, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, very helpful when my students are working with content-area words. Marzano’s six steps are paraphrased here:

  • The teacher provides a kid-friendly description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  • Students rewrite the description, explanation, or example of the word in their own words.
  • Students draw a picture, symbol, or graphic representation of the word or act out the word.
  • The teacher helps extend and refine the students ‘understanding of the world by having them take part in structured activities or discussions.
  • The teacher asks students to discuss the words with one another.
  • The teacher involves students in games that allow them to interact with the text.

My students keep their vocabulary work in their interactive science and word study notebooks. When we introduce new words, students are challenged to make them a part of their everyday language. While this is tricky with some very content specific language, my students enjoy trying to fit their new vocabulary into everyday conversations.

Resources from The Teacher Store I use to help with vocabulary work:


Next week, I will be back with more of what I’ve been doing with informational text in my classroom, including a look at close reading and how I use graphic organizers to help my students go back to the text to provide evidence for their reading claims.

I hope these interactive ideas help you on your journey to improve your students' understanding of informational text. Please leave any comments or questions you have below. I'd love to hear from you!


Comments (13)

This a great review activity for 4th graders. We assume they know the feature and how to use it, but they are just kids. I can't wait to use this week. I plan on sharing with my whole team. Thanks

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I am so glad I found this, I am going to use this with my 3rd graders. I think they will love it.

Wow!! Thanks for those GREAT ideas to help with nonfiction! I'll be using those with my second graders!

Love this idea! It was exactly what we were looking for to start our non-fiction unit!

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Mini-lessons and scaffolding are essential to an effective literacy curriculum, especially aligned with the Common Core standards for teaching with informational texts. I really like how you break down the assignments for students and provide fun, meaningful ways for them to learn through these texts while providing steps to acquire the necessary skills and strategies to comprehend in this way. I feel as though your text feature activities could be altered and changed in order to accommodate secondary grade levels; mainly middle school students, as they too require these new skills regarding informational texts. In our middle school classroom, we also try to provide as many opportunities to learn new vocabulary words and this seems to be successful when they use the newly acquired words in class and practice them through a variety of activities. Overall, I really liked your various activities and will change them a bit to accommodate my secondary students. Thank you!

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