Why is answering comprehension questions a Sherlock-Holmes worthy challenge for readers at all levels? For one, the short passages on tests are decontextualized-covering everything from essential science topics such as photosynthesis to esoteric, what-were-they-thinking excerpts on the Victorian footstool. These nonfiction passages typically bear little relevance to students' real lives. As such, they call on a reader's ability to recognize the subject and know what to expect.
But experts agree that it's crucial for middle schoolers to master short passages, since the majority of reading that adults do-including up to 96% on the Web-is nonfiction. So we asked dozens of experts and teachers what nonfiction skills they emphasize. From looking for signs of a topic sentence to using caption clues, here are their tips for turning out street-wise short-passage readers.

1. Observe the suspect passage closely. The best reading detectives know that it's important to investigate and preview a text before reading. The purpose of this step, says Laura Robb, author of Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math (Scholastic, 2003), is “to build background knowledge” so that you have a sense of what the passage is about before reading. It's like giving a suspect a once-over.
What does this first glance tell you? Looking at titles, captions, and boldface words can reveal a trove of hidden information. The title “Why Columbus Isn't a Hero,” for example, not only lets your detectives know they'll need their history “toolbox” for reading, it also clues them into the author's purpose (convincing the reader of his belief) and point of view.
Get your gumshoes in the habit of previewing by asking them to read the title and headings before tackling any nonfiction selection, says Wiley Blevins, co-author of Nonfiction Passages with Graphic Organizers (Scholastic, 2004). Then have them write down their predictions for what the piece will be about. This footwork provides a “framework for reading,” Blevins says-and goes a long way to cracking the case of tricky comprehension cases.  

2. Spot who's who in the lineup. Like a badly-drawn crime sketch, obscure pronoun references in a short passage can easily confuse a detective just starting out. (It's hard to keep track of the “shes,” for example, in a passage about the wives of King Henry the VIII). To ensure success, Ron Klemp, Coordinator of Reading for the Los Angeles Unified School District and co-author of Reader's Handbook: A Student Guide for Reading and Learning (Great Source Education, 2002), suggests you teach students a method for relating pronouns to their antecedents. He recommends having students draw arrows to antecedents clarifying to what, or whom, pronouns refer.

3. Highlight the crucial evidence. “While it may sound obvious, I encourage my students to underline words or phrases in passages that stand out to them as important,” says Jessica Hughes, mentor detective (and sixth-grade teacher) at Matawan Avenue Middle School in Cliffwood, New Jersey. “It helps them be more careful readers.”
But anyone who's ever seen a rookie highlight a whole passage knows that what's important isn't always obvious to middle schoolers. You can help students learn to identify incriminating evidence by modeling how you yourself approach short passages. This is especially helpful for lower-level readers. Tim Rasinski, co-author of the 3-Minute Reading Assessments series (Scholastic, 2005), advises teachers to “first read the passage with appropriate expression and meaning. Then talk with students about the process you used to make sense of the passage-such as pointing out important words and talking about how you connected the meaning to your own background. Then have the students read the passage on their own. They can then write a quick response, summary or question to what they read.”

4. Keep on top of the case. Reading detectives need to constantly distill and synthesize information, asking themselves “what's the author's main point here?” The easiest way to do this is by finding topic sentences, according to Jennifer Karan, Director of College Prep Programs for Kaplan Test Prep. “This helps students identify what the passage is about as well as its purpose,” she says.
Gretchen Peterson, a social studies teacher at Vailsburg Middle School in Newark, New Jersey, trains her students to read each paragraph and then cover up all but one sentence. “If the sentence remaining sums up the paragraph, this is probably the topic sentence,” she says. She advises them to look especially at the first and last sentences of the paragraph, since these are the most likely candidates for the topic sentence. After mastering the ability to analyze one paragraph, students work up to decoding the main idea of the entire article.

5. Identify a motive. Angry? Enthusiastic? Cautiously weighing both sides? Your detectives will have to know how to spot tone when it comes to the test-day trial. Motive always has its moment in court, says Jennifer Karan of Kaplan, and so it's crucial that kids know how to “predict the author's intent in writing the passage.”
Brendon Mitchell, of New York City's Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, preps his PIs by “providing them with models and labeling the feelings of authors according to the piece.” He begins teaching the concept by using letters to the editor and some political cartoons (which are especially effective for lower-level readers). Gradually, his students move-and yours will too-to the colder cases that appear on tests.