Create a List

List Name

Rename this List
Save to
Back to the Top Teaching Blog
January 11, 2011 Understanding Nonfiction Texts With Help From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By Danielle Mahoney
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day by teaching your students how to become peacemakers by learning about his incredible life, while teaching them to become really good readers as they navigate through nonfiction texts. Take a look at some of my downloadable resources and bulletin board ideas to get you excited about learning more about an amazing man who taught us all how to appreciate diversity and to fight hard for justice with lots of love. This unit on Martin Luther King incorporates strategies that can be transferred to any nonfiction topic you plan to explore in your classroom. 


    Assess What Your Students Already Know 


    Ariel is recording some questions he has about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    As with any nonfiction unit, it's important to assess what your learners already know about a topic before you dive into the work. Many teachers like to use traditional KWL charts. I think they are very useful, but I don't think they need to look exactly the same each time you use them.

    So when I introduced the topic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to a group of 2nd grade students, I told them that we would be exploring nonfiction books to gather information and gain understanding about his life. I displayed the books that we would be using on an easel to help them tap into their prior knowledge. 


    Try Using Your Own Version of a KWL Chart

    MLKwhatiknowjpg Instead of creating a standard three-column KWL chart, start off by using the Who Is Martin Luther King, Jr.? worksheet. Ask students to think about everything they know about Martin Luther King and write those facts down. This is the "K" in the KWL chart — What I KNOW.

    After that, ask your students to think about some questions they may have about him. Write those down on the second part of the sheet. This is the "W" in the KWL chart — What I WANT to know.

    This process can be done with any topic you choose to explore in your classroom.

    This is what I know about ______________ . This is what I want to know about ____________. The blanks could be filled in with any topic that your grade is working on, such as rocks, explorers, community workers, subtraction, the American Revolution, or even test taking! Change the topic, add your own clip art, and make the sheet your own.

    Getting a handle on what your students already know about a specific topic will help you focus in on what you'll need to teach during that unit. This is great for planning and for obtaining a baseline assessment. It will also tell you if your students have any misconceptions about the topic. (Take a look at some of the examples below. Many students thought that Martin Luther King was a president.) In addition, having students create questions about a topic will help keep them tuned in and searching for the answers throughout the unit. 

    Examples: Silvia, Yasmin, and Ariel knew a lot about the topic. They had a few misconceptions and a lot of excellent questions!



    Create a Class Web of Ideas


    Once you've given your students enough time to record their thoughts, gather all of the students in your meeting area. Create a web that can be posted and referred to throughout your unit. We named ours "Things We (THINK WE) Know About Martin Luther King, Jr." because we weren’t sure if we had all of our facts straight. ;)

    Now you are ready to start exploring your topic!

    What Do Your Students WANT to Know?

    Once you've collected all of the questions the students have about a topic, compile a list on a large piece of chart paper. These questions can be posted in your classroom and checked off as you find the answers in your study. Of course, your students will come up with even more questions as they uncover new information. Record new questions at the bottom of the chart. This process keeps students focused on collecting information and invested in finding the answers. 



    A Nonfiction Reading Strategy:

    I learned that . . . I understand that . . .

    Nonfiction texts are loaded with lots of facts. The pages are packed with names of special people and important places, as well as numbers that stand for dates, ages, and statistics. A kid can really get lost when reading nonfiction texts. New vocabulary is introduced that may be specific to the topic and hard to understand. Sure, your students may be able to pronounce the words and read the text, but do they understand everything they read? Even when we read nonfiction texts aloud to our students, we should stop to check in with them. In addition, keep in mind that we don't want our students to simply become fact finders as they navigate through nonfiction texts. Readers need to learn how to take in all of this new information and then understand what those facts actually mean.

    How do we teach our readers to do this? 

    • Read a small chunk of text. 
    • Stop and think. 
    • What new information did I just learn? 
    • What do I understand now that I didn't know before? 
    • What connections can I make to add to what I already know? 
    • What connections can I make to the world around me?
    • Read the next chunk of text.

    So, how will this work unfold in your classroom? Take a look at how I used Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man of Peace by Garnet Jackson to teach students how readers understand new information they find in nonfiction texts.



    Read a Little Bit . . . Stop and Think!


    I created this nonfiction worksheet to help students keep track of the new information they collect as they read. 

    Gather your students at your meeting area with clipboards and pencils. Have an enlarged copy of the sheet on chart paper. Model how you read a chunk of text and then stop and think. Identify the fact or new information you just came across. Then, record what you learned on the first section of the sheet. Next, ask your students to think about that fact and share what they understand most about it. Have a small discussion as you share ideas. Jot down what they understand about the topic now that you’ve collected new information. This will allow them to synthesize the information and make it their own.

    Read the next chunk of text and ask students to write down what they just learned. Then, encourage them to think about what that fact makes them think or what they understand most about it. They can infer feelings, draw conclusions, or make connections to themselves or the world around them. Again, this can be done with any book on any topic. Have them practice this strategy right there in the meeting area with you. The important thing is to clearly model the strategy and have them practice with you before you send your students off to read independently.  



    Chelsea, Vanessa, Olivia, and Jason all worked hard to understand the new facts that they learned.



    I am really proud of the work that all of the 2nd graders put into understanding what life was like for Martin Luther King, Jr.! 

    Supporting Your Students in Their Independent Reading


    I've gotten great feedback from teachers about the little strategy bookmarks I've made to help keep students on track with their independent reading. And so, here's the latest one! If you want students to continue to work on this strategy in reading their independent books, and you think they may need a little extra support along the way, please print out a copies of this bookmark to help them in their independent reading at school and at home. 

    Videos, Photographs, Speeches, and More!

    Taken from's incredible resources, here is a photo of Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. King, and Monsignor Rice of Pittsburgh marching in the Solidarity Day Parade at the United Nations Building on April 15, 1967. 


    Want to take a trip back in time to watch Martin Luther King speak? It's amazing how technology allows us to travel back to August 28, 1963, to be a part of the March on Washington and witness Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  Need more resources? Visit's Martin Luther King, Jr., page to find great links to support your work on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. You'll find a transcription of his speech, a slide show of photographs, booklists, lesson plans, printables, and so much more.

    What I Learned: I Understand . . . My Dream . . .

    We've finally gotten to the "L" in our KWL. What have your students LEARNED? When you're ready to assess your students and finish up your nonfiction unit, find out what stood out as the most important thing your students learned about the topic. You can create a formal assessment to find out how much your students have learned. Or, you may ask them to write a poem, a song, or a speech of their own. Do you have any artists in your group? Give students the opportunity to create a poster using paints or Cray-Pas to show what they've learned. 

    At the end of our unit, we took some time to reflect on all of the things we learned. I modeled my own thinking on chart paper with the whole class, and then gave students time to reflect on the work they had done during this unit. I asked them what dream they had for the world. I wanted students to take what they learned about the life of Martin Luther King and make connections to their own lives and the world around them. 

    I sent them off to write and draw with this special worksheet. Here are a few examples of their dreams.





    Share What You've Learned! 

    To celebrate the end of your unit, proudly display your students' work. Wrap up your unit on MLK by taking close-up photographs of your students' faces. Send them off to be printed or print them out yourself. I used an old HP all-in-one printer, with a scanner and copier, to print out these 8.5" x 11" photographs. What a great resource to have in the classroom. 

    Finally, hang up the photos of your students' beautiful faces along with their dreams for all to see. Use sentence strips to write a message on your display for those visiting your bulletin board.  

    Mlkariel Mlkmelanie Mlkgerardo Mlkjason

    Mlksilvia Ivana Sydney Camilamlk

    I love teaching this unit. It focuses on an important time in history in a way that young children can understand while teaching them how to become better readers. It is still so difficult for me to imagine a time when there were laws and signs that kept people from using the same water fountain, restaurant, or playground — just because of the color of their skin. Imagine how difficult it must be for our students to understand this time in history. 

    In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrate diversity, appreciate what makes each one of us unique and special, and treat each other with respect, kindness, and love. Find out more about Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service and come up with a project that will inspire your students to make a positive impact on others.

    Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day! ♥


Share your ideas about this article

My Scholastic

Susan Cheyney