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May 2, 2013 Investigating Nonfiction Part 3: Independent and Guided Reading By Genia Connell
Grades 3–5

    Today, nonfiction books are a very important part of my classroom library from the first week of school to the last, but it hasn’t always been that way. For years, nonfiction was treated much like a genre study of mysteries or fairy tales. Nonfiction books were added to our class library only when it was time to “do” nonfiction. All that has changed however, and many of my students today read nonfiction text during their independent reading time as much as, or even more frequently than, fiction.

    I wasn’t always as comfortable as I am now making nonfiction an everyday part of my reader’s workshop. Matching readers to their correct level seemed difficult, and I didn’t want my students reading books about certain topics before we did our big unit on it; a fact that seriously makes me laugh now. Was I afraid that they would build background knowledge without me? Oh, my!

    This week I’d like to share with you some of the ways I’ve managed to make nonfiction text an integral and common part of my students' independent and guided reading all through the year.


    Independent Reading Using Nonfiction Text

    During our individualized daily reading (IDR) time, I like all of my students to be reading at their independent reading level, which in my district is determined through the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System. It’s the highest level at which a student can read the text without help.

    At their independent level, a student reads fluently with a high level of accuracy. Background knowledge is also important, as it helps the reader make meaning of the topic. When it comes to determining a student’s independent level in informational text, background knowledge plays perhaps the most crucial role.

    Because so many of my students (and probably yours!) come with different backgrounds, interests, and life experiences, I’ve found pinpointing a student’s independent level for informational text is often a moving target.

    Reading Assessments Don’t Tell the Whole Story

    You can’t just go by their reading level.

    I had a student last year who, based on the running records, was independent at a level M. When he was boy with glassesreading about war planes, artillery, or World War II, however, he was able to easily process books at level Q. His great-grandfather had fought in World War II, and both of his parents were in the military. The background knowledge and vocabulary he brought with him from conversations and at-home read-alouds significantly influenced his reading level in books on the topics he knew so well. Knowing his background helped me steer him toward the correct levels when he wasn’t reading military themed books.

    You can’t just go by their background knowledge.

    This year I have a boy who knows the make, model, and engine specifications of every car built since 1967, a la Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. When I noticed he had brought a technical, mechanic’s manual for independent reading, I sat with him to read for a bit. While his accuracy was quite high due to his conversational knowledge of the vocabulary, he wasn’t able to make sense of the words he knew due to the advanced sentence structure and synthesizing required by the text. We decided together that book would be best for the short reads section of his book box.


    Tips for Helping Students Pick “Just Right” Nonfiction Books

    • Independent reading level is determined by accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. If one of these components is missing, the child is not working at her independent reading level.
    • Listen to students read when they begin a new nonfiction book to determine if they are able to read the words accurately and fluently.
    • Get to know your students’ interests and backgrounds in order to help you understand how much their background knowledge is aiding their comprehension.
    • Confer with students frequently. Ask them to summarize what they’ve read to determine if they are putting together and remembering important information from the text.

    My students often love to share a new fact they found or interesting photograph with me and their classmates. Because young children are naturally inquisitive, I love knowing how nonfiction text feeds their curiosity and expands their knowledge of the world around them exponentially. To help them organize and share what they are reading, I use some of the organizers below with my students.


    Using Informational Text for Guided Reading Lessons

    During guided reading, my students are relying on support from me to help them navigate text that is more complex than their independent reading level. My guided reading groups for informational text are flexible for the reasons mentioned above. What may be complex text for one student is easy for another based on their background knowledge, so different books call for different group members.

    After familiarizing my students with key text features, I begin incorporating more and more nonfiction into my guided reading lessons. This is also the case when I help students work on their close reading. Choosing the proper text is key to having the teacher and the students get the most out of small group instruction.


    Tips for Choosing Guided Reading Text

    Look for short stories with:

    • Universal themes, such as historical changes over time, courage, friendship, innovation, perseverance
    • Text structures that include cause and effect, compare/contrast, chronological order, then and now comparisons, fact and opinion, etc.
    • Texts organized in simple paragraphs with clear topics and details
    • More content conveyed through text than photographs
    • Underlying structures you can use to focus instruction (descriptions, compare and contrast, chronological sequence, problem and solution, cause and effect.)
    • A variety of features, such as headings, timelines, fact boxes, diagrams, bolded words, etc., that can be used to aid comprehension
    • Complex graphics that provide additional information that compliments and extends the text

    My Guided Reading Lessons

    During guided reading, I follow the framework found in Fountas & Pinnell’s The Continuum of Literacy Learning for Grades 3-8.  I’ve created a lesson plan template based on elements of The Continuum that you can download and use for your own guided reading lessons.

    Lesson Plan Template for Informational Text

    Download my lesson plan template, pictured above.


    When I'm meeting with groups, I often use that time to focus on elements such as chronological order, cause and effect, compare and contrast using the organizers below. 

    claim evidence reasoning reading responsebefore and after comparisons

    Other organizers from Scholastic Printables:

    cause and effect bowlingbridge


    Be sure to check out the reading response graphic organizers I shared earlier this year that my students use during their independent reading time.


    The Common Core calls for students to be reading a 50/50 blend of literature and informational text by the end of elementary school. What are your tips and secrets for incorporating more non-fiction into your school day?  


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Susan Cheyney