Comprehending Non-Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

By Russ Walsh | Russ On Reading | 2017 | Twitter: @ruswalsh | Author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child | ON SALE 30% off on Amazon, $13.95. | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Russ Walsh

In a discussion about students and reading content text yesterday, I heard a familiar refrain from a group of elementary teachers. While some readers were highly successful in reading non-fiction, many others struggled to comprehend content text even when that text for all appearances was “at their reading level.” My question for the teachers was, “What are you doing to set the children up for success?”

In content literacy what the teacher does before, during and after reading is crucial to the successful comprehension of content text. By consistently using what Vacca, Vacca, amd Mraz (2017) call the B-D-A Instructional Framework, teachers can set all of their readers up for greater success in reading challenging text.

What does this instruction look like?

Before Reading – Before students read the teacher must assist the students in activating and building background knowledge relevant to the text, spur student curiosity and interest in the text, and help students establish a purpose for the reading. Activating background knowledge is a matter of asking the students to list anything they might already know about the topic and discussing how this knowledge will help them understand what they are about to read. Sometimes when helping students activate background knowledge it becomes clear that students lack the background to successfully read the text. When this happens the teacher can show a brief relevant video, read aloud from a picture book or article that fills in some background knowledge for the students, or simply give a brief lecture that helps fill in some gaps in student knowledge.

Before reading, teachers will also want to introduce key vocabulary and concepts that the students will encounter in the reading. What key words will the students need to understand to successfully comprehend the reading?

It is also crucial to consider student motivation for reading the text. Here it is important that the teacher model her own enthusiasm for the material and provide the students with several exmples that assist the students in seeing the personal relevance of the text. Perhaps most important the teacher can use the process of activating and building background knowledge by asking questions that arouse student curiosity.

Finally, before reading it is also important that students understand the task they are being asked to complete. What is the purpose for this reading? What will the student need to do with this information? What questions will the student need to be able to answer as a result of this reading? Being clear with the students on what the reading task demands will help them focus on key information.

Excellent strategies for pre-reading include anticipation guidesPReP andReQuest. Click on the links for information on how to use these strategies.

During Reading – The purpose of a during reading activity is to guide students in an active search for meaning. As teachers we easily recognize the important parts of a text assignment, many students do not. The lessons we have learned from years of study, and years of reading dense college textbooks and professional materials, are not lessons our students have yet learned, so we need to help them navigate a text while they are reading.

One of the best ways to guide student reading of a text for improved comprehension, but also for improved understanding of how to handle dense content text, is the selective reading guide. In creating a selective reading guide, the teacher reads the text, determines the key concepts that the students must learn form the text, then develops a “guide” to the reading that assists the students in accomplishing the task. The selective reading guide literally tells the student where to be looking and what to be looking for in the reading and generally then asks them to do something with that reading. Here is an example of a selective reading guide. You can learn more about reading guides here.

Other kinds of during reading guides include structured note-taking and three-level guides, also designed to help students focus on important information as they read.

After Reading – The purpose of after reading activities is to assist the students in consolidating and clarifying their understanding. Research indicates that students retain more of their reading if they process that reading by talking or writing about what they have read. A simple turn-and-talk strategy, is one form of after reading activity. Teachers can also have the students do a quick write to jot down thoughts immediately after reading.

One of my favorite after reading activities is the RAFT, which stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic. In RAFT students are given a writing task that allows them to demonstrate their understanding of the reading in an engaging and integrative way. Here are some examples from various disciplines.

Social Studies – After reading about Lincoln’s plans for reconstruction following the Civil War students might be asked to take on the role of Lincoln, writing to the audience of Congress, in the format of a letter, on the topic of Plans for Reconstruction.

Science – After reading about the water cycle, students might be asked to take on the role of a water drop, writing to the audience of other water drops, in the format of a travel brochure, on the topic of A Journey through the Water Cycle.

Mathematics – After studying square root, students might be asked to take on the role of a square root, writing to the audience of other whole numbers, in the format of a love letter, on the topic of Explaining Our Relationship.

You can learn more about the RAFT strategy here.

There are, of course, integrated strategies that provide guidance to students throughout the reading process. For the most part these are all based on the KWL, which asks students what they know, what they hope to learn and what they learned at various stages of the reading process. Most teachers are very familiar with the KWL and it is a well researched, effective strategy that can form the basis of our understanding of the B-D-A Instructional Framework. Read more about the KWL here.

Whatever strategy we choose to use, we must remember that if we want our students to be successful comprehenders of informational text, we have the responsibility to set them up for that success.

Russ Walsh is a Public School Teacher, Literacy Specialist, Curriculum Supervisor and College Instructor, author of A Parent’s Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for My Child ON SALE 30% off on Amazon, $13.95 and Russ on Reading Blog.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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