Constructing Meaning from Non-fiction Text
The primary goal of reading is to understand the text. Although explicit reading instruction may include a focus on decoding skills, phonics, etc., the objective of reading text is always to construct meaning. Adrienne Gear talks about the difficulties students have in accessing the meaning in non-fiction text in her book Nonfiction Reading Power (2008).
A Grade 8 class is given comprehension assessment based on a passage of nonfiction text. This passage includes several nonfiction features such as charts, captions, and diagrams. Most of the questions the students are asked are based on the features in the text, rather than the main body of the text. The result: a majority of students failed to answer the questions correctly.
Sound familiar? My experience in my own classroom, as well as what I have found as I travel around the school assisting with reading assessment, is similar. Students tend to focus on the main body of the text and skip over the text features. With the same results.
Nonfiction texts vary in many ways from fiction, but most significantly in the structure of the text and the way the information is presented. Information is found in many places on the page of a nonfiction text, and is presented in a variety of ways: on a graph or in a chart, highlighted in a fact box or featured as a caption under a photograph. These features can help readers navigate through the text, summarize key points, highlight important information, and provide a variety of ways a reader can access the information. In this technological age, young readers are experienced with navigating through a web page by clicking on icons to access more information. The printed page, however, is not as interactive as a web page, and readers need to learn to use their eyes the way they use their mouse, focusing on the features to access information.
Being aware that non-fiction text is a powerful tool to “hook” reluctant and/or delayed readers, I usually start the school year by teaching the students to recognize the purpose of the various features of non-fiction text. Throughout the year we then explore many of the wonderful non-fiction books that are available to us—usually linking them to our current classroom or school-wide theme.
After attending one of Adrienne Gear’s summer 2009 workshops and reading her two books (Reading Power and Nonfiction Reading Power), I realized that although this was a good start, I had to take the work a little deeper. So I chose five reading comprehension strategies and made non-fiction text a focus for the upcoming school year (one strategy every two months seemed manageable). We started off with the “zooming-in” (taking a closer look) strategy. The plan was to zoom-in on pages of text and to teach the students to recognize, and to take a closer look at, the text features instead of skipping over them.
The Sequence of Lessons
1. The first few lessons focussed on teaching the students to distinguish the features of fiction and non-fiction books. (I wrote an article on this topic for the Winter 2008 issue of this magazine. The article is available online at www.CanadianTeacherMagazine.com. See Back Issues.)
2. Once the students were familiar with the two genres, we established a definition for the term “zoom-in” (taking a closer look). Three books that worked well to introduce the concept of “zooming-in” are Looking Closely Along the Shore and Looking Closely Through the Forest by Frank Serafini and Looking Down by Steve Jenkins.
3. Several weeks were spent learning about the most common text features found in non-fiction books. (I outlined several activities and a word sorting game that could be useful in teaching non-fiction text features for the Spring 2008 issue. This article is also available under Back Issues at www. CanadianTeacherMagazine.com.)
Common Text Features of Non-fiction Books
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4. For the rest of the year students engaged in guided and independent reading and writing activities that demonstrated their understanding of the use of nonfiction text features.
WRITING LIKE A REPORTER: A ZOOM-IN WRITING ACTIVITY
- Demonstrate the use of some features of non-fiction text.
- Zoom in on the details of a field trip.
As part of a study of the seashore ecosystem, the students went on a field trip to an exhibit by the University Women’s Club that included an oral presentation, tanks of live specimens, dry specimens and a slideshow (any field trip, guest speaker, assembly performance, etc., would work as well).
Students were familiarized with the writing assignment that would follow the presentation. They were coached to think like a reporter and to notice as many details as possible. The students were asked to zoom-in on one live specimen to draw and label as part of the assignment.
After the field trip the students brainstormed words that might be useful in their reports as well as partner talking about their chosen creature.
The students worked independently to write their reports.
Students shared their writing with a partner and talked about the details in their pictures.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brenda has been teaching for over 30 years. She uses literature based themes in her classroom and is actively involved in her school and district literacy committees.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s November 2010 issue.