Students across all levels and in all content areas are expected to read and comprehend difficult informational texts. As an instructional coach, I work with our English teachers and other content area teachers to give students simple strategies to help them break down difficult texts and make them more manageable to read and understand.
Step One: Give students a purpose for reading the text. Students need to know WHY they’re doing the reading in the first place and what they’re going to do with the reading AFTER they’re done.
Step Two: Teach students how to preview the text and use to predict what they think the text will be about. Strategies that I have found easy for students to use:
- Look at headnotes, abstracts, graphics, etc.
- Check author’s credentials. Is he/she credible?
- Look at the type of text (news article, textbook, research abstract, etc)
- Pay attention to the layout of the text (subtopics, sections, chunks of text, etc)
Step Three: Teach students how to chunk the text into smaller parts to help them break up the information. Sometimes there are subheadings to make it easier and sometimes they will have to do this on their own.
Step Four: Model and practice annotation strategies. The ones I have found most helpful for students to improve comprehension are:
- Respond to the three “big” questions from Reading Nonfiction (Beers & Probst) in the margins:
- “What surprised me in this text?”
- “What did the author think I already knew?
challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already knew?”
- Circle repeated words and phrases in each chunk and look for common ideas.
- Star* ideas that clarify, explain, describe, and illustrate the main idea (examples, quoted words, reasons, numbers and statistics, etc.) and ask themselves if these support the main idea or are just minor details.
- Note of the techniques/”moves” the author makes in the margins. Write down why they think the author used that in the text?
- Annotate the 5Ws and use those to figure out the main ideas.
- Underline the author’s claim and subclaims. Note the evidence he/she uses to support those claims.
- Look at your annotations. Summarize after each chunk.
- What is this chunk about?
- Write a one-sentence summary.
My one bit of advice is to pick and choose which annotation strategies will work best for your students. I teach my students different strategies depending on my purpose and the text they are reading. Don’t give them all of these at once – I have learned this the hard way. Start with one strategy at a time and as they get confident, add additional ones as needed.
Step Five: Have students revisit the purpose for reading and respond to the text using their annotations. Students can:
- Summarize the article.
- Respond to a prompt, using evidence from the text
- Use evidence from the article in a class discussion.
- Synthesize evidence from multiple documents to answer an essential question.
When my students are active readers, critically thinking about the words and their meaning, their understanding of the text improves. What are the strategies you have used with your students to improve comprehension of nonfiction texts?
Melissa Sethna is co-teaching a freshman English class this year in addition to her full time job as an instructional coach at Mundelein High School in Mundelein, IL. Her favorite part of coaching teachers is sharing strategies with colleagues and then watching the light bulbs go on in the students’ minds as they see how helpful the strategies are in their learning.