Strategies for reading non-fiction texts

For parents

Most of the books that children need to read at school will in fact be non-fiction books – books that inform, explain or instruct. At higher levels of school some of these will be textbooks. Others will be books they use to find out information for a project, for example.

Good readers are able to use their knowledge of the features of a non-fiction book to help them choose the most useful book in the first place.

They know, for example, that the table of contents and the index are both good places in which to find out whether the book has the information they need.They know that a single page reference in the index probably means that their topic is just mentioned there, whereas multiple page references (113 – 118, eg) mean that this is where they are likely to find the most information about their topic.

They look at the headings that the author has given to each chapter or section to find out what to expect there.

They look at the drawings or photographs accompanying the written information and read the captions that explain the picture or diagram.

They focus on any words that are printed in bold on the page because these might be important ones. Sometimes the bolded words indicate that they are contained in a glossary that explains their meanings.

They read the insets on the page because they know that these will give quick facts and perhaps provide more detail.

 Help children to find the information they need, by showing how these features can assist  them.

First check the book to make sure that it is not too difficult for the child.  The five-finger test is an easy one to use here.  Tell the child to start reading the part that seems to contain the needed information.  Every time an unfamiliar word is encountered, the child raises a finger. If he or she puts up five fingers on a page then the level of language is probably too difficult, and it would be more sensible to search for another book that contains the same information but presents it in simpler language.

Although I’ve been talking here about non-fiction books and their features, a lot of children’s reading will actually occur on the Internet.  It’s important, therefore, that children understand the features of a website and are able to use them to find information.

Children need to understand that a webpage will have various kinds of hyperlinks – headings, graphics, illustrations, italic print, differently coloured words, underlined words – and that each of these will lead to further information.

The top or sidebar menu with hyperlinks is the equivalent of a table of contents. Show children how these work and, in particular, how to get back to the homepage quickly and efficiently.  A great deal of time can otherwise be wasted.

If necessary,  note-taking from the Internet can be done by cutting and pasting into a Word document or by using a program such as Scrible.

Because it is important that children acknowledge the source of their information, encourage them to copy the URL at the same time.  When they are using a book, they should note the author, the title and the publisher.

When children rephrase the words from the text into their own words this not only avoids plagiarism, but also helps to consolidate their understanding of the material.

Using the reading strategy: Making connections

For parents
This builds on last week’s blog which explored how you can improve children’s comprehension by asking them to ‘make connections’.

Text-to-self connections
As you read to or with your child you can demonstrate this strategy by thinking out loud, making your own connections. For example,

‘I think I saw a monkey like that at the zoo.  I remember that the zoo-keeper was feeding him lots of vegetables.’
‘I can remember when my mother did something like that!  I was very cross!’
‘This reminds me of …’

(But, of course, don’t overdo it.  If you’re reading with your child the strategies that you demonstrate shouldn’t take away from the pleasure of the reading itself.)

After you have made a connection as you think aloud, you could go on to say something that helps your child to understand the value of the connection:

‘So I already know what monkeys eat.  But I don’t know where they come from, or how long they live.  Let’s see if this book tells us about that.’
‘That helps me to understand how the girl in this story feels’.

 When you do this, you’re showing your child how to make connections that help reading comprehension.

Choose books that reflect close-to-home experiences, ones with which the child can identify, so that you have an opportunity to encourage the making of connections.  You can prompt your child to make his/her own connections by asking questions such as

  • ‘Have you ever felt like that?’
  • ‘Has anything like that ever happened to you?’
  • ‘Why do you think X behaved like that?’
  • ‘How many different kinds of  (dogs/spiders/whatever is the focus of the informative book) do you know?

And to make sure that they understand how the connection helps them to understand, you can ask:
‘How do you think that will that help you to understand this book/character?’

At first they might not be able to do this, but with frequent practice and assistance from you they will come to see how making connections helps their understanding. Good readers often make the connections unconsciously, but some children will need help to do so.

Text-to-text connections
You can assist your child to make text-to-text connections by choosing:

  • books by the same author that have the same character
  • short stories of a similar genre (adventure, horror, comedy, mystery etc)
  • poems that follow a similar theme (eg poems about animals or a similar idea)
  • books by the same illustrator (eg Shaun Tan, Graeme Base)
  • books that provide different versions of familiar stories (eg The Three  Little Pigs)
  • resources that present comparable information  (eg a couple of books on whales or dinosaurs, two websites on the same topic).

When reading with your child, ask questions such as:

  • Do you think that Harry is different in this book?  Why?  Why not?
  • Isn’t this book a bit like that other one we read?
  • Which book/website do you think is more useful to you?  Why?
  • Which Anthony Browne book do you like best? Why?
  • What are some of the things that are the same/different about these two stories?

Text-to-world connections
It is only to a very small extent that our own experience helps us to learn about the world, the people in it and the events that occur.  Most of what we learn about the world we learn from books, magazines, television programs, film and the Internet.

So for readers to be able to make text-to-world connections, they need a reasonable knowledge of the world.

  • Have conversations with your children about (appropriate) things that happen in the news.
  • Encourage them to watch documentaries appropriate to their age group and talk about what they have learned.  Re-telling in their own words what they have read or viewed is another strategy that can be used to help develop understanding.
  • When reading a book with your child, ask questions such as
    – Have you heard this idea before?
    – Have you heard about this problem before? What do you remember about it?
    – Is this what happens in the world?  Would people really behave that way?  Does this make sense?
  • Make your own text-to-world connections in order to demonstrate how it is done:
    – This is like what I heard about on the news the other night …
    – I read about this in the newspaper …

Teachers try to develop these text-to-world connections in all aspects of the curriculum.  Helping your child to build his or her background knowledge in order to be able to develop these connections will increase understanding in many school subjects.

A reading comprehension strategy: making connections

For parents

Good readers use what they already know to help them to understand new ideas and experiences that they come across in books.  They make links between what they are reading and their own lives and experiences; they make links between what they are reading and other books, newspaper or magazines they have read or films or television shows they have seen or websites they have visited; they make links between what they are reading and what they know of the world in general and how people behave in that world and how things ‘are’.

The process of recognising something or someone in the story that reminds the reader of their own experiences, is sometimes referred to as a text-to-self connection.  Young readers are usually most interested in themselves and how everything connects to them, so this kind of connection is the one that they make first.

As they read, they are thinking, ‘This part reminds me of a time when I ….’ Or ‘My grandma is like that!’ or ‘I sometimes feel scared, too.’

Making these kinds of connections helps readers to understand how a character feels and why a character might behave the way he or she does.  It also reminds the reader what he or she already knows about the topic which might be the focus of an informative book, thus helping them to make connections and better understand the new material in the book.

Good readers also make connections between what they’re reading now and what they’ve read or viewed before.  This process is sometimes referred to as a text-to-text connection and is the kind of connection that comes after text-to-self connections.  For good readers it will happen naturally; others will need somebody to point out the connections before they start to develop and use the strategy for themselves.

‘This is just like that other book I read by this author.  It was about a boy and his father, too.’

‘This book really reminds me of that other one I read about a footballer.  The boy in that book had lots of difficulties to overcome, too, and he was successful in the end, as well.’

‘This is a different story about the three little pigs.  This story is told from the wolf’s point of view!’

‘ Hey, the documentary about whales said that too!’

When readers make connections between different things that they read and view, they are learning to recognise patterns.  They recognise patterns in terms of a particular author’s style and the kinds of things he or she writes about; they recognise patterns in terms of story outlines; they recognise patterns in illustrations by a particular illustrator.  In this way everything they read does not come to them as something completely new: there are familiar signs that they know and understand and this helps them to understand the parts that are different and new.

When reading informative books good readers are able to recognise information that they have seen elsewhere and so are able to confirm that it is likely to be reliable information.  When they read contradictory information, good readers know that they will need to check further to see which piece of information is correct.

The most sophisticated kind of connection is the one that is made between what the reader is reading and what he or she knows of the world as a whole – a text-to-worId connection.   Very young readers don’t know much about the world and so this kind of connection is a difficult one for them to make.  Older readers, however, know more about their immediate community and what happens in it, as well as the world presented to them via the media.  They hear about events in the news and view examples of how the wider world operates by watching various shows on television and in films.  When they make connections between what they read and what they know of the world, they are adding to their understanding.  They begin to understand ‘big ideas’ or themes which are relevant to their lives.

In the next blog we’ll look at ways in which you can help your children to develop this comprehension strategy.

Why am I reading this?

Good readers know that why they are reading will determine how they read.

Why they are reading will decide how quickly they read.
If they are reading something that they need to remember, perhaps for a test, then they read slowly.
If they are reading something that it is important that they understand, then they will not only read slowly, but they will also re-read to make certain they have understood.
If they are reading for pleasure, then the rate of reading is not important, and they might read much more quickly.
Why they are reading will decide how carefully they read.
If they are reading something in order to get the ‘big picture’, to work out what the magazine or newspaper article is all about, then they will skim the words rather than read each one individually. They will focus on the opening paragraph, on the opening sentence of other paragraphs, and on the concluding paragraph. The rate of reading will be fairly quick.

If they are reading for a particular piece of information then they will scan the article or chapter, searching for key words. When they find those key words  they will stop and read the surrounding sentences or paragraph carefully to see if they information they require is to be found there.

Readers who lack confidence tend to waste a lot of time, and create a lot of anxiety for themselves, by thinking that they have to read every word no matter what their purpose is in reading. You can help your child to read more efficiently, by (a) identifying their purpose in reading and then (b) showing them what kind of reading is going to be most appropriate for that purpose.

Teaching grammar in context: nouns, pronouns and noun groups

Following on from yesterday’s post, here are some practical ideas for teaching grammar in context.

  • Use picture books to teach nouns and noun groups. A very useful annotated collection, with examples suitable for all year levels, can be found at
  • Demonstrate for students how the choice of noun in a narrative can convey extra information and create a fuller picture for the reader. For example, what is the impact if a character, a very large man, has a chihuahua as a pet rather than a German shepherd? Or the dog next door that I’m frightened of is a rottweiler rather than a labrador?
  •  Develop vocabulary by asking students to suggest alternative, more specific, nouns for ones that are more general. For example, how many more specific nouns can you find for the words ’man’, ‘house’, ‘tree’, ‘car’? How does the more specific noun create a more detailed picture?
  • Select an appropriate narrative text and ask students to change the nouns and/or noun groups to make a different story. Discuss the effect of their choice of substitute nouns and/or noun groups.
  • Annotate excerpts from a text onscreen using arrows to indicate the relationships between the nouns and the pronouns.
  • Design questions about a text which specifically require an understanding of the pronoun references. Be explicit with students about how an understanding of pronoun references helps them to understand the text.
  • Select a descriptive passage from a text that students are reading and remove all of the noun groups. Read the passage with students, ask questions to ensure that they understand it, and then ask them to visualise what is described. Have them describe what they ‘see’. Then provide them with the original text, with noun groups intact, and ask them to visualise and discuss once again, making comparisons with the first version and commenting on relative effectiveness.
  •  Have students work in pairs on Googledocs or similar to add noun groups to each other’s writing and share the revised writing with another pair for their feedback.
  •  When revising shared writing, look for opportunities to compress the text by nominalising verbs and adjectives and be explicit about the process.

Do you have other ideas to share?

Should students read more non-fiction?

An interesting education debate is occurring in the USA at the moment.

The new Common Core State Standards require the teaching of more non-fiction texts, ostensibly aimed at improving standards.

Apparently reading scores for 17 year-olds have not improved significantly since 1980, and it is the opinion of some experts that an increased emphasis on the teaching of non-fiction texts in subject English is the key to changing this situation. According to the Standards, in fourth grade there should be a 50/50 mix of fiction and non-fiction, while by Year 12 it is recommended that 70% of the texts studied should be non-fiction.

Other experts argue that there is no evidence that the study of fiction, rather than non-fiction, is linked to lower reading scores. Likewise, they say there is no evidence that significant improvement will result from an increased emphasis on the study of non-fiction.

They argue that literature – of the ‘great and good’ variety, rather than the dumbed-down kind that sometimes prevails in schools these days – is a perfect vehicle for developing students’ critical skills.

In addition there are some claims that English teachers lack the necessary training to teach non-fiction texts anyway, and further professional learning will be necessary.

I wonder what we think about this debate here in Australia? Would we like to see an increased emphasis on the teaching of non-fiction texts?