Students are often drawn to nonfiction texts, eagerly exploring images of space, animals, the human body, life in ancient times, or collecting stats about their favorite sports heroes. The vibrant photos, diagrams, and charts help synthesize so much new information into digestible facts. But reading nonfiction paragraphs is a demanding task that requires readers to independently determine how all of that information fits together.
Throughout the pandemic, during remote learning, and then upon returning to regular classes, I started to notice that my students were not really engaging with nonfiction articles. They were able to answer comprehension questions and plan presentations, but they were simply copying the same facts and presenting them again without really thinking about what the texts were saying. In this way, the students were not learning the content. Working with two other colleagues, we developed a protocol for teaching how to read nonfiction texts so that our students could learn the content and develop strategies for how to be a reader of any nonfiction text.
What makes nonfiction different?
Fictional stories tend to follow a predictable pattern that we can teach our students. Most stories typically begin with an introduction to the main character’s life, then a presentation of a conflict, the tension rises, and finally the conflict is resolved. As students mature, they will experience more complex stories with more conflicts along the way to the main conflict’s resolution and they will also learn to negotiate humor, flashbacks, and other jumps in the main structure; but the general arc of the story is still there. Readers can see how the character’s actions affect the conflict, so the cause and effect stays clearly within the boundaries of the main conflict.
Since nonfiction does not follow a story arc, readers do not know how one piece of information is connected to the next. Writers give us clues, like transition words and conjunctions, to help us see when one one piece of information is an example, or a result, or a contradiction to the preceding sentence. In the way that we can teach fiction readers that we can make sense of new information as it relates to a typical story arc, we can also teach nonfiction readers that paragraphs typically begin with a topic sentence and then supporting evidence is provided to further explain or bolster the topic or claim. However, because nonfiction writing tends to have longer, more complex sentences, we need to teach our nonfiction readers how to make sense of each sentence and its connection to the main idea.
Mary J Schleppegrell writes about the language demands of different texts and the ways in which they diverge from typical spoken language in her book The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistics Perspective, 2004. Schleppegrell explains that writers of nonfiction texts, like articles and essays, create densely compacted sentences, using conjunctions, transition words, and clauses, in ways that are not intuitive for most students (because it’s different from how we speak). Teaching readers how language is used in nonfiction writing empowers them to read these dense sentences fluently and supports them to make connections and inferences for deeper engagement with the content. Ultimately close reading of nonfiction texts will support students as writers of nonfiction as well. And specific instruction surrounding sentence fluency and these varied structures requires studying grammar, including parts of speech and advanced punctuation use. In this way students learn how writers built nonfiction sentences, so as readers they can then deconstruct sentences in order to develop deeper content understandings.
Consider this paragraph (From Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States, 2005):
Even as the United States involved itself in conflicts around the world in the latter half of the 1800s, it remained determined to acquire every last acre of Indigenous land within its borders. By the late 1800s, policies such as allotment had drastically reduced the remaining Indigenous land base. Still, Indigenous nations had home lands and reservations where they continued to live in their traditional ways. The existence of Indigenous people, with a prior claim to the land whose values, languages, and lifeways that differed from those of European American society, was a constant source of anxiety to white settlers.
This paragraph follows the typical pattern of introducing a claim. The claim was then followed up with supporting evidence. The writer adds language to help the reader understand how these supporting details work together. However, most of the sentences in this paragraph are complex sentences. Reading complex sentences requires the reader to determine how the clauses in one sentence are related to each other, to then draw conclusions about how the following sentences fit together.
Here are some language shifts that readers can learn how to navigate:
- Transition words – These words signal how the current sentence connects to the information that came before. For example, the transition word so signals a cause/effect, but the transition word contrastingly would show that the following sentence is in opposition to the preceding sentence.
- Dependent Clauses – Pay attention to the two parts of the sentence to see how one part of the sentence connects to the other.
Even as…, … . Even though… , …
When … , … . Since… , … . If…, …
- Embedded information – Authors embed who, what, where, why, when, how to give us more information about a topic, but the sentence is a complete sentence without that embedded clause. So if the sentence feels confusing, we can first read it without that parenthetical clause at first.
- Vocabulary – Definitions for vocabulary are often embedded, but sometimes they are referred to from previous sentences. Students should monitor their understanding of new terms.
- Nominalization – Nominalization is most often used by turning a verb or adjective from the preceding sentence into a noun in the following sentence to say more about it. I used nominalization earlier when I wrote: However, most of the sentences in this paragraph are complex sentences. Reading complex sentences requires the reader to determine how the clauses in one sentence are related to each other, to then draw conclusions about how the following sentences fit together.
How teachers and parents can help readers navigate complex language structures
As a writer for this article, I am using many grammatical terms, like conjunctions, clauses, nouns, and verbs; but I suggest that, while using the proper names with students is important, teaching students how to use these language moves is the more essential skill. As teachers we can say things like “add more description” or “be more clear.” Students often benefit from direct instruction in how authors use language in the service of adding details or being more clear. In this way, when we support our students as readers of nonfiction, we are simultaneously helping them develop their skills as nonfiction writers. Instructing the specific vocabulary helps students to have a better way of describing the “architecture” of language and deconstructing text.
In the same way teachers hone in on an author’s craft when teaching narrative writing strategies like how to incorporate inner thinking, setting details, or descriptive actions, teachers and parents can engage in close readings with their students in order to explore author’s craft in nonfiction texts as well.
Students can often struggle to fluently read complex sentences. Students often run out of breath before they get to the period and can wind up stopping at awkward places in sentences, which can affect their understanding of what they read. Readers often require direct instruction on pausing at commas in order to take a breath before completing the rest of the idea.
Students can often read so quickly that they get to the end of the paragraph without any sense of what they read. Shared reading is also an excellent time to model stopping and thinking about each sentence before moving on to the next. In addition, readers often benefit from instruction on how to read embedded clauses. It often helps for readers to see and hear what a sentence is saying without the embedded clause to get a handle on the central message of the sentence before putting the extra information back.
Once the students have grasped the meaning of the individual sentences, they can see how the sentences fit together to support a claim. Now they can start using their own transition and explaining words to identify and justify the claim and the supporting sentences in their own words.
Using Text Features to help Comprehension
Paying attention to all of those language moves can be exhausting! Fortunately, nonfiction texts are usually divided into sections with subheadings. Students can learn to use the main idea of a section (the subheadings) as a guide to check their understanding of individual paragraphs. In general, a student can say, “I know this section as about (subheading) so I just have to figure out how this paragraph is connected to the topic.”
With all of this in mind, my colleagues and I came up with a protocol to help our elementary readers prepare their minds for nonfiction reading, monitor their understanding, and then write about what they learned.
How to Read Nonfiction
By Rachel Levinsky, Learning Specialist and Private Tutor, Brad Hoffman, Board Certified Educational Planner and Learning Specialist, Faya Hoffman, Board Certified Educational Planner and Learning Specialist, and Laurie Gross, M.A.T. and Reading Specialist