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3 Tried and True Ways to Help Struggling Readers Comprehend Nonfiction

Teaching reading to students is a complex task especially for teachers in Title I schools, because most of the students do not come to kindergarten with the 1,000 lap hours needed for reading readiness. Now add the push for more nonfiction text in elementary and you have have a train wreck waiting to happen. I am learning first hand what effect this early exposure to nonfiction text is having on teachers in Title 1 schools.
abe and meI have 26 first grade students that read on 7 different reading levels. Out of these 26 students I have 6 students that read at 3rd grade level. Some would say that this is great, and I am not saying that it is not but as a the teacher of record it creates another problem that hast to be solved which is that fact that these 6 students already know how to read, so now what?. If I was a first year teacher I would have fallen apart by now, thankfully I am an experienced teacher and a natural problem solver. To solve this problem I devised a plan for my 6 students that would focus on nonfiction text. Since I am an avid reader of this type of text I am enthusiastic about teaching it my students. Our school is implementing Guided Reading and I chose the book A. Lincoln and Me  for my small group lesson. Even though this book is not a nonfiction text it does have nonfiction text features. I have been giving these students Read Works kindergarten reading passages for seat work during reading workshop which they were able to do independently. What I know that most elementary teachers do not know is that nonfiction text is 1 to 2 grade levels higher than the students actual grade level because of the tier 3 words and complexity of the content.

One of my favorite resources to use is the Comprehension Toolkit by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. They20150228_122851-1 have a kit for primary grades K-2 and intermediate grades 3- 6.  The kits have 6 books that focuses on a different comprehension skill. The first book focuses on monitoring comprehension which I absolutely love, however when I began to read and dissect the comprehension strategies I was bit disheartened because of the way that the lessons had been done. The lessons in their current state probably would be good fit for my 6 students but that’s only 23% of my classroom. What about the other 77% of the class who also need to be taught to comprehend nonfiction text? I began to think about how I could use this awesome resource to meet the needs of ALL of my students.

The first lesson in the book is Think about the Text, which involves looking, listening, talking, writing and drawing to express thinking. This is a great way to get students to think about the text but as a teacher of students who did not have reading readiness when they entered school the first 3 actions looking, listening and talking would have to be separate lessons that would be more explicit for my students. This is not just a requirement of my 1st grade students but there are students in middle school who still do not know how to think about the text. 20150228_131726-1The next lesson is Notice and Think about Nonfiction Features. This lesson introduces all the text features to students, which would probably be okay for students at an affluent school but for students who struggle with reading and  have not been exposed to different genres introducing these features altogether is not a good idea. For example, in my book A. Lincoln and Me one of my students noticed the calligraphy writing and he said, “Ooooo, cursive writing.” As an adult I knew that there was a reason for the author using that kind of text because it was used during that time period. The second lesson introduces 7 text features to students and during the independent practice the students are asked to find new text features and add them to their list. This would not be an ideal activity with struggling readers because many of them have not been exposed to text features in magazines or books. When I taught 4th grade some of my students has never read the newspaper and did not have a clue what kinds of topics were covered in a newspaper.

Scaffolding the activities using Bloom’s Taxonomy would be a great place to begin for students to identify and understand nonfiction text features and their purposes and then move up to the application level. The last lesson in the monitoring comprehension book is Explore Nonfiction Features by creating a nonfiction features book. In this lesson the students are asked to share a photograph of themselves and then write a caption for it. This is a great idea, however struggling readers would have a hard time completing this activity because of the level of thinking that it would take to create the caption. Most struggling readers have a difficult time creating sentences and caption would cause the students to disconnect. This lesson could be differentiated by preparing captions for the students and then allowing them to choose a caption that matches their picture until the students are able to create their own captions.

The Comprehension Toolkit is a great resource for teaching comprehension skills. As with many educational resources in their current state, these resources are not written to meet the needs of struggling readers. When using these researched based resources the information must be scaffolded so that struggling readers are exposed to the same information as their high achieving peers.

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