You learn on your feet
Not in your seat!
~Dr. Jean Feldman
Although Dr. Jean is a well-known preschool and kindergarten teacher, author, researcher, and presenter, most often her advice can be modified and applied to older students as well. Whether you are teaching to the Common Core State Standards or not, there is no doubt that for most schools, the standards and expectations are rigorous. Navigating the complexity of informational texts or nonfiction can be quite challenging for readers of all ages. Teaching and scaffolding our students’ learning with informational text is no easy feat especially since many readers are uninterested and even intimidated by such texts. How can teachers make reading more interesting? Because let’s face it, if students are not interested, the struggling ones will probably not read and the rest will not be optimizing their learning.
How can teachers “hook” reluctant middle school readers of all ability levels to embrace, enjoy, and learn from informational reading? What follows are some tried and true strategies and tips that I used in my middle school and upper elementary language arts classrooms over the years. The “secret” seems to be to engage learners, allow them to interact with texts in a kinesthetic way, and to remember that Before you teach them, you have to reach them!
1. Choice- For over a decade, reading experts and researchers have urged teachers to offer students choice when reading literature. Why? Because the research has shown that offering choice that matches students’ interests is a huge motivator. The same applies to informational texts. Using a reading survey at the beginning of the year can help you to discover what students want to learn and their interests. To “reach” a student, you need to know their likes, dislikes, struggles, strengths, and weaknesses. We know that nonfiction reading goes beyond the content textbooks. Using a required textbook for content classes should be used as a tool to meet your district’s standards and objectives and as a springboard to explore other texts related to the theme or topic. If a student is given an opportunity to choose what they read, even from what I call “selective choice” (where the teachers provides an array of texts from which to choose), they are more likely to have an intrinsic motivation to read. Choice also applies to how we ask students to respond to their reading and to demonstrate their understanding. Offering a menu of activities that makes use of varying learning modalities and complexity helps to differentiate the learning. Students may be reading different texts (or maybe not), but offering a choice of after reading activities will foster independence and student-centered learning.
2. Variety– Whether you are a content teacher or an English Language Arts teacher, offering a variety of texts will help to engage learners. This would include digital texts, newspapers (paper or digital), blogs, maps, pamphlets, the textbook, content-specific books, just to name a few. Offering a variety of texts to match your students’ instructional reading level is also important, although it can be a challenge to find materials. Make use of your librarian who can make suggestions, visit the classroom for book talks, and if possible, bring the books to the classroom for your class to use. This saves much time by having the books brought to you instead of going to the library. Scatter the books around the room and provide an opportunity for students to browse or do a “Book Tasting” or what I call a Read-Around” where groups browse books for a few minutes and then pass to the next group, or they get up and move to another group to preview texts. As well, using a variety of teaching activities and techniques will keep learning fresh and interesting. Try using Interactive Notebooks, Foldables, Lap Books, structured note-taking forms, graphic organizers, Project-Based Learning, videos, diagrams, music, just to name a few.
PBS Learning Media has a wealth of videos, games, digital resources, and more to help hook your readers and to make learning meaningful and appealing. Completing a worksheet of questions after reading is not something most readers look forward to. Our goal should be to have students physically and cognitively engaged.
3. Instructional Strategies– One such way to engage the reader is to set the reading purpose before reading. The purpose for reading should never be to complete the questions at the end of the chapter or to complete a worksheet. Think about why you want students to read a text. Think about the standard or objective on which you are focusing. A reading purpose can be as simple as saying and writing on the board, “Read to find out why Pluto is no longer considered to be a planet”.
Along with nonfiction instruction comes vocabulary. My advice is to focus on Tier 2 words if the reading is completed in English class. If you are a content teacher, focus on Tier 3 words. This will help you to narrow your vocabulary list to 8-10 words that will not overwhelm the students.
Use whole class and small group discussions (or a Think-Pair-Share) to activate and assess students’ schema and to build interest and motivation to read. In addition, use a gradual release model and give explicit and direct teaching of text features and text structures to help students navigate the text. If they understand how to read informational texts, they just might find it easier than they thought and won’t be as reluctant to read. And, along the way you are teaching a functional reading skill that life-long readers need.
Make use of cooperative groups, paired reading, book clubs, literary circles (a literature circle for nonfiction texts), Reader’s Workshop, and independent reading. Again, this touches on variety and allows students to read, think, and work with others. Not only will this motivate students to read, but we know from brain-based research that interacting with other learners and talking about our reading and learning augments the learning process. Use a Jigsaw for lengthy and challenging texts, have students record their learning on chart paper and have a Gallery Walk, and have small groups present their learning to the rest of the class.
Finally, with a plethora of digital texts available as well as other media sources available on the web, we can offer students variety and adjust our teaching to be more interactive and student-centered. Gone are the days (I hope!) of students sitting alone at their desk left to muddle through a rather long and difficult (and perhaps evening boring!) text by themselves.
Yes, teaching informational texts can be challenging, but focus on making just one change whether it be a new text, a new technique or activity over the next few weeks. Observe and reflect before, during, and after instruction to see how it makes a difference!