As a young student, I had no love for non-fiction texts. I don’t think it had much to do with the text itself, but the tasks that often accompanied reading the text. It seemed each time I had a reading assignment in science or social studies – the assignment was simply to read the chapter, define a list of vocab words (in bold), and answer a few basic questions found at the end of the chapter. Occasionally there was an essay question at the end of each chapter – but that was usually for bonus points.
It didn’t take long to learn the system. The vocabulary questions were easy. All I had to do was find the bold words and write the phrase that followed them. The comprehension questions were not much harder; the answers could be found in the exact order the questions appeared, and most of the time the answers included the same words or phrases that appeared in the questions.
These assignments taught me a lot. Unfortunately very little of what I learned from these related to the content. I learned to “work the system” and make 100% on each homework assignment, while putting in minimum effort. I rarely, if ever, read the text start to finish. I got by with skimming and reading only the sentences or paragraphs the questions sent me to. The problem was that on the rare occasion I was tasked with a question that required any degree of critical or inferential thinking – I was at a loss.
Thankfully, I eventually had teachers who exposed me to the value of critical reading skills required when reading non-fiction texts – and I began to develop my ability to read-to-learn rather than read-to-find-answers to the questions at the back of the book.
I am not condemning or denouncing assigning level I comprehension questions; they certainly have their place, but I feel we provide a disservice when we don’t challenge kids to go beyond hunting for answers. We unintentionally reinforce poor reading habits by rewarding “answer-hunt” reading.
Today’s post is meant to address alternatives to “answer-hunt” reading. Too often students fear or dread non-fiction text because of past experiences and lack of success with it. We ought to spend time developing skills students can use to combat this fear, so students can approach any text with confidence.
What strategies can we explicitly teach students, so that they are able to read non-fiction texts critically for worthwhile purposes?
Just Try-It Tuesday: Alternatives to Answer-Hunts:
I will briefly describe two general practices that teachers in any discipline can use when asking students to read non-fiction texts.
- Using strategic text-dependent questions.
- Connecting text structure with determining the main idea.
1. Embed Text-Dependent Questions into Lessons:
In Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book TDQ: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading (2015), the authors identify four general questions we should help kids answer in order to drive critical reading:
- What does the text say?
- Includes questions about general understanding and key ideas and details
- How does the work?
- Includes questions about vocabulary, structure, and author’s craft
- What does the text mean?
- Includes questions about author’s purpose and textual connections
- What does the text inspire you to do?
- Includes tasks that include writing, multi-media presentations, debates, investigations, or other tasks where students demonstrate what they have learned as a result of reading the text critically.
Designing questions and tasks that help students answer these questions is only half the battle – as I see it. We also have to provide students with enough practice and feedback, so they can answer these questions independently. In other words, it’s not a matter of just developing the questions and tasks then simply assigning them to students and grading the results. We need to embed various forms of explicit instruction, discussion, and feedback into these lessons to help build these critical reading skills in students.
2. Using Text Structure to Determine Main Idea
In the above example, Frey and Fisher suggest that we help students determine how a text works. One major component of this involves understanding the structure of the text. We not only should be teaching students to recognize text structures, but help them connect how each text structure might lead them to understanding the main idea of the text. Refer to the examples below:
Text Structure: Compare and Contrast
When students encounter a text that may be comparing the leadership styles of two different presidents, the main idea will include information about both presidents. Just knowing the structure of the text should help students recognize they will need to synthesize information about both people in order to really understanding the text.
Text Structure: Cause and Effect
An article discussing the causes and effects of global warming would likely be written in a cause/effect structure. Once students are able to recognize this, they should immediately understand that the article will answer two important questions: What causes global warming? What are the effects of global warming? Once again, understanding how the text works helps students synthesize information to determine the main idea of the article and, eventually, the significance of that main idea.
Other text structures to explicitly teach:
Narrative: Fiction/biographical non-fiction texts that follow a typical plot.
Main idea connection: Students should keep in mind that narrative texts have a theme and be on the lookout for clues as to what the underlying message of the story is.
Sequence (chronological order): This structure will indicate steps in a process or the order events took place.
Main idea connection: When encountering sequential text-structure students should know they will have to examine how each part relates to the whole.
Description (Main Idea/Detail): Expository texts where main ideas are followed by details.
Main idea connection: When students understand this structure, they know the information is presented more directly and their main task is to identify the main ideas and organize identify the details for each topic and sub-topic.
When asking students to read non-fiction text, avoid “answer-hunt” assignments by planning, ahead of time, a series of text dependent questions carefully designed to help students go beyond surface level understanding.
Help students understand how the text works by explicitly teaching text structures and how understanding those structures will help them determine what is really important in the text.
I am often surprised and pleased about the critical thinking students are capable of once we give opportunities to do more than supply us with answers.