Nonfiction texts can seem a little overwhelming at first. Encouraging students to view a nonfiction book in terms of its parts or features can help quite a bit. The very first thing that students should understand about most nonfiction texts is that they don’t need to read every word from start to finish. A nonfiction book can be compared to a grocery store. You buy what you need. You don’t need one of everything. In a nonfiction book, you read the parts that you need. Of course, there are times when it does make sense to read a nonfiction selection straight through, such as when you want to learn everything you can about a particular subject, but in most cases, students are using nonfiction texts to find specific information.
Understanding text features can help students to find the information they need quickly and effectively. Here are some ideas for how to help your students as they explore nonfiction texts.
The table of contents
Teach students to scan the table of contents for chapters or sections that look useful. Often, children and adults skip this step in favor of thumbing through the book looking for relevant chapter headings and subheadings. Here is a fun experiment way to show your students how useful the table of contents can be. Give everyone the same text book. Split the class in half and have one half find a specific piece of information using the table of contents and have the other half do it by thumbing through the book. It should become blatantly clear which method is more effective.
Headings and Subheadings
These may serve to hold the reader’s interest, but in most nonfiction texts, their purpose is the give the main idea of the following section. One way to demonstrate this concept is to have students quickly go through one chapter reading only the headings and subheadings. Then ask what information they think they would find if they read the entire chapter.
Illustration, photos, and captions
Pictures make the text come alive. They are also a great opportunity to help your students dig deeper into the subject at hand. Here are some questions to ask students about a specific picture:
- How is this picture related to the main text?
- What can you learn from this picture that you can’t from the text?
- Would a different picture be better on this page? If so, why and what would the picture be of?
- Does this picture make you want to read the text (as a side note, editors know that people tend to look at the picture first, then read the caption, and then read the text…IF they are still interested, so often pictures are picked specifically to hold the reader’s interest)?
- Is the caption interesting? Does it help you to understand the picture better?
These types of features are great because they not only grab your attention, they can also hold a great deal of information. Here are some things ideas for what to do with one of these features:
- Use the questions above adapted for the feature you are focusing on.
- Orally or in writing, have students state everything they have learned from a specific map, diagram, graph, or table. Don’t rush this. Give them the time and encouragement to find every nugget of information. In addition to learning more about the subject at hand, this is a terrific exercise in fluency and possibly inference, depending on the image you are using.
- Without showing students a given page, read the text to them out loud. Then tell them that the page includes a map (or diagram or chart). Ask them what they think the map shows. Get many different ideas, or if one ideas seems to be prominent, explore that idea to find out what features the students think would be featured on the map. Then compare the students’ predictions with what is actually on the page.
These popular features are showing up more and more in children’s nonfiction text, mainly because they tend to grab attention and are a great way for the author to fit in information that would not go easily into the main narrative. Here are some questions to ask when reading sidebars:
- What is the main idea of this sidebar? Can you summarize the sidebar?
- How is this sidebar related to the main text?
- Why do you think the author made this information a sidebar instead of putting it into the main text?
- Is this sidebar important? Is it interesting?
Students should know that each of these features can add to their understanding of the text. Here are some questions to ask:
- Why is this part of the text in red (or highlighted, italicized, bolded etc.)?
- Why did the author choose to give this information in bullets points instead of in paragraph form?
- How is the person who is quoted important? What purpose does he or she serve?
- Is the quote interesting? Does it add value to the text? How?
Make sure that younger students know that most nonfiction texts do include a glossary and that they can find definitions for bold printed words from the text there. They can’t use the tool if they don’t know about it. One way to extend a glossary activity is to have students use the words they are looking up in sentences.
Indexes can be a great place to find specific answers, but indexes vary by quality quite a bit. Help older students to evaluate an index to decide if it is worth using. A good index lists only important people, places, dates, events, and concepts. Further, it includes subheadings so that the reader is not faced with a long list of page numbers for a given term. Make sure that you are using a text with a good index when you teach index use. One of the most motivating ways to teach students to use an index is to do it in a scavenger-hunt type activity. Give students a list of questions. They must use the index to find the answers, noting page numbers.
Time lines, Fun Facts, For Further Exploration, Activities, etc.
Make sure students know to check the back of the book for what could be a goldmine of valuable and interesting information. Often, these features go unread because no one finds them. Of special note is the “For Further Exploration” section, which may be called by other names, but usually lists other resource materials related to the subject. The Internet resources can be particularly valuable as they can be utilized immediately, as opposed to the books and periodicals, which will probably require a visit to the library.
Hopefully, this post gave you some ideas for creating lessons and activities. If you need it right now, consider these two resources:
*While I write about a variety of topics, I feel especially qualified to write about nonfiction since I am also a nonfiction children’s author. Having written or given instructions for all of these features, I have an in depth understanding of how they are used to convey information.