Using Non-Fiction Text to Increase Reading Comprehension

Since most states have included a much heavier emphasis on using non-fiction text (also known as informational text) in state ELA standards,  finding good sources of non-fiction text  absolutely essential.

Wonderopolis Provides Non-Fiction Texts

One excellent place for good non-fictional text of all types is Wonderopolis.

This site, created by the National Center for Family Literacy, was named by Time Magazine as one of the top 50 websites of the year.

Every day, Wonderopolis provides a new “wonder of the day” question that students can explore. The site includes a video about the topic, key information,vocabulary terms that are important to the text,  thought-provoking questions.

There is even a clue about the next wonder of the day to promote anticipation and student interest.

Some examples of recent questions are: Do Dragonflies Breath Fire? Where is the Hottest Place on Earth? and  How Hot is Lukewarm?  Students can chose to read about topics such as Animals, Oceans, Presidents, Space and many other wonderful topics on the site.  It is definitely a must-visit site for teachers.

News ELA as a Source for Non-Fiction Text

Another excellent source of non-fictional or informational text is Newsela. On this prolific website, you will find informational articles that work well for ELA, Science and Social Studies content.

They have recently added a new section providing relatable and accessible content and activities that support Social-Emotional learning.

This resource has grouped articles written at various Lexile levels that can help students easily expand their knowledge about such topics as Hurricanes and their impact, current events such as the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and even current sporting events such as the Olympics and other major sporting events.

Teachers can access both a free version as well as a paid version that gives teachers the ability to assign articles to their students and monitor comprehension. Articles can also be found in Spanish.

Girl reading a book outdoors
The More We Read – the More We Love Reading

Non-Fiction on Smithsonian Tween Tribune

Another outstanding source of non-fictional informational text is the Smithsonian Tween Tribune. Teachers can search for articles by grade level range to find interesting articles featuring national news, odd news, as well as topics that appeal to students of all ages.

Teachers can also search for interesting articles by Lexile level to meet student reading skills.

The website is a free resource for teachers and offers weekly lesson plans, critical thinking questions and a weekly video for classroom use.

The website is easy to use and provides a wealth of relevant texts that students will enjoy reading. Teachers can assign specific stories even from their phone.

Non-Fiction Texts from Common Lit

Another helpful source of high quality non-fiction text material is CommonLit. Teachers can explore resource texts by book, genre, grade level or even by themes. Spanish texts are also available for student use.

Teachers have the ability to monitor student progress. Some materials are free while others are available with a paid subscription.

Some examples of themes that students can explore through text groups include Growing up, friendship and family, honor and courage and social pressures to name just a few.

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Connecting to Deeper Meaning with Text-Based Response

One of the ways that we can help our students connect to the deeper meaning of the texts they are reading is by requiring text-based responses rather than simply asking questions that have clear, literal answers.

State ELA standards require is asking students to have rich and rigorous conversations that are based on a common text that they have been reading. To do this, they need to connect to the deeper meaning of a text – not just read it superficially.

What does it mean to ask students to give a text-based answer? Let’s explore that concept and what it looks like when students to give a text-based answer to what they have been reading.

Levels of Questioning Used in Text-Based Response

According to the research of Pearson and Johnson (1978) the answer to some questions is textually explicit meaning that that answer is found directly in the text. The answer can be pointed out by the responder. 

Questions of this type are: What color was the wagon in the story?”  “How many people lived in the Smith family? What was Cassie’s brother’s name?

Teachers have been asking these types of “right there” questions for generations.

Textually Implicit Questions for Text-Based Response

The next level of questioning is textually implicit or questions where the answer is not directly stated but must be implied from the text. 

These types of responses have been referred to as “making the connection” or “putting it together” questions. 

To respond to this type of question, the reader has to think about what the author has said and perhaps consider information that has been presented in multiple places in the text.

An example of a question that fits this category might be:  Why was the stroke of midnight a problem for Cinderella?  Why was Peter’s father upset when Peter brought home a stranger?

In these examples, the student must put information together from several places to determine a response.

Adolescent girl sitting quietly thinking about something.
When Creating Text-Based Responses, Students Must Think More Deeply About the Meaning of a Text

Using Implicit Questioning in the Classroom

The teacher then asks the student to cite specific bits of information from the text to support their response. For example, you might say to the student, “What it the text helps you understand this?  Read to us the specific areas of the text (page and paragraph) that helped you come to your conclusion.”  

Just and Carpenter (1987) state, “questions that require higher level abstraction (such as the application of a principle) product more learning than factual questions. High-level questions probably encourage deeper processing and more thorough organization” (pp. 421-422).

Text-based questions are useful not only for Literature but also for content-based reading.

Using Text-based Questions in the Classroom

So, the next time you are creating questions for your students based on their reading, try using questions that require students to dig deeper into the content and meaning of the text they have been reading.

Require your students to “put the pieces together” and then justify their analysis.  Get students in the habit of providing support for their analysis and allow others to challenge faulty connections and/or assumptions when they are made. 

Your class will engage in more exciting discussions about their insights and understandings. Thinking will be less superficial and will help students connect what they are reading on a more long term basis.

Learn more about using text-based response in my book, Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.

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What Effective Readers Do When Reading (Part 1)

Connecting to Background Knowledge

Researchers have identified the difference between what effective readers do when reading and what poor readers do differently.

These insights can help us focus on the skills that struggling readers need to increase their reading performance. When they know what good readers do when reading, they can learn these strategies too.

Strong readers use their prior knowledge and information to relate to the text while they are reading.

They make predictions about what will happen next in the text. They think about what they might learn in the rest of the text. They make judgments about how the information fits together as a sensible whole.

Connecting with what we already know about a topic (background knowledge) is one of these things. When we connect what we already know about a topic, the easier it is for us to understand and process new information on the topic.

Effective readers are able to spot ideas that conflict with their own background knowledge or with ideas from other articles they have read.

They understand that it is alright to disagree with an author’s position on a topic when they can cite evidence that shows inaccuracies.

Effective readers are able to stop reading and check other reference sources to see if the information is accurate and reliable.

Demands of Readers in Today’s World

In the age of instant information, helping students evaluate information and look for bias or self-interest is an essential skill. 

Students must know that all information isn’t “created equal” and that misinformation and disinformation exist.

Effective readers use their background knowledge to make sense of what they read.

For example, think of the word bank.  This word could refer to a place where we place our money as in “I bank at the City Bank.”  The word could refer to  the sidewalls of a river as in “The water was rising higher on its banks.” 

In another article, we might see the phrase, “The plane banked to the left as it rose.” In this case, the word bank would be referring to the movement of the plane.

By using our background knowledge about the topic, we are able to connect word meanings to the right meaning of the word being used in context.

Effective reading teachers know this and help students activate relevant prior knowledge before asking them to read.

What Happens When Children Lack Background Knowledge?

Students who do not have a rich storehouse of background knowledge or who come from a different culture, need to have greater levels of pre-teaching before being asked to read.

Some ways that you can help your students connect to the texts they are reading include:

  1. using visuals,
  2. directly introducing to new vocabulary they will see in the text before reading,
  3. using graphic organizers to help students visualize and organize content,
  4. and using appropriate realia to enhance background knowledge prior to reading.

Good Readers Create Mental Images As they Read

Good readers create images of the characters in a story and the action taking place.

Students can do this by drawing pictures or creating and sharing mental images. Creating mental images is like seeing the “movie version” played out in their heads as they read.

Effective readers become emotionally involved with what they are reading. How many times have you been so emotionally involved with a good book you couldn’t put it down? That’s what good readers do when reading.

Capable readers identify with the text and become emotionally involved in their reading. Help your students think about the visual images they get while reading.

Besides mental images, you can use graphic organizers to help students organize information and see meaningful relationships between and within concepts.

Good Readers Know and Use “Fix-Up” Strategies When Needed

Strong readers know that text should make sense as they are reading. They know when what they are reading makes sense and when it doesn’t.

They know how to use a wide variety of “fix-up” strategies when they lose meaning while reading. Some helpful strategies to use are: skipping ahead, re-reading, reading aloud, and slowing the pace of what is being read.

Good readers also know how to ask questions about what they are reading to reconnect with meaning in the text.

Effective readers know they lose meaning while reading. They know that when this happens, they need to stop and figure out how to regain meaning before they continue.

Model the reading strategies you use for monitoring your own comprehension by reading aloud to your students. Stop at strategic places to model how to use fix-up strategies that are appropriate to the text.

In this way, your students can hear your thinking and see what you do to reconnect to textual meaning.Help your students understand that all readers lose meaning from time to time.

Using effective strategies when meaning has been lost increases reading comprehension. It’s what good readers do when reading that poor readers do not know how to do.

Find more great ideas for building strong readers in my books:

The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (K-5)

Literacy Strategies: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading (6-12).