Informational text is one of the hardest types of texts for many students to comprehend. This is particularly challenging for students like mine, in title one schools, who lack in background knowledge. These students struggle with informational text often simply because they lack background knowledge. These students do not visit museums, watch documentaries or have access to as many educational toys. These students do not look at newspapers or watch the news on t.v.
So when you start reading a book about glaciers with kids who live in the desert and have never seen more than 1/4 inch of snow or reading a book about flightless birds who have never been to a zoo or even a farm, the students have no background knowledge on the topic to connect with. Without these connections, students who read the words are not understanding the words. So how do we help these students to better understand informational text? Here are 5 strategies I use:
1.) Bring in background knowledge BEFORE you read. Most of the time we can read a book and know if your students will have background knowledge on a topic. If you are unsure, a simple K-W-L chart will help you know if your students will have the background knowledge to understand the book you're going to read.
Once you know what your students are lacking, you can fill in those gaps with videos like the Magic School Bus, field trips, experiments or even real world experience like baking bread. This year my class baked bread to help my students understand what yeast does.
2.) Pre-teach important vocabulary words. Especially with English Langage Learners or limited English learners (who often are native English speakers that have only had experience with a single non-standard English dialect), preteaching vocabulary is very important. Students can often sound out words in books and have no idea what that word means. Because they don't want to sound "stupid" and ask what that word means, they just won't ask and thereby won't understand what they read. To stop this phenomenom, I ALWAYS pre-teach vocabulary words. I choose key words from the text that will help students to understand what they are going to read. Then we brainstorm what the meaning of these words are using a variety of word strategies, including cognates, parts of speech, and context clues. Sometimes the students stumble on to the correct definition of the word. Other times, I have to give them the definition. Either way, students have thought about and discussed these words BEFORE they read. This primes their brains, builds additional background knowledge and gives them the vocabulary they need in order to understand the text they will be reading.
Once I have finished pre-teaching this vocabulary, I post all of the words onto my word wall for students to reference at any time while they are reading this book (or any other book).
***Product note: Suggested vocabulary for pre-teaching can be found in all of the Novel Studies available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. There is also a section in my Self Selected Informational Book Studies for pre-teaching vocabulary.
3.) Teach students to use informational text features. "Mrs. Raki, do I have to read this?" is something I often have to hear while students point to captions or charts provided in informational books we read. We need to teach students about these text features. They need to know that not only do they need to read them, but that each different kind of text feature will provide them with different information. My class recently went on a "scavenger hunt" for text features through a variety of old Science Weekly magazines I had. Students worked together to find different examples of each text feature and glued them onto chart paper to make text feature posters.
Now, every time we read an informational book, I ask them "What text feature is this?" If they don't remember, we refer back to our posters. Then we talk about what that feature will do for us as a reader.
4.) Use informational text as read alouds. It's easy to get into our favorite novels and picture books for read alouds. However, informational texts can be just as successful as a read aloud. This is particularly true if you use the book as a "think a loud". "Oh I see the caption for this picture says..." or "This diagram shows us more details about how..." Use informational read a louds as a way to model for your students how to read and understand informational books. Additionally, informational texts as read alouds build background knowledge, vocabulary and pull in students who are not interested in "storybook reading". Of course this isn't to say we never use novels or picture books for read aloud. Instead, it would be great to read a fiction and a non-fiction back to back. For example read Mr. Popper's Penguins and then read a National Geographic book about Penguins.
5.) Find topics that students do have background knowledge about. Even students will limited background knowledge have interests in non-fiction topics. Find out what topics intrigue your students and find books on them. Often students love books on weird, icky topics like "Why do people burp?" or "What are boogers made of?" Students might also love to hear a read aloud on a book about the making of their favorite t.v. show or video game cheats. The point is to draw in their attention and stretch their background knowledge and vocabulary.
Whatever strategies you use, it's evident that teaching informational text is important for our students. Reading informational text is the type of text that we read 75% of the time "in real life" so it needs to be a larger part of what we read in the classroom too.
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