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October 5, 2023
ASCD Blog

2 Simple Strategies to Launch Nonfiction Reading

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Nonfiction texts can be difficult for students—but how teachers introduce these texts can make a difference in engagement and comprehension.
Instructional Strategies
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When it comes to leveraging nonfiction texts in content area courses, many teachers are reluctant. They express concerns about student motivation and engagement, the amount of time it will take students to read and make sense of the material, and students’ ability to comprehend complex nonfiction. But if we want our students to think for themselves—to become critical consumers of information—it’s imperative that we provide frequent and varied opportunities for them to engage in reading and evaluating nonfiction texts across content areas. So how can we be proactive in addressing the potential problems with reading nonfiction? How can we plan reading tasks that boost engagement, make learning from nonfiction texts more efficient, and enhance students’ comprehension? 

The Role of Background Knowledge

Decades of research, dating back to the late 1980s, consistently underscore the vital role of background knowledge in reading comprehension. Readers draw upon their preexisting understanding, encompassing specialized vocabulary, facts, and concepts, to make sense of new texts on the same subject. A deficiency in background knowledge can lead to confusion, longer reading times, and reduced comprehension, as information becomes disjointed and challenging to prioritize. Additionally, insufficient background knowledge impedes students’ retention of new information and diminishes curiosity about a subject, making prior knowledge a fundamental cornerstone of effective reading and learning.
Slower reading rates, comprehension struggles, the inability to retain information, and low levels of engagement are the very issues teachers worry over when they consider assigning nonfiction texts; and, as you can see, background knowledge plays into each one. 

If we want our students to think for themselves, it’s imperative that we provide frequent and varied opportunities for them to engage in reading and evaluating nonfiction texts.

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We can leverage our understanding of how background knowledge plays into reading comprehension to design quick and easy “launch” activities that will effectively and efficiently propel students into complex nonfiction texts, setting them up to be more invested and successful. Below are two simple and engaging strategies teachers can use to build or activate background knowledge prior to reading nonfiction texts. 

1. Probable Passage: Working with Words

Before you introduce a nonfiction text to students—before even sharing the title—provide an opportunity for them to tinker with some of the key words in that text. Allow them to preview the words, say them out loud, think about how they’re related, categorize them, and consider what they might reveal about the upcoming text.
Probable Passage is a fabulous pre-reading strategy you can use to do just that. Described by Daniels and Zemelman, the first step is to identify 8-15 key words students need to know to grasp the central ideas in the text. The words should fall into at least a few of the following categories: people (which can include individuals, groups, or institutions), places, problems, causes and solutions, or outcomes. Try to include a mixture of words students already know and some that will be less familiar. For example, in a CTE class where students are about to delve into a text on the importance of great customer service, the word list might include terms like consumers, retention, acquisition, profit, revenue, brand image, trust, lifetime value, rapport, upsell, cross-sell, and churn rate.
Launching Nonfiction Image 1

Organizer created by Heather Abney Brown.

Allow students a couple of minutes of private think time to consider the list of key words—what they might mean and how they might relate to each other; then, ask students to sort the words. You can provide them with category headings or see what they come up with on their own. 
Following private think time, place students in strategic partnerships or small groups and encourage them to share and compare their thinking about how they categorized the words. Encourage students to make revisions to their own lists as they listen to their classmates' reasoning. 
Finally, allow students another minute or two of private think time to craft a predictive gist statement for the upcoming text. Based on the vocabulary they’ve seen, what do they think the text is going to be about? 
Select and collect a few of the most thoughtful gist statements on a public record. As students dive into the text, encourage them to consider the accuracy of their gist statements; and, after they read, have them reflect on how their gist statements compare to the actual central ideas in the text. 

2. Hanging Hashtags: Employing Images 

Another effective and engaging way to launch nonfiction reading is with the investigation of images related to the text. The images could include photographs, diagrams, maps, charts, graphs, cartoons, or infographics—any visual that will enhance students’ understanding of the upcoming text. Many times the image can be pulled from the text itself, but you can also look outside the text for a powerful image related to the topic. Give students time to study and discuss the image and encourage them to make predictions about how the image might connect to the upcoming text. 
Featured on Curriculum Associates’ ELLevation platform, Hanging Hashtags works best with a single image. First, select and display a thought-provoking image for the class. In a U.S. History class where students are preparing to dig into America’s involvement in World War II, for example, you might use a historical photograph of protestors like the one seen here.
Launching Nonfiction Image 2

Americans at the German-American Bund “Pro-American Rally” in 1933. Photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration.

Allow students a minute or two of private think time to view the image, noticing details, and jotting notes about what they actually see. Then, provide some additional think time for students to reflect and record what they can infer about the image based on the details they noticed. You might consider using a T-chart labeled “I see…” and “I think…”. Have students share their initial observations as well as the inferences they’ve made with partners or small groups.
Launching Nonfiction Image 3

Organizer created by Heather Abney Brown.

After the partnership or small group discussion, have students think of a keyword or short phrase that encapsulates the image. Have them record the word or phrase on a sticky note with a hashtag (#) in front of it, the way they might tag a photo on social media. For the photograph above, students might come up with tags like #notourfight, #stayoutofit, or #keepthepeace. 
Have students post their hashtags around the image, creating a frame. When the frame is finished and students have had a chance to read all of the hashtags, reflect as a class on similarities, differences, surprises, or anything else they notice about the words they assigned. As students dive into the text, have them think and write about connections between the image and the words on the page. 

Developing Independent Thinkers

These two “launch” strategies promote many effective reading habits. In addition to helping activate or build necessary background knowledge, they encourage students to home in on important vocabulary, make predictions, establish a purpose for reading, and consider how a text meets or diverges from their preconceived expectations—all vital skills for independent thinkers and critical consumers to possess.

Heather Abney Brown currently serves as the instructional coach at Signal Mountain Middle High School in Hamilton County, Tennessee. A former ELA teacher, she is especially passionate about developing critical readers and supporting literacy work across content areas.

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