Teaching ELs to Read Nonfiction Texts

In previous blogs, I discussed the advantages of Reading Workshop in helping ELs learn to read in English. I especially recommend this kind of reading instruction because of the following benefits to ELs. They can

  • read books that they have selected themselves from a library that is at their English language and reading levels,
  • gradually become more independent as readers, and
  • learn strategies that replicate reading environments outside of the classroom.

In today’s blog, I will show how good readers determine the importance of information in a nonfiction text.

What do good readers do?

Good readers can make a distinction between relevant and irrelevant information in nonfiction texts. This skill is key in order for ELs to understand  content-area information that they read.  ELs have many skills to learn before they can attempt to close read texts on grade level as required by the Common Core ELA Standards.

ELs should be taught to scan a text before reading and acquire knowledge through reading chapter titles, headings, subheadings, picture captions, maps, glossaries, and indexes. They need to understand that reading is not necessarily a front-of-the-book to back-of-the-book task. All details in a nonfiction text do not have the same level of difficulty. Here are some charts to use when teaching this.

A classroom visit

Let’s visit Ms. McDonnell’s 2nd-grade science class, where students are learning about animal habitats. Ms. McDonnell leads students on a picture walk through a book on animal habitats. Students learn to use the title, table of contents, bolded words, photographs, captions, headings, and labels to preview text information. Ms. McDonnell’s goal in her science class is to help ELs access the same science information as their native-English-speaking peers. Learning to distinguish essential from nonessential information in a text is an important skill for ELs to learn.

Linking relevant information to the big idea

Ms. McDonnell asks students to brainstorm the “big idea” of the chapter in small groups. Most of the groups chose the following big idea: Animals live in many different habitats on earth. Ms. McDonnell then teaches students how the relevant information is related to the “big” idea. She models several examples, and students practice deciding the importance of each fact. Ms. McDonnell then has students go back into their small groups to brainstorm information that they learn from the textbook chapter. They make a list of the information that is in the chapter and write “R” next to the facts they feel are relevant or important. They write an “I” next to the information that is irrelevant. They fill out the following chart using the information from the text.

Information on animal habitats

Here is the chart that the ELs in Ms. McDonnell’s class created when reading the text on animal habitats.


Teachers can also use online resources to help students learn more about the content area. For some more resources that help ELs have more exposure to information about animal habitats,  try Biomes of the World.

Summarizing information

The main purpose for students to learn what is relevant to the main idea in a text is to give them the tools to summarize and synthesize information. In the next blog, I will talk about teaching these very important skills to ELs.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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One Response to Teaching ELs to Read Nonfiction Texts

  1. Seydou Desséry DEMBELE says:

    Wow!!! I do appreciate the way the presenter explain the stages during reading linked to the understanding of the text. I would like to have some more details about implementation of the different strategies. Thanks a lot!!

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