Teaching ELs the Features of Nonfiction Text

In the classrooms that I’ve visited over the past few years, I found that many ELs, even those ready to exit ESL, were still having difficulties comprehending their science and social studies textbooks. It is important that both ESL and classroom educators teach a unit on the features or  conventions of nonfiction text to ELs as early as first grade. I suggest that teachers use multiple copies of paperback theme sets from National Geographic or Millmark Education, because both of these publishers feature social studies and science books that include all of the features that need to be taught.

Here are some of the books that I’ve used to teach the conventions of nonfiction text:

Introducing Conventions of Nonfiction Text

Here are some of the conventions of nonfiction text that teachers can introduce to their ELs.

Teachers should first discuss the title of the book and have students make predictions about the content. Students then brainstorm and list questions that they have about the topic. This helps students determine a purpose for reading and keeps them focused. From a book entitled Bones: Cells at Work, students generate questions such as “Why are cells important?” and “What can cells do?”

Table of Contents
The class then looks at the titles of chapters in the table of contents. Teachers should demonstrate to  ELs how they can read the titles and find the page where the chapter begins. Have students practice looking up chapters from the table of contents.

Key Concepts
ELs need practice identifying the key concept, which  is usually identified at the beginning of the book or chapter. A key concept of one of the  chapters in the Bones: Cells at Work book is “Sometimes cells get a disease or become damaged and don’t work as they should.” This provokes questions such as “What happens when bones break?”  or ” What kind of sickness do bones get?”

Headings and Subheadings
Next have ELs look at the headings and subheadings. In my classroom, this was always a favorite activity because I would bring out the Wikki Stix. These are twistable pieces of yarn covered with wax that students can use to highlight text right in the book. It doesn’t hurt the book and can be removed when the lesson is done. Have students highlight the headings with one color and the subheadings with another. Students should also practice making questions from the headings. “Diagrams are pictures that show information” becomes “What are diagrams?”

Stimulate your students’ natural curiosity and pique their interest in a chapter or book by taking  your ELs  on a picture walk. I find this is helpful for students of all ages.  Encourage students to discuss each picture, photograph, drawing, or diagram and ask them questions about the pictures they see. When you hear students exclaim, “Look at this!” and “I didn’t know that!” from the pictures and other visuals, you know that they are learning something new. Introduce features of nonfiction text that are appropriate for the grade level that you are teaching.  After your picture walk, point out features in the book such as captions, labels, maps, timelines, table of contents, glossary, index, and text features.

Text Features
Have ELs look at the text and ask them how they know which vocabulary words are important. Guide them to identify the words that are in color, italics, or bold print. Have students work in small groups to identify words that have each of these features. List text features on a chart and ask students to find and mark examples in the book with brightly colored Post-It notes. There is something magical about Post-Its because students are always excited when they get to use them.

Glossary and Index
Check the glossary to see if the important words are included in the glossary. Look for the important words in the index. Students should learn that the important vocabulary will usually appear in both the glossary and index.

Now students are ready to read the book. When this book is finished, they have not only learned about the conventions of nonfiction text but the content information presented in the  book.

What’s next? They’ll write their own nonfiction book, of course!

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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