Academic journal article Science Scope

Helping Students Navigate Nonfiction Text: Paving the Way toward Understanding

Academic journal article Science Scope

Helping Students Navigate Nonfiction Text: Paving the Way toward Understanding

Article excerpt

I remember the class clearly. It was my second year of teaching seventh-grade science, and my students and I were about to begin a unit on cell organelles and their functions. Although I wanted students to have as many handson experiences as possible, there came a time when they need more information than a lab could provide. As I asked students to pull out their textbooks, I heard a collective groan, but I was determined to remain positive. I put on my brightest smile, began explaining the project, and made sure students understood the purpose for reading and what type of information we were looking for. We read the first paragraph together, and I modeled summarizing the important information and adding it to the brightly colored, foldable flaps in students' lab notebooks. Students read the next paragraph as a group, and when we stopped to review, students seemed to have all the right information. I assumed they were ready to begin on their own.

But as I circulated around the room, it soon became clear that the majority of students had not understood a great deal of what they had read on their own or as a group. Many were not able to find information that did not appear in bold lettering or that was explained in diagrams or captions. In fact, most were surprised there was even anything important there. I began to think that maybe they just weren't into the topic, so

I began a pep talk about all the great things we were going to do during the unit. As I spoke, one brave soul raised her hand and made a statement that was met with heartfelt agreement from several other students in the room: "No offense," she said, "but it's not that we don't want to learn about cells, it's just that we hate reading. It's hard!"

While seeking help from veteran teachers at my school, I learned that mine was not an isolated problem. In fact, it seemed most teachers accepted that students did not enjoy reading textbooks or were just not very good at it. Some believed students were lazy, while others thought we weren't teaching our students to outline and gather information like teachers used to.


We all recognized that students were struggling with content-area reading, but we were either unsure of what steps to take to correct the problem or unhappy with whatever methods we'd tried.

I turned to my school's reading specialist, Ranae Hofer, for ideas on how to integrate reading comprehension strategies into everyday instruction. Over time and through our work together, I began to see the root of the problem. I had been so busy concentrating on my science instruction and content that I had neglected to teach content-area reading. I expected my students to enter my classroom as readers and assumed they would know how to effectively apply the literacy strategies and tools we were using. Once I saw my role in the science classroom as a teacher of both science and reading, I began to see improvement. This shift in teaching mind-set will be especially important as states begin to adopt the Common Core State Standards, which include standards for literacy in science and technical subjects (CCSSO and NGA 2010). In addition, the first drafts of the Next Generation Science Standards (Achieve 2012) have also been linked to the Common Core standards. We are no longer teachers of science alone.

Reading in the content areas

Students generally learn to read using narrative, or story-like, texts (Akhondi, Malayeri, and Samad 2011). As they progress into upper-level elementary grades, more of their reading is done in nonfiction, and they begin to make a shift from learning to read to reading to learn. At the middle school level, learning from a textbook is usually crucial to students' success (Guthrie and Klauda 2012). Unfortunately, most middle-level students have had limited exposure to expository text and may not have been taught comprehension strategies within the genre (National Institute for Literacy 2007). …

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