teaching nonfiction skills

Ugh. It’s time to switch to teaching your nonfiction unit and you find yourself staring at your planner blankly, wondering where in the world you are going to start. I know the feeling. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in your shoes before. You’ve just wrapped up this super fun unit on reading fictional literature with stories that your students love: humor, suspense, adventure, you name it. Now it’s time to switch gears and get into the nitty gritty of nonfiction. It’s less flashy. It’s more difficult. And you aren’t ever completely sure you’re doing it right. So what’s a teacher to do? I’m here to share with you the toolkit I created to teach nonfiction elements two years ago that felt like it finally clicked. For the first time in 5 years of teaching nonfiction comprehension, I felt like I laid solid nonfiction foundations for students — and could pass the comprehension “baton” on with confidence! Here’s what I did.

Dusting Off the Anthology

I started with the Common Core textbook that had been collecting dust on the shelf since I’d inherited my classroom three years prior. I looked up the nonfiction unit and read through the teacher pages that explained prerequisite knowledge, essential understandings of the unit, and the teaching progression. I’ll be honest – I felt a bit ridiculous that I hadn’t done this before before. Basically, it broke down the nonfiction elements into:

  • How it is written from unique perspectives (Author’s Point of View)
  • How it is written for various reasons (Author’s Purpose)
  • How it uses specific words to convey meanings and ideas (Word Choice & Tone)
  • How it is organized to communicate ideas clearly (Text Structure & Text Features)

Knowing that, my plan for instruction became super clear.

Launching the Nonfiction Elements Unit

I built my “lecture” side by side with interactive student sketch notes. I can engage 90% of my kids pretty easily by putting markers at their table and allowing them to record key information in color. Their notetakers were built to house the elements of nonfiction on one page (front and back). It made for a great “review” day to lay the basics of what was to come the next couple of weeks.

Digging Deeper Into Each Nonfiction Element

Once the basics were covered, which took 1-2 class periods for my kids, we dug a little deeper into each element. The easiest element to start with, in my opinion, is text features. We started with a “hands-on” collage to break up the previous two days of note taking. I gathered a plethora of magazines from our library/makerspace and set up bins for each table group that contained magazines, glue sticks, and scissors. We quickly reviewed text features and then I sent them on a scavenger hunt through their magazines to find as many as they could. They had 25 minutes to build their collages and 90 seconds to clean up.

The following day, we followed up this activity with the different structures of nonfiction text. I gathered five different current event articles, one for each structure, using NewsEla, DogoNews, and Smithsonian Teens. We tackled the text structures in stations over the course of 5 days. I was able to work with the students who needed support while my other students were able to use their graphic organizers independently as they read the texts. What I love about the text structure graphic organizers is that they visually match the presentation and posters that I taught from, and they can be used again and again with any text! At the end of the five days, students got to choose an article of their choice and had to identify the structure, choose the appropriate organizer, and complete it.

After text structures, we jumped into author’s purpose and point of view. I really feel like the main idea of a text wraps up really nicely with author’s purpose, so I incorporated a review of that into this section. However, teaching author’s purpose and point of view at the middle school level has always been really tricky for me. Students come with a “persuade-inform-entertain” mindset for author’s purpose and I expect them to go quite a bit deeper than that in 6th grade. I want them to capture more of the heart of an author’s purpose for writing. But how to do that? I built a scaffolded close reading brochure that we could use with any text. Here’s the premise:

  • First Panel: Reading to get the gist. Identifying the main idea and key details.
  • Second Panel: Reading a second time with a closer look at word choice and tone.
  • Third Panel: Looking at the author’s craft. How did they organize the text? Did they quote anyone or use statistics? Why?
  • Fourth Panel: Putting it together to identify the author’s point of view about the subject.
  • Final Panel: Identifying the author’s purpose in writing.

I loved this activity for a few reasons. I felt like the scaffolding was just right for what I was looking for. We could complete one together to build comfort with the process, but then I could reuse it again with different nonfiction texts, in small groups, in intervention, etc.

Breathing a Sigh of Relief

That’s it. After two weeks with our elements of nonfiction mini-unit, I felt confident that my students had a well-built toolbox that they could pull from to tackle nonfiction texts in the future. As we moved into more complex tasks like comparing multiple nonfiction texts, tracing author claims, etc. I knew they understood the basics.

If you’re interested in grabbing my elements of nonfiction text toolkit for yourself, you can snag the bundle at 30% off here. Prefer to checkout on TPT? No problem. You can find the bundle here.

All the best, Natayle