Close Reading: Nonfiction

Do you ever have those moments while teaching that really make you feel like a "proper teacher"?  Moments when you look at the students, see them engaged and learning, picking up what knowledge you are trying to impart, and know that things are just gelling?  That was my experience this week with our close reading lesson.

This week, we turned our attention to nonfiction reading and reading with a purpose.  The ultimate goal of the process I am about to describe to you is to write a 3 paragraph essay about the positive and negative effects of the Columbian Exchange, using evidence pulled from various sources.  So keep that in mind when you are reading.  Also, I am only going to write about the reading part today.  The writing part will get written about at a different time (probably when we are done with it ;) )

So, back to the point.  I opened my week sharing with the students that when we read nonfiction, we usually have a purpose for reading.  We ask ourselves, "What are we trying to learn?" and read through the lenses of trying to gain that knowledge.   So when I handed out the first article we were going to read as a class, I asked them, "What is our purpose for reading?"  Since we are ultimately going to write the essay, I let them know that our purpose for reading was two fold.  First, we wanted to find the positive effects of the Columbian Exchange.  We also wanted to find the negative effects.  I had them write our two purpose questions at the top of the page.  I also had them color code the two sentences with lightly colored crayons.

With our purpose in mind, I began a guided reading of the article with the students.  As I read the article  aloud, I began to model how I wanted students to highlight instances of positive and negative effects.  I was constantly drawing the students' attention back to our two main purpose questions.  If something popped up in my head that wasn't necessarily related to our purpose questions, but still was important to the main overall topic (of the Columbian Exchange), I wrote the notes in the margin.  They followed these four steps while reading:

At first, the kids followed along and copied me.  Slowly I began releasing responsibility of the highlighting and noticing evidence to them.  Finally, by the last paragraph of the article, they were able to highlight evidence of our two purpose questions on their own!  Not bad for 45 minutes of instruction!

The next day, I broke out a second (more difficult actually) article.  This time, the article had text features such as headings, graphs, diagrams, and captions in it.  We focused on that for this second day. Keeping our purpose questions in mind, we looked over each of the text features scouring them for evidence to support our purpose questions.  They were really able to see how text features play an important role in imparting information in a nonfiction text.  Our discussions (coupled with the fact that once I start talking about history I tend to get a little longwinded ;) ) lasted about 30 minutes of our ELA block.  I then had them use this sheet from Kristen at Ladybugs Teacher Files to drive home the point that text features are another way to gather targeted information from nonfiction text.

I then did a guided reading of that same text the following day.  Now, this text itself was just a really high level text, so it took a lot more explaining on my part.....HOWEVER, the kids were able to go in and highlight evidence of our purpose questions pretty much on their own.  We still did it as a guided lesson, but they were right there with me, if not ahead of me.

5th grade blogOn this final day, I gave the students the last of the three articles.  This time, I asked them to apply what we had learned and work on their own (well, in partners.)  They wrote the purpose questions at the top of the page again, and got to work reading, discussing, and highlighting.  

I can not tell you how impressed I was with the discussions that took place while the students were working on their own (there was quite a debate on whether or not tobacco moving from the new to old world was positive or negative, and the talks about the horrible effects disease had on the natives in the Americas were fabulous)  They really seemed to grasp the idea that we were reading for a purpose and once they had that purpose, finding evidence to support it was no big deal!  They weren't just highlighting anything they felt like, rather they were targeted in their approach to what was important.

I have to say, I am really excited about how the reading portion of this went.  The kids were digging into the articles (which I pulled up off the internet....actually adding the graphs and diagrams to myself from online as well) and learning all at the same time.  Now, on to the writing portion.....wish us luck! ;)

Can you see applying this technique to a different unit of study?  Have you done something similar?  Tell us about  it!


  1. This post is inspiring! I too had an "I actually feel like a teacher day" today! I have had a rough first year and I went home smiling today. This hasn't happened in a while!

  2. I just did something similar to this to prepare my students for a writing assessment. I struggle to find articles that are kid appropriate, on grade level and provide multiple perspectives. Does anyone have suggestions? I have tried scholastic, national geographic, time for kids, etc.

    1. I found the articles I used all over the place, nowhere in particular. I find if I type in "articles for kids on ____" a bunch of stuff pops up that will work. Also, adding "pdf" to the search sometimes helps.

    2. I think there is also a way through Google to search for text on a particular level so that you get more kid friendly text. I can't remember exactly how to do it, but several of my colleagues use that as a way to search as well.

      Great ideas. I am actually trying out close reading in my small groups so I'm glad to find so many people sharing their experiences!


    3. For my homeschool kids, the task of finding appropriate articles adds an extra challenge, due to multiple levels working together. I try to target a range, from basic to advanced. Like another post above, I type in [subject/topic] "for kids", and [subject/topic] "for middle schoolers" or "for high schoolers." This has worked well for me.

    4. Great post, Stephanie. Thanks for sharing your process. I feel like these skills were not emphasized enough when I was in grade school and high school. Not only do we need to effectively teach them, but we need to emphasize (to our students) that this skill is crucial for moving forward into higher levels of education.

  3. This is great! Our district is doing a book study on Close Reading and how we can start coaching teachers on how to make this effective for students. I've pinned your post - thank you for sharing your ideas!

  4. You are simply AWESOME!


    AMAZING resource for differentiating text. Takes a real news article (usually NYTimes or the like), and rewrites it on several different levels so all students receive the same information but on their level, and even provides "quizzes" to check for comprehension. Best of's free!!!


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