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A sound investment in reading comprehension

Studying the elements of nonfiction text

Lowell — Erika Barrett was reading a book about wildfires when she came across an unfamiliar word. But thanks to a recent lesson on nonfiction text features in her third-grade class at Cherry Creek Elementary, she didn’t let that stop her.

“I learned from the glossary that ‘smolder’ means ‘to burn slowly with smoke but no flame,’ and the glossary is there so you’ll be able to know what you just read,” she said.

A glossary is an example of a nonfiction text feature, which “help you understand what you’re reading about,” Erika explained. “They can be a glossary, index, maps, table of contents, headline and there are lots of other different ones.”

Teacher Lisa Anderson fills in the details: “Text features are what authors use to help us understand the nonfiction text — things like photographs, illustrations, graphs and all those things that make (a book) more interesting and also make it easier for us to retain the information.” 

Learning about text features is part of a third-grade unit on nonfiction text that includes everything from earth sciences to biographies. Students will eventually need to pass a test to demonstrate that they’ve comprehended what they read. 

That’s where the text features play a key role, Anderson said. 

“Oftentimes, we find that kids will skip over those features — they’ll just read the main text,” the teacher said. “But I’ve always said, ‘Don’t skip the caption!’ Don’t miss these key bits of additional information; take the time to read the graph and think about what they’re showing and why it’s important. Those are all the pieces that are going to come together for them to understand the topic. 

“Plus, as an adult, most of what we read is nonfiction text, so learning to do this is going to benefit them as they get older — in school and as a life skill.” 

To give students practice on spotting and correctly identifying nonfiction text features, Anderson challenged the class to find specific text features in magazines, cut them out and label them on a collage. To make it extra fun, students got bonus points for any text features they found and identified that were not on the list. 

“It was kind of like a scavenger hunt with different things to look for,” said Caleb DeWard of the collage project. “It was fun to find the things that stood out on the page; those were the text features. I think I knew a few already, but there were some that I thought were part of the actual text but were actually nonfiction features, so I learned a few new ones. And I got two bonus points.”

Classmate Gretchen Pegg hopes her newfound knowledge will come in handy for her future career field. She loves to read about animals — ocean animals, in particular — and dreams of one day becoming a veterinarian or zookeeper. 

“Some vocabulary words in the books (about animals) I don’t really get, so I look for (text features) to find out,” Gretchen said. “I feel like, if I do a lot of studying on (being a zookeeper), I’ll remember how to use these text features and it will help me a lot.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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