Strategies to Improve Kids’ Nonfiction Reading Comprehension

by Melissa Taylor

From when our children are little, we surround them with stories. We read to them. We check out books at the library. We buy them books of their own. But sometimes we forget to include nonfiction books in the mix. As a result, kids aren’t as familiar with reading nonfiction (expository) text. Since nonfiction comprises the majority of middle school and high school reading, it’s essential we help them learn specific nonfiction reading comprehension strategies.

Explicit instruction followed by modeling is the most helpful method for teaching children any reading strategies. Be sure to chunk up the text into short sections until readers become proficient with the strategies.

It’s also important to provide plenty of engaging, well-written nonfiction books. Check out these nonfiction lists to discover some of our favorite book recommendations for kids. Keep in mind that the more background knowledge a child has about the topic, the better they’ll be able to practice the strategies and comprehend what they’re reading.

Learn the Characteristics of Nonfiction Text

Start by teaching children the characteristics of nonfiction. Most nonfiction texts have organizational characteristics called text features. Help kids become familiar with them. Practice finding and using the table of contents, titles, subtitles, keywords, captions, and index. Unless it’s a narrative nonfiction book, these nonfiction text features lend themselves to specific reading strategies.

But the text features aren’t all that is unique about nonfiction. Many nonfiction texts are organized in a particular text structure. These structures include elaboration, description, sequence, compare and contrast, problem and solution, and cause and effect. Knowing more about text structures provides readers with background knowledge of what to expect. This will lead to better comprehension.

Determine Importance: Main Idea vs. Interesting Details

After kids know about text features and structures, show them how to determine importance in the text. In my experience as a teacher, this is generally the hardest part of reading nonfiction. But once kids know this, it leads to skillful summarizing.

You can start with making predictions. Practice making informed predictions about the main idea in the text by using the titles and subtitles as clues. Then read to confirm or change your prediction.

During reading, show kids how to read for the main idea within short sections of material. Again, use the textual clues — the title and the subheadings as well as the introduction and conclusion paragraphs.

But what about those endlessly fascinating tidbits of information kids love? I see kids get stuck on those a lot. We need to help children clearly differentiate between information that is important versus what is just interesting. Use text features like captions to find interesting details. Practice this a lot.

Ask Questions

Just like in reading fiction, good readers ask questions about what they are reading. Asking questions before, during, and after reading lets readers read with a purpose — to both stay curious and answer questions. Preview the text first. Ask questions about the topic. Then during reading, help readers answer those preview questions and ask more questions about what they’re reading. Questions could be about what comes next or what the author’s purpose is. Use sticky notes to track questions and is possible, the answers.

Since asking questions is a valuable comprehension strategy, we need to show children how to ask good questions. (Model, model, model.) One way is to use the Question-Answer Relationship (QAR) framework. It begins with teaching kids to ask questions that can be answered “Right There” in the text. This kind of question is something you would read directly in the text like “What is the most popular dog breed for families?” The QAR framework continues with deeper thinking questions. These are “Think and Search,” “Author and Me,” and “On My Own.” These questions require inference, synthesis, and application to be answered.

Use Visual Notetaking to Organize Information

It’s also helpful to provide organizational tools to help kids track and construct meaning from the text. Here are three ideas:

  • Graphic Organizer or Thinking Maps: Consider using graphic organizers or thinking maps. These can be as simple as a two columns listing the main idea & details. Or they can be as complex as comparing and contrasting information in a double bubble map.
  • KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned): This simple graphic organizer is used by many early elementary teachers to help activate a child’s background knowledge, curiosity, and reflection.
  • Interactive Notetaking: Interactive notetaking gives learners an expansive way to take notes from the text then interact with that information through reflection, visual organization, or personal commentary.

Summing It All Up

These nonfiction comprehension strategies help readers make sense of what they’re reading. As with anything, practice makes better. Provide lots of opportunities to practice these strategies and be sure your kids have access to wonderful informational books, magazines, articles, and websites.

For further reading, check out The Reading Strategies Book, Reading Nonfiction, and Strategies That Work.


Looking for more lesson plans, book recommendations, and reading tips for your classroom or library? Check out our Teach Brightly page!