5 Ideas for Teaching Students How to Read Nonfiction

Being able to read nonfiction is an important skill for upper elementary students to learn. Check out this post with 5 tips for teaching students to efficiently read nonfiction. #nonfiction #readersworkshop # reading #readingstrategies

If you think about it -  most of what we read in life is nonfiction.  We read street signs when we are driving, we read recipes when we cook, we read manuals when we are trying to figure out why the heck the vacuum cleaner isn't working...again!

Teaching students to read nonfiction texts effectively is a reading beast all on its own.  There are a lot of moving parts:  identifying text features and structure, using the glossary, referring to headings and sub-titles to know where you're going to find the facts that you need, and much more!

Take reading that vacuum manual I mentioned a moment ago.  You're not going to take the time to read about how to change the bag in your vacuum if what you're trying to do is figure out why it won't suck up dirt and pet hair up properly.  Instead, you'll look at the table of contents to see where that issue will be addressed within the manual and cut right to the chase.

We read nonfiction differently than we read fiction texts, and because of that, we have to TEACH reading nonfiction differently.

Here are 5 ideas for teaching nonfiction reading to your students so that they can effectively learn the skill and apply it to their daily life.


A nonfiction text feature scavenger hunt is a great way to help students learn how to quickly identify the nonfiction text features in a book that help them better understand the text.

Looking at a page in a nonfiction book will look vastly different than a page inside a fictional text. You'll see bold words, headings, subheadings, fact boxes, and so on.  We know that authors include these text features to draw attention to important facts.  We want our students to be able to immediately find and use these text features to help them understand the text.

One of my most favorite ways to initially teach students to identify these text features is to have them go on a text feature scavenger hunt. (part of my nonfiction text features starter guide resource)  After defining each type of text feature (bold words, charts, headings...etc...) and showing several examples of each, I provide students with dozens of books and let them have-at-it!  They work in teams or partners to try to find as many different text features as they can in a specified amount of time.  They can either use a checklist (great for younger readers) or even a more advanced recording sheet where they indicate not just the text feature they they have found, but what the texture feature teaches them.

After this initial activity, students can then continue identifying and recording text features that they find in their own independent reading books.


First of all, let's be clear about what text structure is.  There are 5 major text structures that authors use to present nonfiction information in:

  • Descriptive - text describes a topic, idea, person, or thing by giving specific information about it

  • Sequence - text explains events or steps in order to tell how something is done or how something happens

  • Compare and Contrast - text shows how two or more things are alike or different

  • Cause and Effect - text shows the relationships between cause and effect

  • Problem and Solution - text discusses a problem and gives possible solutions to fix the problem

Give students plenty of practice with identifying nonfiction text structure. Provide them with examples illustrating each kind of text structure, using clues to help them identify which text structure it is.

Teaching students to identify text structure is one of the trickiest parts of nonfiction reading.  Of course, the best way to teach them how to do this is going to be through repeated exposure and practice. After reading several books or excepts from books illustrating each text structure, (I like to have 5 baskets where we place the books into the correct structure category), the next step is to have students work in small groups to identify the text structure of several book that they look through together.  

Need some suggestions for books to use? This article has tons of book titles to get you started!

Once students get into their groups to explore, I like to provide them with some discussion prompts that will help guide their thinking and lead them to identifying the structure correctly. Students look through several books, ideally one book per structure, and use the discussion prompts to help them to determine the text structure of each book.  For younger readers, you might consider having each group only focus on ONE structure at a time within their groups and provide several books illustrating that one structure.  Students can then rotate through the different books, using the same discussion prompts.

To take practicing this skill one step further, I provided students with one more activity.  This time, I assigned each group ONE text structure to really focus on.  Each group was given a task card to go with their book.  After reading the book, each group created a poster illustrating the text structure found in their book.

One activity to practice identifying nonfiction text structure is to have students work in small groups reading a book, identifying its text structure, and then creating a poster using the book to share with the rest of the class.

For example, my descriptive text structure group read the book Deserts by Gail Gibbons (affiliate link).  On their poster they explain how the structure helped them understand the desert habitat using illustrations and captions. Students then present their book and poster to the class. {Both of these activities are included in my full unit on teaching nonfiction}

And - certainly teaching text structures is never a one-and-done lesson.  Constant exposure is essential to students really getting it.  That's why I provided my students with a student reference sheet to keep in their reading notebooks.  

This nonfiction text structure reference guide is perfect for students to keep on hand during readers workshop to help them properly identify a book’s text structure.

Here's some further reading I've found about teaching text structures that you might be interested in: Teaching Text Structures:  A 5-Day Series

Want a free copy of the nonfiction text structure reference guide?

Use this nonfiction text structure reference guide to help students identify text structure in the books they are reading

It’s inside the Member’s Resource Library. If you’re already a member, you can grab it HERE under the "READING RESOURCES” category.

Not a member yet? It’s free to join and you’ll have access to an ever-growing library of teacher resources and classroom printables INCLUDING this Nonfiction Text Structure Reference Guide! Fill out the form below and I’ll send you all the details on how to become a member!

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    Teaching reading strategies such as making connections, questioning, and inferring is a given when we teaching fiction - but those same reading strategies take on a slightly different look when applied to nonfiction.  Instead of asking our students to predict what they think will happen in the next part of the story, we ask them what they think they will learn.

    Here are some sample prompts to use with your students when teaching reading strategies through the lens of nonfiction:

    Making Connections:  

    What do you already know about this topic?  What other books have you read about this same topic?  How does this issue/topic affect our daily life/society?


    What do you think you will learn in this book?


    Why do you think the author chose to use that text feature?  How does it help you understand the topic better?  What questions about this topic do you think will get answered as you read?

    Determining Importance/Noticing:

    What details stand out to you through the text features?  What new information are you learning through this map, graphic, diagram...etc.?

    Summarizing/Checking for Understanding:

    What new facts have you learned?


    What images come to mind when you think about this topic?  What does that fact make you imagine in your mind?

    Teaching students how to use reading strategies for nonfiction texts including making connections, questioning, inferring, and others

    (Find these student forms available in my nonfiction starter guide.)


    Nonfiction texts are actually the PERFECT types of books to use when teaching the difference between fact and opinion.  Take a book about recycling for example, (I like this one by Gail Gibbons - (affiliate link)).  The book itself is loaded with facts about how to recycle, the process of recycling, and benefits of recycling. However, before, during, and after reading the book, the conversation can easily lead into a discussion on the opinions about recycling; why everyone should be doing it, or why NOT recycling is wrong and harmful to the environment...etc.

    Take the opportunity to talk about how many authors use their nonfiction books to teach others about their passions on a nonfiction topic; presenting facts that support their opinions.

    Creating a simple Fact/Opinion T-chart will help students see the facts and opinions about a nonfiction topic side by side.  Or, this color-coded post-it note display is also another great way to help introduce fact and opinions through the nonfiction lens.


    After weeks and weeks of practicing any skill, I always like to give my students a way for them to put it all together in a tangible way.  When exclusively teaching nonfiction, one of the ways I did this was to have my students create a nonfiction reading guide.

    After spending time learning about nonfiction, have students create a nonfiction reading guide to help solidify their learning.

    I presented this activity to my students as them now being the nonfiction reading experts creating that "ultimate guide" on how to read nonfiction. And if EVER you want your students to get excited about a project - call them "experts" :).

    Students show what they know about nonfiction reading throughout the guide including their knowledge of what nonfiction texts are, text features, text structures, and other things that we learned about reading nonfiction in our unit.  Each page of their guide highlighted a nonfiction reading skill that they learned in our unit. By completing the guide, students would get a great review of everything that they learned in our nonfiction reading unit.

    Need a little more help?  All these resources mentioned above are available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Grab them by clicking on each image below.