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Teaching Tip: Helping Students with Unfamiliar Words in Nonfiction Text

Helping Beginning Readers with Unfamiliar Words in Nonfiction Text

Michele Dufresne

If you have read my last few teaching tips, you will know I have been thinking a lot about using nonfiction for guided reading, and the many challenges it presents. Unfamiliar words in nonfiction books can create challenges for beginning readers—on top of the challenge of just learning to read! This is why we teachers often select fiction instead of nonfiction for reading instruction. However, there are ways you can use nonfiction successfully for reading instruction.

One way is to make sure you look through the book and find the words that will be unfamiliar to your students. Sometimes the text will help define the words, but if it doesn’t, you need to prepare students for the new words during your book introduction.

If you've downloaded my guided reading planning sheet (recently shared at the National Reading Recovery Conference in February), you will see a section on introducing new vocabulary that is not defined in the text. Literacy Consultant Jan Richardson goes into detail about how to do this on page 157 of her book, The Next Step in Guided Reading.

The four steps are:
• Define the word
• Connect the word to students’ experiences
• Relate the word to the book
• Turn and talk

I have been using this procedure and finding it works well. It helps ensure a smoother first reading of the new book.

Here is a video clip with me using the procedure with a first-grade group. I am getting them ready to read the book Snakes. I am not sure they will know what the word slither means. I have decided to introduce slither using the four steps before we start reading.

Michèle Dufresne is author of many Pioneer Valley Books early readers (including the Bella and Rosie series), Word Solvers (Heinemann), and an early literacy and literacy intervention consultant.

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