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Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

One of the most fundamental skills students in middle school ELA and high school English classes need to learn is how to evaluate sources and synthesize information. This skill is so vital for students because it is a skill that students will continue to use long after they leave our classrooms.

Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

I spend a lot of time focusing on synthesis skills in my classroom. Not only does this help prepare my students for state tests, but it also helps students build the skills needed to become informed decision-makers in society.

Here is a look at how I plan a synthesis writing unit in my classroom.

What is Synthesis?

So, what exactly is synthesis? If you haven't purposefully planned synthesis writing in your classroom, there's a chance you've done something similar without even realizing it. Essentially, synthesis is the act of drawing information from multiple sources. Whenever you assign students a writing assignment that requires the inclusion of numerous sources, that is synthesis.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

This free student handout about synthesis will help your students understand the synthesis writing process.

To take synthesis to the next level, I focus on teaching students how to evaluate multiple sources for credibility and reliability, and how to compare multiple sources reporting on a similar topic.

Now that you've got an idea about what synthesis is, it is time to start planning your unit. A successful synthesis unit includes four components: a high-interest topic that will grab students' attention, multiple sources across a variety of mediums, a clear task and objective, and a strategy for modeling critical reading to students.

Choosing High-Interest Topics

One of the best ways middle school ELA and high school English teachers can garner student engagement is by planning activities, lessons, and thematic units involving high-interest topics. One way to go about this is to survey your students. You can ask them to brainstorm in partners or small groups a list of 3-5 issues that interest them. These issues can be world issues, national issues, or teen issues.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Another way to incorporate a synthesis unit or project into one of your preexisting units is to come up with a high-interest topic that is related to a novel you are reading. For example, if you are currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird with your students, perhaps you'll want to assign a synthesis project on social justice or racial inequality. Or, if you are teaching American Literature and currently studying colonial literature, you can assign a synthesis project on first-hand accounts from early settlers.

However, you don't need to tie-in your synthesis units to thematically fit with your current units of study. Sometimes, students like to take a break and focus on more modern (in their eyes) and pressing issues. For example, with more students interested in politics, students might enjoy a voting age synthesis unit. Additionally, with the rising cost of post-secondary education, students might also enjoy synthesizing information about the cost of state and community college tuition. In my store, I have a variety of synthesis writing units that will help your students build the essential skills of analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Gather Multiple Sources

Once you've selected a topic for your synthesis unit, it is time to gather multiple sources. If you haven't taught research skills yet, it might be a good idea to throw in a quick mini-lesson, or you can also provide your students with a list of pre-selected sources.

One of the best things you can do for your students as you gather multiple sources is to include a variety of sources. Not only do you want to include sources that include differing perspectives, but you also want to include different types of sources.

You'll want to include sources that have opposing viewpoints so that students can practice their critical thinking skills. As they read, you'll want them to evaluate each source for its bias, credibility, and accuracy. You can take this one step further by having them compare sources about a similar event or topic. If the pre-selected sources have different biases, your students will be able to see how the media acts as a gatekeeper. This skill is so crucial for students because it helps them become competent and critical contributors to society. It is also important to include sources from diverse authors so that students are introduced to multiple perspectives and viewpoints.

In addition to including sources with different perspectives and arguments, you'll also want to include a variety of sources. You can help your students improve their listening skills by having one audio source. For the audio source, have students listen to it multiple times and take notes as they listen. For audio sources, NPR is a fantastic site to use in the classroom. In addition to including at least one audio source, you should also include sources with visual and infographics. Students need to learn how to read, evaluate, and analyze infographic sources to be more informed media consumers, and it is also a skill that state tests assess.

When selecting sources, you'll want to include at least four different sources to analyze. As students become more confident in their research skills, it is valuable to have students include a valid, reliable, and credible source they've researched on their own. This way, students can also improve their research skills as they demonstrate their ability to find trustworthy and reliable sources.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Stating a Clear Objective and Task

Now that you've got your topic and sources, it is time to establish a clear learning objective and task. With synthesis writing, you can have students produce either informational or argumentative pieces. Furthermore, there is a lot of freedom for student creativity. For example, students can write a single paragraph or a multi-page essay. You can also incorporate more creative projects into your synthesis unit, including student-created podcasts, websites, and campaigns. You can also have students use their synthesized sources in a debate, Socratic Seminar, or fishbowl discussion

  • SAMPLE OBJECTIVE: Students will synthesize multiple sources to write an argument paragraph that takes a stand and includes multiple perspectives.
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Model Critical Reading

Once you have selected a high-interest topic, gathered multiple sources that include different perspectives, and have clearly identified your assignment, it is time to get started by modeling critical reading to your students. You'll want to dedicate at least one 60-minute class period to this activity. It might even span across two class periods.

Select one of the sources and read that source aloud with your students. You'll want to read it slowly and deliberately. And as you read, you'll want to annotate along the way and look for evidence to use in the assignment. When I do this with my students, I usually chunk out the reading and focus on just a couple of paragraphs at a time. I read the paragraphs out loud and then give my students some time to annotate. They then think, pair, share their annotations, and then I use a document camera to show my annotations and to also add in student-generated annotations.

This process can easily take an entire class period to get through one article. However, since this is one of the most vital steps of the synthesis process, it is important not to rush it. Students gain so much knowledge and insight about critical reading when they see and hear their teacher complete the process.

More Synthesis Related Content:
Synthesis Writing in the English Classroom

Creative Halloween Ideas for ELA

The countdown to Halloween is on! If you're looking for some fun, new and creative ideas for your classroom this October, then you have come to the right place! I'm sharing several Halloween-themed ideas that can be used during the month of October, the weeks leading up to the holiday, as well as some quick and easy ideas that you can add to your classroom on October 31st.

If you're looking for a SPOOKY way to entice some creative writing in your class, consider using 5-word horror stories. Not only are they a ton of fun, but they are also a really quick way to bring some holiday-themed creativity to your classroom. You can give your students words or themes to base their stories on (depending on the time available) and incorporate as many or as little as you would like.

For example, you could give your students some random Halloween words (bat, witch, skeleton, etc.) to base their stories on or a theme, such as school.
  • We have a test now. (Scary for students!)
  • You have hours of homework. (Also, scary for students!)
Another fun way to incorporate some daily writing practice into your class is through the use of these Halloween Bell-Ringers. This print-and-go (editable) bulletin board display is a win-win. It's not only a great way to get your students thinking critically about the prompts, but it also serves as festive classroom decor. 😀

There are 31 prompts included, but you can use as many or as little as you would like. To reveal the prompt, simply flip up or remove the cover. I let my students pick the prompts, which gives it the interactive vibe as opposed to just writing them on the board. You can use one prompt a day until the end of October or reveal a few prompts each day during the last few weeks before Halloween.

Here are a few examples of the prompts you will find in:
    • Tell the story from the perspective of a Halloween trick-or-treat bag or one of the candies within the bag. What do you see? How do you feel? This story can be based around the days leading up to Halloween, the night of, or the days following.
    • Finish the story: "Everyone said the old Miller house was haunted, but I had to see for myself. I called my friends and we made our way down Crickety Street..."
    The month of October is a great way to incorporate scary short stories into your lessons. There are tons of well-known short stories that you have probably already heard of (The Monkey's Paw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Tell-Tale Heart, etc.), but what about some other great stories that may be less known?
    • If Cornered, Scream by Patricia Thurmond (I show this YouTube video after we read it)
    • Candle Cove by Kris Straub
    • Our Neighbor's House by Emily Carroll
    • Redcap by Carrie Vaughn
     If you are looking for a few ways to keep your students entertained during the last few days (or week) leading up to Halloween, try an escape room! I created six Halloween-themed challenges in the escape room I called, "The Great Halloween Escape!" Students will complete a variety of tasks using different skills: problem solving, critical thinking, reading and basic math. Math in English? It's a fun way to get those students involved (who may be stronger in math as opposed to English) in a peer setting. Click HERE to check out my Halloween Escape Room.

    What better way to add some spooktacular fun into your classroom than by telling some ghost stories. Whether you share some with your students, your students write their own or you find some short clips on YouTube to show, it's a perfect way to set the scene for Halloween. 

    Here are a few tips for telling the perfect ghost story:
    1. Turn off the lights. 
    2. Hold a flashlight to your face (you know, how you see in the movies!)
    3. Tell the story as if it just happened. 

    Note: You might even want to have your students use a flashlight to read their ghost stories all at once with the lights off (if you happen to have some in print) and cell phone flashlights are a great way to do so. 

    While most of us have big plans to complete Halloween activities over a few days, if we are being realistic, we often are often left to having only a small part of our class to dedicate to those types of activities. For this reason, I created this FREE Halloween Grammar Worksheet

    This grammar activity challenges a student to think critically by selecting the best word that would not otherwise fit into a sentence. In other words, instead of selecting the correct word to use in the sentence, students have to be a bit more careful in their selection by choosing the incorrect term. 

    I get so many questions on WHY I would try to confuse my students when they are already having a hard time. Now, I wouldn't give this activity to a younger student who is truly having a tough time as it is. However, by high school, students should (and I use that term loosely) have a decent grasp on these words. If you give this to your students and they still have a hard time with it, then perhaps this activity would be a great lead into a mini-grammar lesson. Grammar takes years to master. It should be reviewed often, but in my experience, it is not.

    Check out these other Halloween ideas from my fellow Coffee Shop members:

    Six Tips for Teaching Journalism

    Tips for teaching journalism

    Teaching journalism is so important in today's climate, yet so many teachers are thrown into it without preparation or guidance. Even though teaching journalism was the reason I wanted to teach (I was actually a journalist before I became a teacher), I still found it to be incredibly challenging. Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned veteran, I hope my tips will help make your job easier.

    While I was in college, I was fortunate enough to have one of the best writers in our area as my professor. Professor Julie Jensen McDonald was one of the toughest writing teachers I ever had. The first thing she asked our Newswriting class was, "What are the three most important words in journalism?" After answering numerous wrong answers, she replied loudly, "ACCURACY, ACCURACY, ACCURACY!" Without accuracy, she explained, there is no story. This was back in the early 90s, before the age of "fake news." It's just as--and even more--important now to teach this to students. I always hung a sign in our writing lab with those three words on it to remind students to always strive for 100% accuracy.

    Some of the ways you can instill this in students include:
    • Provide a list of all students and staff and require students to triple-check the spellings of all names.
    • Require students to use primary sources for information.
    • Require students to triple-check facts and figures.
    • Require students to verify quotes from their sources.

    The best textbook you can provide your students is the newspaper. It always amazes me how many students begin journalism class without ever reading a newspaper. Through the wonderful Newspapers in Education program, schools can get online access to digital editions and some newspapers will still offer print editions of their paper to schools, free of charge. Ask your librarian if your school has an online or print subscription.

    When you have access to the paper, read stories together with your class. I would read aloud the lead of the big news stories and ask students to name the who, what, when, where, why, and how of each story (we had to go deeper into the story, normally, to answer the last two). The more your students practice identifying these essential elements of a news story, the more proficient they will become when writing their own. 

    To practice news writing, I offer a step-by-step presentation and tutorial with handouts and activities for students. It's a great way to train students for this writing style.

    I would argue that a customized handbook is quite possibly the most valuable tool in any journalism class. It will save you time (and your sanity), will promote consistency in writing, and will teach students to find answers to their questions themselves. 

    Handbooks should include things such as the proper way to write the date, time, and titles as well as whether the publication should use "says" or "said" in attributions. It will also give instructions on which fonts (and sizes) to use and where and how to save work.  

    If it seems like a daunting task to come up with your own handbook from scratch, I can help you out! You can download a ready-made handbook that is completely editable using InDesign (and it also includes a PDF version).

    Get into the habit of having regular staff meetings. If you produce a school newspaper every-other-week, have a staff meeting the day after publication. If you have writing assignments due every month, have a staff meeting at the very least once a month. It's important to address any problems before they become bad habits and equally important to praise students' efforts. Staff meetings are also a great time to get organized and assign duties for each deadline period. 

    Begin your staff meetings with positive reinforcement by having students share what they liked about the last issue of the paper or the last batch of stories the class wrote. (If you don't have an outlet for sharing student work, start now! Even if it's just on a private or school website, it's important for students to read one another's work.) Have a student write all the positives on the board so students can see what worked well and repeat the formula for the next issue or round of writing.

    When discussing what needs improvement, try to remain positive and not get nit-picky with individuals. Don't single anyone out or allow the staff to attack or single out others. Instead, ask each individual to share what they would improve from their own story/assignment. How could they make it even better?

    Staff meetings can be an effective tool for team-building and morale. Bring treats or allow students to bring in treats to share. Food and drinks are effective motivation tools with teens and can change the atmosphere immediately.  

    Organization is key when producing a school newspaper or yearbook. You must have everything planned out in advance. Staff meetings are a great time to plan your publication and assign duties to students. A yearbook will require a ladder that should be displayed at all times in the classroom or office. The ladder should include the contents of every single page in the yearbook.

    When you are planning a newspaper, you should have some areas designated for regular features. For example, the first page will always have the latest late-breaking or headlining news, the second page often has the staff box (listing the staff members, positions, contact names/numbers or emails, and a brief staff policy or objective). It will also usually have continued stories from the first page. On the remaining pages, designate a page or area for features, opinions (which would include movie and restaurant reviews), and sports. You could also designate an area for photos from around school (this is always easy to include on the last page). By having a designated spot for everything, it makes it so much easier for the designers to lay out the paper. 

    Students should also have a clear idea about their story when they are preparing to write it. They can download this FREE Reporter's Checklist to organize the essentials of their story. It includes an example so students can see how it is used.

    Finally, you want your students to have ownership in their work--to feel connected and an integral part of the overall product. There is a thin line between being an advisor and being a micro-managing editor. It can be hard to allow students to make mistakes, but it is essential for them to learn and take ownership over their work.* Your job is to provide the tools; their job is to use them and create with them. 

    Ways to encourage ownership include:
    • Allow students to generate story ideas.
    • Allow students to pick their own yearbook theme.
    • Allow students to decide which fonts to use (within reason).
    • Allow students to choose their own assignments.
    • Require students to peer edit: choose student editors (take volunteers and select the most competent) and make them responsible for editing all stories, photo captions, and the layout of the publication.
    • Don't edit or rewrite student work yourself; allow students to make mistakes.* It's OK to let students know that their story has some errors that they should correct, but if they fail to make the changes, don't do it for them. 

    *I do have one exception: when producing a yearbook that parents, students, and staff have purchased, it is important to strive for perfection. If a student accidentally misspells a name, by all means, correct it if you catch it before it goes to print. In this case, being a last-minute editor is OK. I'd rather have happy buyers than students upset because their name was misspelled in something as permanent as the yearbook.

    I hope these tips will help you as you navigate teaching journalism. It's helpful to seek out other teachers who are in the same boat, but so often you may be the only journalism teacher in your school or even district. Look for others on social media (Twitter is an excellent tool; search #journalismteacher) or connect on sites such as https://www.schooljournalism.org/

    My fellow bloggers here on the Secondary English Coffee Shop have shared some of their great resources, as well. Check them out here: 
    Newspaper Unit Bundle by Stacey Llyod
    Journalism Teaching Bundle by The Daring English Teacher

    10 Techniques to Motivate Student Progress

    The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have a secret that more teachers need to steal. (Stay with me on this one...)

    If you want to be an Eagle Scout, then you need to earn certain merit badges. If you want to earn a merit badge, then you have to view the list of requirements for that merit badge (a checklist of action steps). If you've completed a requirement, then the Scoutmaster initials and dates each checklist item in your personal book to confirm that you did finish it.

    In my personal experiences with Scouting, I've seen how motivating those lists of requirements can be. Yes, there are external motivators (with the reward being the merit badge and the respective ranks it can help you acquire), but there's also something very compelling about a to-do list with that blank spot next to it, waiting to be checked off.

    I've been thinking a lot about this setup in the last five years, especially as a teacher, watching the students in my classrooms change. In a world filled with instant gratification and frequent feedback (i.e. social media comments/likes), many of my students are responding well to short-term goals, faster teacher affirmation, and small rewards on a longer trail of learning.

    I've been gradually experimenting with ways I can do the following:

    • Give students feedback faster (instead of waiting on me to return a grade)
    • Motivate all students to take more action steps (even those who hate "work")
    • Praise students for doing the right thing
    • Promote positive, proactive behaviors

    While I realize that most teachers are wary of overdoing rewards, stickers, prizes, or the "everyone gets a trophy" philosophy, that's not what I'm going for, either. Many older students just want recognition or feedback, and most of the ideas shown below don't have a carrot at the end. 

    Below is a list of some of the tools and techniques I've been using in my middle school ELA classroom. These ideas are easily adaptable so that you can make them work best for you!

    1. Stamp Sheets and Checklists
    Stamps are my NEW BEST FRIEND. My favorite tool is a simple Bingo dauber to stamp students' reading passports (see below). The stamp sheet you see here is a non-graded tool that I use alongside the Accelerated Reader program that my district requires; in other words, it's a motivational tool for independent reading so that I can reward students for positive reading behaviors, like meeting a goal or pacing their reading wisely.

    My second favorite tool is Crayola's emoji stamp markers, especially if the circles being stamped are smaller (see photo). What you see here is this year's (new) way that I'm tracking student points that are earned in our Grammar House Cup game. (See this blog post to learn more about that game.) Stamping these sheets has been the most effective way I've found to track student action steps. 

    Get BOTH stamp sheets you see above FOR FREE at this link! (The templates also come with descriptors for what the grammar circles mean.)

    2. Smaller reading deadlines
    Some students aren't ready to just "read to page 100 by Monday" and need to learn how to read a little every night. These pacing bookmarks have been epic for teaching students better reading habits! 

    3. Certificates and Superlatives
    In addition to whatever comments you may write on a rubric or assignment, you might want students to feel more pride in their work. One option is to use these certificates for public speaking, essays, or creative writing, which could be quietly stapled to student work or even celebrated more publicly in class. 

    4. Units in a Game Board format
    This is a super-customizable route that isn't as hard as it may seem. If your unit has a linear list of action steps, you might like framing it more visually in a game board! (Learn more in this blog post, OR download my game board templates here.)

    5. Setting a Timer
    This could just be me and my students, but lately I've found that setting an actual timer works better than just telling students to get started, or even telling them that they only have a certain number of minutes. If you want increased focus, use a timer that they can see or hear. 

    6. Short Term Challenges
    If you want to try a 24-hour challenge, 1-week challenge, or even a 30-Day challenge, the pressure of a deadline can motivate some students to not procrastinate and to get started sooner. One example is this editable 30-Day Challenge for ELA.

    7. Authentic Audiences for Writing
    Bringing in external "judges" from the community was one of the best things I did during my student teaching in high school. Get more ideas in this blog post, co-written with Nouvelle ELA, 6 Guest Speakers to Invite to Your English Class

    8. Positive Peer Pressure
    There's a specific literature unit I do each year in which we complete Chapter Study Guides and let students verbally quiz each other. It's a great way to find out who did (or didn't) read while still controlling the situation to prevent shaming. If students know this is coming, needing to be "on the ball" in front of their peers is a huge motivator!

    9. Being in the Here and Now
    I suspect that most English teachers are already making strong real-world connections in their classrooms, but some students may still be too deep in the "here and now" to be motivated by grades, a future grade level, or college. Little ways to connect the topic to their present selves can sometimes help. One example is this FREE "Which Punctuation Mark Are You?" quiz

    10. Using Videos
    Whether you use a quick video to hook students into a lesson, employ the Flipped Classroom model, or let students make videos themselves, I've found that anything involving a video is more likely to get completed than other tasks or forms of homework. 

    You might also like...

    Do you have ideas or questions? 
    Tell me in the comments!

    Tips for Faster Grading

    Put up your hand if you love nothing more than spending your Sunday afternoon grading a pile of student papers. 

    What? No takers?

    Of course not. As much as we know the importance of assessment in the learning process, we all want to spend less time doing it, right? So, in the hopes of helping you all out with that grading beast, we thought we'd compile some of our best tips.

    As a first-year teacher, I spent tons of time writing meticulous notes on each student’s paper. I didn’t mark all of the grammar errors - I’d definitely learned not to waste my time on that! - but I did make tons of suggestions for improvement. Then, when I handed the papers back to students, they immediately stuffed them in their backpacks without a second glance. Sigh.

    You can make your comments digestible by sticking to two positive notes and one focus for improvement. (That good ol’ “compliment sandwich”!) Write these notes directly on the rubric. You’ll have to focus your commentary, which means less time writing for you and fewer notes to overwhelm your students. And, since all of your students will receive three comments, there’s no dreading tons of ‘red ink’ all over the paper! Read more about how I use rubrics to make grading more efficient. -
    My greatest tools for faster grading are checklists and highlighters. First, I do not grade everything. I decide on my focus areas and then I create a checklist that has all of the comments I would usually make on that type of assignment. That way, I can just put a checkmark beside what I want to say, rather than writing or typing it all out. Then, I will choose a couple of places to highlight to show students what they did well and what they could improve upon.

    Another thing I've added to my grading toolkit is that I ask the students to highlight where they have met certain criteria. So, if we were working on embedding and citing quotes, they will highlight where they did it well. If I wanted them to use multiple techniques to develop an idea, they would highlight each technique in a different colour. That way, I can quickly find what I'm looking for, plus it puts more responsibility in the students' hands. You can read more about how I use highlighters for grading on this post and get more tips for grading faster on this one.
    When I first started teaching, I would leave school with a bag full of papers to grade that haunted my weekends. I spent entirely too much time outside of school hours grading papers, and the grading often wasn’t efficient because it felt like such an imposition on my free time. My tip is to set up the systems in place to do as much of the marking at school as you can. When you are marking “on the clock,” it’s often far more efficient as you are in work mode. Although bringing marking home may not be something you can avoid altogether, you can make it far less by doing the following:
    1.  Plan out your major assessments strategically so that due dates line up with a less busy times in your schedule (if you run the drama club, for example, don’t make major assessments due when the school play is happening).
    2. Make major assessments for your classes due at different times.  It’s far easier to mark 25 papers than it is 90.
    3. Avoid the interruptions from chatty co-workers. You are more likely to be interrupted before school or after school, so use your prep period (or part of it) to grade instead, but find a place where you can hide so no one will interrupt.
    4. If you have your students read silently each day for a few minutes, consider changing that up and giving them a good chunk of time each week to do it and use that time to grade.
    ~Presto Plans
    One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that not everything needs to be graded. Yes, I admit, it’s easier to motivate students if they know they are getting graded for an assignment. However, there’s no reason not to give completion grades for assignments that are practicing skills. I do not “grade” journal entries, bell ringers/exit slips, silent reading, rough drafts, or even homework assignments. For those, students get a completion grade: as long as they completed it, they earn the maximum number of points. It’s much easier to skim those assignments to make sure they are grasping the concepts. Then I have much more time to put into grading their assessments: quizzes, tests, and final drafts of essays. Students learn quickly that if they put little effort into the completion assignments, it will show in their assessment score. I make the assessments worth a lot more points, so they learn this early in the year. That helps with motivating them to put forth effort in the daily work.
    ~Tracee Orman

    Whenever I grade larger writing assignments, I don’t spend excessive time copyediting my students’ work. Instead, I only focus on a few writing elements to assess. Further-more, when I grade, I keep a notebook handy. Over the several days that it takes me to comb through dozens of essays, I keep notes about common writing mistakes and weaknesses that I found. When I pass back their work, we review these in a quick reflection mini-unit. When it’s time to grade the next major writing assignment, I’ll use the elements from our writing reflection as my areas of focus. This not only helps cut down my grading time by eliminating excessive marks on student papers, but it also helps drive my instruction.
    ~The Daring English Teacher

    As English teachers, it is easy to get buried under endless piles of marking. One strategy I use is to have students work with a portfolio (I use folders in my classroom). They can work on several pieces of writing, edit, do peer editing, and then submit the work that they feel best represents their skills or learning. This way, I am not marking everything they are working on, and students appreciate that they have some choice in the work that I assess.
    ~Addie Williams

    Yes! There is such a thing. I discovered this grading stamp a little over a year ago and it has saved my life in so many ways. While I personally use a rubric for the final assessment piece, the stamp is perfect when making quick edits to papers and I also use this for peer editing. Just type in "essay grading stamp" on eBay and you will see a bunch of different options come up! 
     ~The Classroom Sparrow
    So there you have it. All of us have found ways to lessen our load and to make the process more efficient. Hopefully you've found something to make your grading process more manageable.

    Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers

    Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers cover

    Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers

    As English teachers, we often face a huge obstacle between our goal (encouraging lifelong readers!) and our accountability to standardized testing. This obstacle? Student reading levels. With our high-performing students, we can almost imagine leaving them to face the test alone and we know they’d be fine. With the rest? Well, it’s unimaginable. Therefore, we’re tempted to sacrifice student interest in the name of test preparation. This is the way to get our reluctant readers on track, we tell ourselves.

    How can we balance rigorous learning with engaging nonfiction? We’d want that, right?


    It’s Danielle from Nouvelle ELA, and today, I want to tackle nonfiction. Some of you love it; some of you dread it. Here are three ways to use nonfiction to engage reluctant readers. None of these are “drill and kill,” but each meets the reader where they are and supports them as they work toward grade-level skills.

    1.       Use nonfiction to develop background knowledge.

    We know that our students can have varying background knowledge when we begin a new novel. This could be a matter of culture and exposure, vocabulary level, or understanding of genre. One way we can scaffold the reading experience for reluctant readers is to strengthen their background knowledge.

    Consider, for example, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. What did Fitzgerald’s contemporary audience know and understand that our students might not? His audience exemplified the American zeitgeist and Post-War sentiments of the era, and both inform the novel. Our students don’t have easy access to this knowledge. Our reluctant readers will just write it off as “too difficult.”

    Once you generate a list of topics (as I’ve done here for The Great Gatsby), you can find nonfiction and primary sources to support students. For example, I use this Close Reading to introduce students to the quality of life in the Post-War United States. This is also a good opportunity to provide key content vocabulary that students will later see in the novel.

    2.       Strengthen connections through literature.

    In the last section, I discussed providing access to literature through nonfiction. You can also approach it from the other direction. Often, age-appropriate and engaging literature is a key to understanding denser nonfiction. Literature can also go a long way to make content in nonfiction texts more relatable for students.

    Let’s look at Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. In this novel, the main character travels to the Philippines and learns about the impact of Duterte’s war on drugs first-hand. This book is accessible to many reluctant readers and easy to pair with a closer look at current events.

    You can also use shorter stories to connect to informational text targets. I created a series of reading intervention escape games with just this in mind. In Burnbridge Breakouts, each game follows a different protagonist. Students collaborate to solve puzzles and riddles to reveal clues to the bigger mystery of the series. Even though the reading level of the stories is below grade level, each game comes with related informational tasks at grade level. They explore topics broached in the games, conduct research, and write procedural texts. However, their perseverance is sustained by the interest in the topic sparked by the game. Literature becomes the bridge to more difficult nonfiction.

    Interested in Burnbridge Breakouts? Try the first game free!

    3.       Inspire creative writing.

    You can also use nonfiction to inspire creative writing. Students are less constrained with creative writing and more easily accept that there’s “more than one right answer.” Because of this, they’re using their understanding of nonfiction to support their imagination. This is effective because it puts the onus on them: they’ll look back and make sure they’ve understood for the sake of their story rather than the sake of a test question.

    An example of this is my resource, Abandoned Places. Students read an article about ten abandoned places from around the world. Each section is short and attainable for reluctant readers, developing a sense of achievement along the way. Then, students choose one place as the setting for a piece of “Flash Fiction.” This quick writing decreases students’ ability to be self-critical, since the writing time flies by in a “flash”. They don’t have time to make it perfect! (You could have them revise a draft later, though.)

    Moving Forward with Reluctant Readers

    You want to instill a love of reading in your students, and you will! The key is providing accessible, age-appropriate texts and doing different activities with each one. Students can read for enjoyment, read for test preparation, and read to inspire writing! With some resources and inspiration, you can meet students where they are and help them on their journey to mastery.

    How does nonfiction inspire you? Let me know in comments!

    Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers pin

    Resources from other Coffee Shop teachers: 

    Nonfiction Assignments for Any Text by Presto Plans
    Analyzing Informational Texts by Stacey Lloyd
    Exploring Issues and Informational Texts by Room 213
    Nonfiction Reading Practice by Tracee Orman
    Nonfiction Test Prep Escape Room by The Daring English Teacher
    Informational Text Bundle: Inspiring Women, Men, and Non-Binary Figures by The SuperHERO Teacher

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