A picture of a nonfiction book with annotation bookmarks. Text overlay with the title, "Five ways to teach students to determine importance in upper elementary."

Five Fantastic ways to teach students to determine importance in nonfiction texts

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Have you ever taught a lesson on main idea or on the importance of text features and realized that your lesson flopped? You did everything right! You used the best text and anchor lesson, your anchor chart was beautiful and detailed. What could have possibly gone wrong? Well, I have one simple question for you. Do your students know how to determine importance when reading a nonfiction text?  If they are struggling with these other skills, my guess is they don’t. Being able to determine importance when reading is a prerequisite to these other skills. 

Unfortunately, sometimes our pacing guides feel like we are getting ready for a sprint. Instead of including basic skills, such as the determining importance comprehension strategy, we are asked to jump headfirst into harder skills that our students are not ready for, flying through the lessons like we are on fire. However, as teachers, it is our job to figure out where these misalignments are and do what is best for our students. Before kids can walk, they must crawl! Taking the time to teach students the determine importance reading strategy will set the stage for all other nonfiction skills. 

A picture of a nonfiction book with annotation bookmarks. Text overlay with the title, "Five ways to teach students to determine importance in upper elementary."
Need fresh new ideas to teach your students how to determine importance when reading nonfiction? Keep reading…

Before we dive into this week’s blog post, have you seen my FREE teaching strategies guide for dual-language teachers? In this guide, I am sharing nine teaching strategies that will help you set your students on a path towards biliteracy and bilingualism. These are strategies you can start implementing immediately and see amazing results. Click here to get your own copy of the free guide. You can thank me later! 

The Determine Importance Reading Strategy 

Like I said earlier, determining importance is a key skill. It helps students learn to focus on the important information presented in a text as opposed to clinging to the interesting facts. When kids read, they are often drawn to the parts of the text that are interesting. But in reality, we want them to focus on what is important. More often than not, those things are not the same. 

Have you ever read a book with your students only to realize at the end that all they remember are the interesting parts of it? That is because our students don’t innately know how to differentiate between important and interesting. They must be explicitly taught how to do that. 

How to teach students to determine importance

There are many ideas out there to teach students how to determine importance, but these are some of my favorite ones. I love the progression of starting with concrete examples and slowly transitioning to more abstract activities that include reading. 

Keep reading to learn more about the five things I do in my classroom to teach my students how to determine importance in nonfiction. 

Pictures of activities and anchor charts used to teach the determining importance comprehension strategy.
The determining importance comprehension strategy is often overlooked, but it is an essential reading skill that sets the foundation for other more complex skills.

Practice determining importance with a hands-on activity 

I like to begin my lessons with a hands-on activity whenever possible. In any classroom, there will always be students who struggle with reading, so beginning the lesson with an activity that teaches the skill but doesn’t involve reading is always a great first step. 

Preparation:

To teach this particular lesson, I like to divide my students into groups of 3-4. Each group receives a bag with items inside. Each bag has its own theme with items inside that match that theme. I label the outside of the bag, so students know what each bag should be “used for.” For example, one bag may include ingredients to make a pizza. One bag may include items that you need for camping. 

Picture of ingredients needed to make a pizza made out of paper.
Teach students about determining importance with this simple hands-on activity.
Other examples:
  • Ingredients to make tacos 
  • A trip to the beach 
  • Items needed to play soccer (or any other sport) 
  • Ingredients to make pasta 
  • School supplies 
  • Lunch kit 

Activity:

I explain to my students that they can only choose three items from their bags to bring with them to complete that activity. This means that they must choose the most important items. They must all agree and have a reason to support their decision. 

This activity leads to some very rich discussion about determining importance. Although students may be tempted to choose some of the more interesting items in their bags, narrowing their choices to only three helps them think critically about what is really important.

You can adjust the rigor of this lesson with the items you choose to include in each bag as well as the theme of each bag. You can also differentiate your groups. Students that you believe will struggle with this concept can receive a bag with “more obvious” items, while students who are ready for a challenge can be given a more difficult bag. You can easily customize this activity to fit the needs of your class. 

Create a determine importance anchor chart 

Pictures of activities and anchor chart that can be used to teach students how to determine importance when reading.
Learning how to determine importance when reading will help students learn to identify the key details in a nonfiction text. Click here if you would like a copy of the free bookmarks.

Once we have done this hands-on activity, I like to create an anchor chart with my students. I use the examples from the hands-on activity to create a table of important vs. interesting things. The groups share the items they selected with the class and explain their reasoning while I record it on the anchor chart. 

I explain to students that, although many of those things would be fun to have, they are not necessary. We can still make a pizza without pepperoni. We can still go camping without marshmallows. But we can’t play soccer without a soccer ball. The soccer ball is essential. 

Use the “determine importace mental model”

Anytime I teach an anchor lesson, I like to use a mental model that will help my students comprehend the content and remember the lesson in the future. For this lesson, I use a strainer. 

I bring some cooked pasta from home in water, a strainer, and a pan to collect the water. I put down the pan with the strainer sitting inside of it. Then, I pour the spaghetti and the water into the strainer. I explain to my students that just like the strainer can’t hold both the water and the pasta, our brains work the same way. We can only remember some of the information we read. Our brains just can’t hold on to everything. So we must make sure that we are focusing on the important things (the pasta) and letting the interesting facts go (the water.) 

I also like to talk to students about the reasons why the author includes interesting facts in nonfiction texts. I want students to know that that type of information makes the text more interesting and engaging. This is useful later on when we are working on writing, and I want my students to elaborate more by adding interesting details. 

Teach annotation to determine importance

Picture of charts and activities that can be used to teach students how to determine importance.
Use annotating bookmarks to teach students how to determine importance. Click here to get these bookmarks in English and Spanish for FREE!

The next step is to begin modeling to students how to apply the determine importance reading strategy in their reading. I like to show students how to annotate the text as we read. We use symbols to signal interesting details (!) and important information(*). 

In my class, I use annotation bookmarks to help my students learn and use the symbols as they read. A lot of modeling is required in the beginning to make sure students actually annotate the text, but once they get used to it, they will begin doing it automatically. Make it one of your expectations when they read, and model it often during your shared reading and read-aloud time. Offer incentives to those who are using the strategy on their own, and watch it spread like a wildfire! 

Practice with graphic organizers 

Now, it is time for students to begin working on this activity on their own or with a partner. I like to use graphic organizers to help prompt students to use a new strategy. Graphic organizers help students see the steps they need to take and make the activity more concrete. 

I often choose articles from classroom magazines because they are highly engaging and very informative. Students have plenty of opportunities to practice this skill with those articles. If you would like, I have a whole blog post about my favorite classroom magazines in English and Spanish. You can click here to check it out.

Picture of a determine importance worksheet in Spanish.
This determine importance worksheet can be used during partner or independent practice.

There you have it… 

Five fantastic ways to teach students to determine importance in nonfiction texts. Now, your students will be ready to tackle some of those more difficult skills because they have a strong foundation in identifying key details in the text. I hope this blog post was helpful. I would love to hear about the activities you have chosen to incorporate in your own class. Let me know in the comments! Click here to grab your copy of the FREE reading bookmarks in English and Spanish.

Also, don’t forget to download my FREE guide with nine teaching strategies for dual-language teachers. It’s a must-have! Click here to get your own copy.

Happy teaching! 

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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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