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I know I say this in every blog post, but I love teaching text features. Some of my best lessons were about text features. However, when I first started teaching, I wondered why text features are important and why I should spend so much time teaching them. Today, it is crazy to consider that I ever thought like that, but I did! The truth is that teaching our students to identify and use text features in their reading is crucial. In fact, there are so many reasons why text features are important that I decided to write this blog post about it.
What are text features?
Let’s start from the beginning and answer this simple question. Text features are the parts of a nonfiction article that don’t necessarily make up its main body. They are often used to highlight some of the most important parts of the text. Authors also use text features to help explain parts of the passage that can be difficult for the reader to understand.
So the main reason why text features are important is that they help the reader with comprehension.
Surprisingly though, most students completely skip over them as they read. They don’t understand why text features are important, and why they should pay attention to them. This is why explicitly teaching students why they are important and how to use them is a necessity.
Three reasons why text features are important
1. Text features clarify the content
One of the reasons why text features are important is because they are often the difference between a student understanding or not understanding a text. Even as adults, we often rely on text features when reading a difficult piece of text.
When we read a nonfiction text about something we are not familiar with, we can become overwhelmed. Without text features, we would be expected to imagine everything the author is describing, even though we may have no idea what that is. Text features take away the guessing game. Through pictures, graphs, and diagrams, the author can clearly show us what he is describing in detail.
2. Text features can build prior knowledge
Another reason why text features are important is that they help students build prior knowledge, Whenever I read an informational text with my students, we take a “text features walk” to make some inferences about the reading. This helps to build our background knowledge. If students have at least an idea of what the text is about before they begin reading, they will be much more successful with it.
3. Text features help us focus
The final reason why text features are important is because they help students focus on the most important parts of the reading. Authors often use text features to highlight some of the most important details. By analyzing the text features, students can zero in on the information that is most important and avoid some of the fluff.
Some mistakes I made in the past
I have tried a lot of different things in my classroom, and after a lot of trial and error, I finally feel like I have a system that works. But before I tell you what I do, let me tell you what I don’t do and why.
1. Death by PowerPoint
I am not here to criticize teachers who use PowerPoint to teach. I use them sometimes, too. What I want you to avoid is boring your students to tears with a fifteen-slide presentation on each text feature. I am embarrassed to say I have done that! Once! It was all it took for me to see that I needed something better.
2. Name this text feature
Now, hear me out! I am not saying students should not learn the name of each text feature. But that should not be the goal of your lesson. I don’t care if my students forget that a caption is called a caption. I care that when they see a cation, they know what to do with it. How students use each text feature to help them comprehend the text is much more important than memorizing their names.
I have seen students waste precious time during a test labeling each text feature but not using it to help them comprehend the text. That’s busy work! And I hate busy work! Doing that is not helping your students actually use the text features for comprehension.
3. Not choosing the right text
We already know that the reason why text features are important is that they help students understand the reading. But if the passage is easy, or if students already have a lot of background knowledge on the topic, they don’t need to rely on the text features. So when I teach this skill to my students, I want them to actually experience why text features are important.
Now, don’t go crazy and pull out a book about thermodynamics for your third graders! That is not what I am saying, lol. But do consider choosing topics that are a little outside of their “comfort zone.” And make sure the passage you selected has killer text features to help your students understand what it is all about.
How I teach text features in upper elementary
Now that I have shared my embarrassing past mistakes, I will tell you how I have fixed them. These simple strategies will help your students understand why text features are important and how to use them effectively.
1. Introduce the concept with a minilesson
Like I said earlier, the first time I taught this skill, my student sat there for what felt like an eternity watching my PowerPoint presentation. So ineffective! They were bored to tears. I was bored to tears. By the time I was done, they had no idea what I was talking about or why it mattered.
Since then, I have switched to a minilesson. Ten minutes should be plenty! Create an anchor chart with your students to tell them why text features are important, what they are are, and how to use them. Show them a few examples, but don’t focus on getting them all in. Quick and effective is the name of the game! I have a printable anchor chart and interactive notebook page that I like to use with my students. It is part of my larger bundle of anchor charts, but it can also be purchased separately. You can check it out by clicking here if you are interested. This resource is available in English and Spanish.
3. Use a flipbook with examples
Recently, I wanted to create a resource that would help me introduce some of the most commonly used text features with one resource. So I created this flipbook in Spanish. I love that with one resource I can expose my students to a lot of different text features.
This flipbook was designed in such a way that students are introduced to text features in a logical sequence. I want my students to use text features to make predictions about the text and build their background knowledge. Therefore, the first few pages of the flipbook introduce graphic features such as diagrams, pictures, and graphs.
Once I have introduced all the graphic features, we move into the text features (bold words, titles, and headings.) This systematic approach allows my students to make connections with the text before we actually start reading it. This strategy is especially powerful for students who struggle with reading.
2. Do a text features book walk
This is my students’ absolute favorite and such a powerful activity! To show my students why text features are important and how they can help them understand what they are reading, we go through an entire book together by only looking at the text features. My students love this activity.
My favorite book to use for this lesson is “The Big Fitz” by Jack Edwards. This nonfiction book is such a hidden gem in my opinion. It is about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes. The diagrams and pictures are great, and because the story is intriguing, students are very drawn to it.
How to teach this lesson
I begin this lesson by explaining to students that today we are going to use only the text features to help us learn as much as we can from this book. I then read the title to my students without showing them the cover and ask them to predict what the book will be about. Most of them think it’s about someone who threw a big fit. I tell my students that if we only use the title, it is very hard to narrow down what the book could be about. Maybe the picture on the cover of the book can help us.
I then show my students the cover of the book. When they see the picture of the ship and its name, SS Edmund Fitzgerald, students begin to infer that the book is about the ship. I reiterate to them that we were able to draw this conclusion by only looking at the cover. We haven’t read the text at all!
We go through the entire book only looking at the headings, pictures, and other features. As we examine them, we discuss what they mean. It is like putting a giant puzzle together. My students love it! By the time we are done with our text features walk, my students have made great inferences about what happened to the ship.
I reiterate to students that we were able to learn all this information just by looking and thinking about the text features. I explain to them that when we read nonfiction, we may come across topics we have never heard before, like the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. But if we can use the text features to draw conclusions about the reading, we can build some prior knowledge before actually reading it.
3. Practice with scavenger hunt activities
As we continue to talk about why text features are important, it is time to give my students an opportunity to practice with a partner. I give my students copies of a magazine article. I love magazine articles because they usually have amazing images, diagrams, and other features. My favorite magazine to use for this activity is Storyworks by Scholastic, but if you would like to read about other amazing classroom magazines in English and Spanish, you can click here.
With the copies of the articles, I give each student a scavenger hunt sheet. Students have to go through the article and cut one example of each text feature. This is why I give them copies of the article. I don’t want them cutting up my magazines!
If you don’t have access to classroom magazines, you can also print articles from a website. My favorite website for articles to teach this particular skill is NewsELA. Best part – a lot of their content is free!
Now, you may be wondering why I would have them do this when earlier in this blog post I mentioned that these types of activities are not effective. Here is the difference… with my scavenger hunts, students have to tell me what was the author’s purpose for adding it to the text. This step forces students to think about why text features are important. If they can tell me how that text feature can help the reader, they understand its importance.
4. Practice makes perfect!
My last tip is to continue practicing this strategy frequently. Anytime we read an informational text, we begin with a deep discussion of the images, titles, and captions. During small group instruction, I bring up this strategy again and again. When we work on test prep, we apply this strategy to our reading using the title, headings, images, and even the questions.
My goal is for students to take an active role in building their own background knowledge before tackling an informational text. By drawing conclusions from these features before reading, students are priming their brains to receive the new information.
Trust me, this simple but effective strategy will change the way students read nonfiction texts in your classroom.
There you have it! Three reasons why text features are important and how to teach them in your classroom. I hope you found this blog post helpful, and I can’t wait to see you next time.