Teaching Idea

Using a Text Feature Walk to Scaffold Close Reading

Michelle Kelley and Nicki Clausen-Grace

Abstract

When they realized that their students were not reading text features or using them to predict and understand the content of assigned trade books, the authors adapted the "picture walk" technique for previewing fiction into a text feature walk to preview and enhance the reading of non-fiction texts. A list of common text features and their uses is included.

Reading texts and talking about them are critical to close reading and thus to learning. In 2004 Nicki, an intermediate teacher, and Michelle, a university instructor, began our collaborative work with metacognition, engagement, and deeper comprehension. At that time we made some assumptions about our students as readers of informational text, specifically their understanding of text features. Most of these assumptions were grounded in our belief that students skillfully read and integrated information found in text features. Thus we thought not only that they could identify most text features, but that they also understood the purpose of each. More important, we believed that they read and used these features to better understand informational text. We were wrong.

The Problem

As we sought to engage readers and improve students' metacognition, we realized that many of our students ignored these features, although their teachers had pointed them out and discussed their importance in shared and guided reading. The problem, we discovered, was that the instruction the students had received in text features was not explicit enough for many of them. Typically the guided practice phase had been shortened and/or the students had not received the needed feedback and monitoring to make reading text features a habit. Application had been presumed. We had thought, "They know what a heading is, so surely they will read the headings and predict what they will be reading about." Or we reasoned, "If there is a cross-section, they will take the time to examine it because it allows them to see inside something they normally can't see and relate that to what they are reading about in the text."

Recognizing that students rarely noted text features or thought about how they relate to the main idea led us to develop and employ a technique we called the text feature walk (TFW). Think of a TFW as an amped up picture walk with complex informational text. This article explains what a TFW is and describes how you can implement a TFW in your own classroom.

The Preview

For decades primary teachers have used picture walks successfully to help students activate prior knowledge, make predictions, and set a purpose for reading. Examining illustrations and talking about how they might relate to the story has helped students better anticipate the reading. The TFW works similarly but with informational text. Students preview the text either in small groups or with the full class by reading the text features and discussing how the information might relate and/or contribute to the main idea of the text. From headings and bolded words to pictures and captions, students bring in their background knowledge, visualize, pose questions, and summarize what is being shared in each text feature. The goal is to help students deepen their understanding by thinking about what they are going to read before they read it.

Let's look at a transcript snippet of a text feature walk occurring with fourth graders. The subject area is social studies, and the students are reading about natives in Florida. Nicki has already reviewed the purpose of a TFW, along with her expectations. She has grouped students heterogeneously, then pronounced and briefly discussed challenging content vocabulary. 

Nicki: Now that you are in your groups I want you to do a text feature walk over pages 88-93. I know this is a lot of text, but I also know that you have some strong background knowledge on this topic, the earliest Floridians. It is going to take you 15 to 20 minutes to do this, so do not rush through your discussion. (Nicki roams from group to group and coaches as needed.)

Colin:It says "the earliest Floridians," so I think it is going to be about Indians who first lived here.

Lori: I think so too based on what I learned last year, and it has a picture of a spear on the next page. See on the bottom (pointing).

Paula: There is also a huge drawing of an early Native American right here (pointing).

Lori: Yes, with pearls on, but that's weird. I think the spears are made out of shells or maybe rocks.

Paula: I think they used the spears as tools.

Colin: I think we are going to read how they used the spears and the different ways they used them.

Paula: The map up here will tell where they are and where they traveled because the heading says "Routes of Early People."

Lori: Yeah (pointing to and reading the map). It does show where they traveled.

Colin: Last year my teacher told us they started in Alaska and moved down as far as South America.

Lori: Really, I didn't learn that.

Paula: It shows that on the map with the arrows pointing that way.

Lori: (pointing to the map) I think they stopped there because they hit water and couldn't go any further once they got to South America.

Academic Discourse

From this brief transcript you easily recognize a couple of important teaching points. First, to have a successful TFW students should have some experience talking academically. This doesn't come naturally to most kids. You will need to model this kind of discourse, pointing out examples and non-examples. The most obvious requirement is that students should be able to identify most of the text features in the text they are reading. We recommend that you survey the texts your students read and identify the most prevalent features. Then you can focus your direct instruction on these features prior to launching into a TFW.

Extending students' understanding of the language of text features, you can establish a common language in your classroom that includes metacognitive strategy knowledge, further facilitating students' ability to use academic language to engage successfully in a TFW. Students should also understand the purpose of most text features. This transcript reveals that some of the students had background knowledge on early Floridians. It is best if some of your students have background knowledge in the content of the text to be read. And finally, students should be able to effectively work in small collaborative groups.

Preparation

Therefore, we recommend the following steps before implementing TFWs:

  1. Assess students' knowledge of text features: (a) Can they identify text features, (b) do they know the purpose of text features, and (c) can they read text features for comprehension, either informally or formally?
  2. Explicitly teach the text features students do not know, particularly those that are prevalent in the texts you use.
  3. Use a think-aloud approach to model a TFW in a whole or small group, having students join in the TFW by sharing their thinking as you navigate through text features.
  4. Front load the pronunciation of important vocabulary prior to having students do a TFW, (as some students have trouble decoding multisyllabic content words even when they know what the words mean).
  5. Debrief on the TFW to emphasize the goals and deepen comprehension.

For teachers who need an assessment tool and/or lessons to assist in teaching text features, we have written a professional resource titled Teaching Text Features to Support Comprehension, published by Capstone, to help educators teach students to read text features such as diagrams, bullets, insets, and tables for a deeper comprehension of informational text. This book features classroom-tested mini-lessons, activities, and assessment tools to help educators (a) teach relevant Common Core State Standards and grade-level expectations, (b) diagnose, monitor, and meet student needs, and (c) guide differentiated instruction through the use of a convenient class profile. Also included is a list of mentor texts for each text feature, in addition to reproducibles and assessment tools teachers may use online.

The text feature walk is just one technique to help kids actively engage with the content in the text for deeper comprehension. We have found that once established, the TFW routine helps students to better predict, connect, question, and summarize what they are learning. Because the small group discussions are focused on and grounded in the text, readers are less likely to be off topic and more likely to understand what they read. We invite you to try a text feature walk with your students and to investigate our teaching resource for more support.

Michelle Kelley is the program coordinator for elementary education at the University of Central Florida. She is a professor in residence at Stenstrom Elementary where she teaches reading courses and works with teachers.

Nicki Clausen-Grace is a teacher, author, consultant, and staff developer from Oviedo, Florida, USA. She currently teaches fourth grade at Carillon Elementary school.

Reference

Kelley, M., & Clausen-Grace, N. (2016). Teaching text features to support comprehension: A revised edition. North Mankota, MN: Capstone.