The skill of determining importance in a nonfiction text is an area in which students of all ages often struggle. For emerging readers, it can require so much attention to merely get through reading a nonfiction text, that it’s easy not to process what the text actually says, much less pull out the important details and overall meaning. And for older students, increasingly complex texts can be dense with information and difficult to digest. Here are four strategies for determining importance in nonfiction texts — and they’re usable in any grade.
Determining importance is the process of determining what is important in a text and what is not. “We decide, from among everything on the page, what is most important to attend to and remember,” according to The Reading Recovery Training Center at Clemson University. “As proficient readers, we engage in that process continually while reading. We filter information and organize our thinking around the big ideas. Determining importance allows us to move through a text coherently, developing a line of thinking that helps our reading make sense.”
Tanny McGregor, author of Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, once explained determining importance to a class by providing a memorable visual. The premise is that our brain can’t possibly remember everything we read, nor should it. Our job is to keep the really important stuff we read in our mind and strain out the rest. She demonstrated this using a literal kitchen strainer full of water and spaghetti, pouring out the water to leave just the pasta. “Your brain is like the strainer and the words are like the noodles. The spaghetti water is not important, so you don’t have to keep it. When you read something, it’s like it’s pouring in through your eyes and then it goes through your brain.”
“In nonfiction, readers need to learn to determine importance by identifying a text’s main idea(s). Once they do, they are better able to sort through the details to figure out which are important and which may be interesting, but less important,” says Jennifer Serravallo, author of The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. “As texts become more dense and filled with information, sorting through facts and information that are important to the central idea(s), versus those that are just interesting, becomes more challenging. Sometimes students have a hard time determining importance because they believe everything is important—the author put it all in there, after all!”
When reading a whole text, it’s easy for students to lose focus and get lost in what they’re reading. Creating five-sentence summaries can help students stay active while reading, as well as pull out and sum up the most critical information.
How to do it: Students should use a pen to number sections of the text as they read them. Summaries are written in order. They can chunk the text and pull out the important points from the beginning, a little way in, the middle, almost the end, and the end of the text. Then, they can sum up each section in one sentence, finishing with a five-sentence summary!
For young readers: For learners who aren’t ready to write sentence-based summaries, the strategy can be done by drawing pictures, arranging pictures, or even participating verbally (“First, the text said this. Then, the text said this…”). Readers can also break the summary down into three parts: beginning, middle, and end.
Teach students to pick up on patterns in a text. If a text mentions photosynthesis a bunch of times, chances are that’s an important topic of the piece. Students can get into the habit of noticing and highlighting words and concepts that repeat. Additionally, teach students to notice and make note of numbers, statistics, and facts in nonfiction. See a number? Make a note! See a fact? Circle it!
How to do it: Determine a system of symbols for annotation and students can use these symbols to quickly make note of patterns, numbers/statistics, and facts they find in a text.
For young readers: Ask students to find what repeats and explore why. For example: If the text uses the word triangle a lot, it’s logical that triangles are important in the text.
Once students know how to look for patterns, they can learn how to funnel down topics. This strategy teaches students to find the larger topic, the subtopics, and the supporting details in a nonfiction text.
How to do it: This can be done by simply writing notes on paper or you can provide students with a graphic organizer with an image of a funnel. Tell students to look for word patterns and clues within the title, captions, and display text. For example, a text uses the term NBA draft a lot, so it is likely that the overarching topic is basketball. Then, it’s time to zoom in and look for subtopics and the supporting details in the text.
For young readers: Teach students to pull out the big topic and then shrink it down to a detail or two. This can be done visually, in writing, verbally, or kinesthetically by using manipulatives. Gradually increase the level of detail the students look for.
How to do it: This idea comes from Serravallo’s incredibly useful reading strategies book. Using sticky notes, readers jot down notes as they read. One sticky note per jot. After they’re done, they “collect all the jots that have to do with one idea. Look across them, to pile the ideas together.” This helps readers categorize what they’ve read, organize important topics, and pull out ideas as they’re reading.
For young readers: Have students draw pictures on sticky notes, copying important words and phrases from the text or visually looking at and discussing this together as a class.
Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.