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Reading Strategies Help Students Comprehend New FOSS Science Stories

Gail Gerdemann
September 15, 2000 | Literacy


Slip inside a student's head and listen as she reads and uses a coding strategy to respond to the information in "Inside a Snail's Shell," an article in the FOSS Science Stories Structures of Life. Text from "Inside a Snail's Shell" is in quotes; student thinking is in italics:

"A snail has many of the same body parts as you, but they are in different places! Its teeth are on its tongue."

! WOW. I didn't know that!

"Did you know a snail's mouth is on its foot? And its breathing hole is next to where it excretes waste!"

+ New information.

"A snail has several tentacles on its head. Its eyes are at the end of the two longer tentacles."

* I already knew this.

"A snail doesn't have very good eyesight, but it can tell light from dark."

? I don't understand.

Informational text permeates everyday life. Students need to learn strategies for nonfiction reading. FOSS Science Stories include various types of informational reading: expository, historical, biographical, narrative, question-and-answer format, technical (following written and pictorial directions), journal format, fact and fiction lists, and encyclopedia entries. FOSS Science Stories also include features commonly used in nonfiction writing: charts, graphs, tables, pictures, maps, diagrams, cartoons, italics, boldface, titles, headings and subheadings, captions, guide questions, purpose statements, and review questions.

Before students begin to read, it is important to set the purpose, make predictions, develop questions, and reflect on prior knowledge. Informational reading works best after real-life experiences with the topic, including hands-on investigations. Other important activities before reading include building prior knowledge, introducing new vocabulary, and previewing text structure.

Corvallis teachers have found three reading strategies especially effective with the FOSS Science Stories. They include:

  • A coding system (described above with the snail article).
  • The VIP (Very Important Point) strategy.
  • The "Read, Cover, Remember, and Retell" strategy.

Both the coding system and the VIP strategy use sticky notes torn into smaller pieces or a piece of paper clipped to the margin of the page.

With the coding system students read and then mark statements in the text with:

! WOW.

+ New information.

* I already knew this.

? I don't understand.

After reading students meet in pairs to share their reactions to the text. Jennifer England, a fourth-grade teacher, used this strategy as students read "Inside a Snail's Shell" and "Basic Snail Facts" in the FOSS Science Stories Structures of Life. Everyone read silently, but she heard many "wows" quietly vocalized. They were especially impressed by facts such as snails are right- or left-handed and that a snail has as many as 150,000 teeth!


Peggy Thomson's fifth-grade class used this same strategy while reading "Sink or Swim" in the FOSS Science Stories Variables. Before reading the last three paragraphs that challenge students with a new experiment, students went back and reread the sections they marked as new information and discussed it as a group. Finally, with this preparation, they were ready to tackle the final challenge at the end of the article.

The VIP strategy asks students to choose three very important points from the reading selection. The number of points is limited to force students to think about which ideas are most significant. Peggy Thomson used this strategy as her students read "Swinging Through History" in the FOSS Science Stories Variables. After reading, students meet in pairs to defend their choices and collaboratively rank the VIPs by importance. When the pairs were in agreement, two pairs joined to form a group of four and decided on the three most important points. Using this process, students refine their ideas about what are main ideas and what are supporting details.

"Read, Cover, Remember, and Retell" is an excellent way to help students understand difficult reading material. Students in Jennifer England's class used this strategy to read the two Thomas Edison selections in the FOSS Science Stories Magnetism and Electricity. After reading each paragraph aloud, students reread, covered the paragraph, and then took turns retelling information to a partner. She found this to be a great way to cover a lot of factual information with a high degree of involvement by all students. Patti Ball's multi-age students (third–fifth grade) tackled the articles about Jane Goodall and Sir Isaac Newton in the FOSS Science Stories Variables using this strategy. After each paragraph, they wrote notes about the information (a written form of "retell").

Special thanks to:

  • Linda Hoyt, Revisit, Reflect, Retell: Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension, Heinemann, 1999.
  • Pam Mathews, Corvallis School District Reading Specialist.
  • Patti Ball, Multi-age teacher (third&endash;fifth grades) at Fairplay School in Corvallis, OR.
  • Jennifer England, fourth-grade teacher at Franklin School in Corvallis.
  • Peggy Thomson, fifth-grade teacher at Adams School in Corvallis.

You can contact Gail Gerdeman for more information at