I first start thinking about developing a lesson on “signals and signal words” (a few years ago) after reading a short Nonfiction text with some 5th grade English Language Learning students. When I wanted to return to some of the new vocabulary that had been presented in the text, I realized that the students had missed all the signals the author included. I supported those students back then, but the incident kept me thinking, “Perhaps we need to be presenting mini-lessons on this idea earlier.”
So when a 3rd grade teacher asked me recently to model a whole class lesson that would support her students reading nonfiction text, I developed this lesson. I thought I’d share it with others in case you have some students who are running into similar difficulties.
I began with a picture of a lighthouse and asked the students to do a quick turn and talk to a partner, “What is in this picture and what is it for?” Of course, they identified the lighthouse and said its purpose was to send out signals or warnings to the sailors so that the ships wouldn’t come close to the rocky coastline. (You’ll see how I carried that metaphor through my lesson below.)
Next I made sure the students knew the difference between Fiction and Nonfiction (NF) and they all did. I asked if they noticed that NF often had bolded words or vocabulary that was printed larger or italicized. Then I continued, “We read NF to learn stuff, right? And the authors who write the NF articles and books WANT us to learn new things. So they try to help us. When they put in new and difficult vocabulary words, they try to help you. They are NOT trying to trick you. They actually send YOU, the reader, signals. Just like the lighthouse is sending a signal to say, ‘Hey, look over here, there is something you should notice so you stay safe’, the NF author is sending you another kind of signal. It’s like the author is saying, ‘Hey, look over here. This is where I am telling you what the hard word means.’”
Because I believe in demonstrating my thinking first, I shared several NF passages with the students. Here are a few I shared using the document camera so that the text was large enough for all to see.
Over 800 species or types of bats feast on pesky insects that damage crops or spread disease.
Because octopuses are invertebrates, meaning they don’t have backbones, they can squeeze themselves into small spaces between the rocks to get out of reach of their predators.
Female elephants spend their lives with mothers, sisters, and children. They form tight-knit herds of 10-20 members. The matriarch - the oldest female elephant – takes charge.
After my three models, I wanted to turn responsibility over to the students. They picked one passage (out of three more examples) to work on with a partner and we shared their thoughts.
You can probably see where this lesson is going. We were creating a class chart in two columns. Signals, such as, dashes, parentheses, commas, etc. and Signal Words, such as, is called, that is, which means, this means, or, etc.
The final activity was for the students to try this skill on a one-page NF article about fennec foxes. They could choose to work alone or with one other partner. The article contained several bolded words. I asked the students to write on the back of the paper, not only the meaning of the word, but the signal or signal word that the author used to help them. I circulated the room to see which students were successfully using the skill and which students might need more practice in a small group setting.
Feel free to thumb through the power point slides below. I recently used these to present this lesson to a group of teachers.