Procedural text looks so easy, doesn't it? Short sentences, nice numbered steps...it seems like it shouldn't pose any comprehension problems.
But as anyone who has ever tried to follow directions written by a state department of education knows, easy looks can be deceiving. And helping students to understand procedural text isn't always easy, either.
What do we know about procedural text? Reading to perform a task often results in more developed comprehension than reading with the goal of answering questions or writing a summary (Geiger and Millis, 2004). This isn't surprising to those who have tried to commit a set of directions to memory--when you know that you'll have to follow directions, you're much more likely to put forth the mental effort to visualize and understand each step. However, think about how this impacts students when they read on standardized tests. They know that they won't be following these directions...and reading procedural text without the goal of making or doing is really dull.
For the classroom, this means that we need to give students opportunities to read and follow directions in procedural texts. Once students have strong representations of what a reader needs to understand to follow directions, then we can slide this understanding over to reading for inauthentic purposes. Here are some things that I keep in mind to help students work with procedural texts.
Write directions for classroom activities
This is an easy classroom management tool. When I explain directions, I write them on the whiteboard or a chart. Then, as I circulate around the room, I ask students which step they are on. (This is effective for dealing with misbehavior too--"Which step are you on? Hm, you don't know? What needs to change right now?")
At first, I always used numbered lists. But now I vary the styles to mirror what kids are likely to see in other contexts. Sometimes I use bullets, and sometimes I even write the directions as a narrative. (First, you will....Then, remember to...) Kids do critique me on my steps, and sometimes suggest that I add or change things. ("You forgot to put in where we have to find our partners") I love it when this happens!
Try out different kinds of procedural texts
One of my favorite winter activities is gathering various directions for making paper snowflakes, and then reading and trying to follow them. It's so interesting to look at how different authors have dealt with explaining a set of difficult directions. Other interesting directions to look at include making ice cream in a zip-top bag, making book covers, and sprouting avocado pits.
Share with students the procedural texts that you use every day
Students like to see behind the curtain of teaching. When I teach new games from directions or try out something new, I show students the procedural texts that I am using and talk through my frustrations. (This was especially fun when I was learning to use my new Promethean board!) Even something as simple as the directions for how to line up for class photos can be a teaching tool. And, when I've shared the directions with the students, I'm more likely to remember them myself.
Don't fall into the "explaining" trap
I once had a principal who said, "I never want to walk into a classroom and see a teacher reading directions to students." His point was simple--the kids can read the directions. We need to give them the chance. When students are reading procedural texts, it's hard for me to keep from stepping in and giving them hints and helps. But they need to be able to do this on their own. When they ask for help, I try to send questions back their way:
-What have you tried already?
-Can you find the specific word that you don't understand?
-Which step is a problem for you?
-What comes before ___?
-What do you think you should do next?
I've realized that I am more likely to become an explainer if I'm worried about materials. If I have enough materials for kids to start over if they mess up, then I can be comfortable with letting them feel their way through the directions.
Learn from mistakes
I could write down all of the times that I have failed at following procedural text...but I don't think there is enough room. We've all made mistakes, whether it's not looking at the list of directions, skipping steps, forgetting ingredients, or misinterpreting a step. I have learned so much from my mistakes with procedural texts! In the classroom, I can sometimes feel frustrated when students haven't followed directions. But I've learned to push back that frustration (not always easy!). Epic and funny mistakes become part of our classroom lore. When a student making ice cream accidentally added the salt to the milk, this became a class cautionary tale, a story that the student enjoyed telling.
Visualize following directions
Once we all have lots of experience with following procedural text to perform a task, it's time to look at some isolated texts. I pair this with the reading strategy of visualizing. Even though we won't be making or doing what is explained in the text, I tell students that they can picture themselves following the directions. This helps to keep them grounded in the text and reading each step. We also try to find the most difficult step, the easiest step, and how to mess things up. (This keeps it fun!)