Monday, June 22, 2015

Building Content Area Reading Skills: Nominalizations

This summer, I'm reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons at the recommendation of my 16-year-old. While I would never use this with elementary students, reading this book helps me to think about content area reading and the challenges that our students face as they read in the content areas. As I look toward a switch to sixth grade, I'm looking at more sophisticated content area reading selections, and so I want to be ready! 

Content area reading brings some big challenges for readers. Readers have to learn new vocabulary, figure out the style of the writer, and understand new concepts. One aspect of content area reading that I find especially intriguing for readers is the idea of nominalizations. 

Here is an easy example of a nominalization:
Northern water snakes can be brown, gray, or reddish. These differences in coloration can cause confusion among wildlife viewers.

In this sentence, the word coloration refers to the different colors that are possible for the northern water snake. Nominalizations are great for writers. Writers can change a verb into a noun and flexibly refer to a whole range of concepts. This is why we see nominalizations so often in formal, content area text--they are efficient, they are precise, they carry loads of meaning in a little space.

However, nominalizations can be tough for readers, especially when they refer to an abstract concept. Consider this example:

The word "restoration" is important to the text. However, readers may have trouble making the connection between the previous sentence and the meaning of restoration. Instead, they may think that the paragraph beginning with restoration is introducing a new topic. An entire section of the text will be fuzzy for them, which will cause problems for making inferences later in the text! 

Clearly, teaching content area text means that we need to find and teach these tricky words. Here are some ideas to remember.

For further reading:

Bergen, Benjamin, Shane Lindsay, Teenie Matlock, and Srini Narayanan. 2007. “Spatial and Linguistic Aspects of Visual Imagery in Sentence Comprehension.” Cognitive Science  31: 733-764.

Fang, Zhihui, Mary Shleppegrell, and Beverly Cox. 2006. “Understanding the Language Demands of Schooling: Nouns in the Academic Registers.” Journal of Literacy Research  38:3, 247-273.

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