Teaching ELLs to Navigate Textbooks Effectively

Knowing how to navigate a textbook effectively is an important part of a student's ability to access new content. Conversely, being unable to read and use a textbook is a major obstacle for students when presented with new material and concepts across the curriculum, especially if a class calls for extended independent reading and review of the textbook.

For English language learners (ELLs), learning how to use a textbook can be a powerful tool in increasing their comprehension of material in all of their academic work and particularly in the content areas. While it may seem to be a basic skill, ELLs may be students with:

  • no formal educational experience
  • extensive schooling in a different country
  • long-term experience in the U.S. system for many years but with limited exposure to a mainstream curriculum.

In each of these cases, it is quite possible that the students don't have experience with the kinds of textbooks they will be using in a U.S. classroom, or that they haven't learned how use textbooks as a toold to support their learning.

The good news is that many textbooks — especially those designed for ELLs or struggling readers — contain elements that can be used to help preview new material before starting a lesson. Once students learn what these elements are and how they can be used, students can begin to preview content and build background knowledge independently in their classes on a regular basis.

In order to help you get started building this skill, this article offers some strategies for teaching the parts of a textbook, the organization of a chapter within a textbook, as well as a strategy for previewing content with a "chapter walk."

Part I: Teach students textbook and chapter elements


At the beginning of the school year, introduce students to the elements of their textbooks and how they can be used, such as:

  • Cover
  • Author
  • Table of contents
  • Glossary
  • Index
  • Appendices

Show students examples of these elements in their own books, and ask them questions that check their comprehension of the differences between these tools, such as:

  • "I want to know which chapter is about whales. Where should I look for that information?"
  • "I want to learn about killer whales. How can I find the right page number for that information?"
  • "I want to know what 'spout' means. Where can I find that definition?"

In addition, be sure to point out the specific features of textbooks that your students are using (a bilingual glossary, for example), as well as content-related tools (the Periodic Table of Elements in a chemistry textbook). Provide students with examples of the ways those tools can be used.

Each time students begin using a new textbook, review the elements they have already learned and point out any different features or elements of the new book. You may wish to use an activity to review the different parts they have learned such as the worksheets in the Hotlinks.


Once students have mastered the main parts of a textbook, they are ready to move on to the parts of the chapter that will aid their informational reading, such as:

  • Titles
  • Chapter objectives
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Vocabulary lists
  • Bold print (key vocabulary in context)
  • Captions
  • Side bars
  • Maps
  • Graphs (Circle, pie, bar, picto-gram, etc.)
  • Pictures
  • Bullets
  • Review questions
  • Quizzes

Show students examples of these elements and talk about their function. What is the difference between a graph and a picture? What is the difference between a bullet point and a bold heading? Help students understand how these elements are used to organize text and to highlight important information. One way to do so is by providing a blank outline that students can fill in with key headings and topics.

Review these elements before each chapter, and be sure to point out these elements in other expository texts, assessments, or articles that students encounter.

Part II: Use a "chapter walk"

Now that students know the basics, they can begin to preview content more and more independently as the school year progresses by using a "chapter walk."

Step 1: Have students look for:

  • the objectives of the chapter
  • key vocabulary
  • visual elements (pictures, maps, diagrams, and graphs)
  • headings and subheadings
  • captions.

Step 2: Based on what they find, ask students to predict what the chapter will be about.

Step 3: Guide students to some key concepts and vocabulary words by asking questions about their predictions (see example below).

Step 4: Ask students to share what they know about the chapter topics.

Step 5: As students get more practice with this technique, ask them to use the review questions at the end of the chapter to help them predict what they will learn before they begin to read.

An activity like this may take some time at first because it's time-consuming to teach. If you use it with regularity, however, it will become easier and quicker, and students will be able to do this on their own at the beginning of a new chapter.

As you move through these activities on a regular basis, students will become more confident with their ability to find information independently. Help student understand that this is a skill that they can use in all of their classes and that it will be very helpful to them throughout their academic career, especially as they get to more difficult courses and more difficult textbooks. They will appreciate the tools and skills you are giving them to learn and succeed!

Hot links

Teach-nology.com: Using Parts of a Book (worksheets)

These activities focus on the parts of a book such as the Table of Contents and Index.

Parts of a Book (Riddles)

These riddles from TeacherVision.com offer a good review for ELLs just learning new vocabulary words related to books.

Text Features: Non-Fiction Printed Page vs. Website Format

This chart from ReadWriteThink.org gives students a reference for comparing non-fiction textbook or printed material to website content features.

Expository Text Structures and Signal Words

This document posted by U-46 School District in Elgin, Illinois provides an overview of five expository text structures, associated signal words, and related graphic organizers.

Text-Mapping Project

Step-by-step lesson plan on how to map text with students.

Non-fiction Text: Classroom Resources

This packet includes some activities that can be used with students to help them identify text features and structures.

Video: Chapter Walk with Me!


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