Three Ways to Help Students Use Text Features

Issue 6Getting students to read from a wide variety of texts is often a challenge in the classroom. Some of the challenges can be time, resources, and ways to help the students access all the different types of texts. Many teachers are using the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation’s student magazine, Iowa Ag Today to offer rich non-fiction text into their learning.

Rich student discussions can occur about the author’s purpose in the nonfiction text of Ag Today. The most common purposes of this type of text are to explain, inform, to teach how to do something, to express an opinion, or to persuade readers to do or believe something. Knowing the differences between nonfiction and fictional text can truly help students understand the meaning better.

Ag Today is aesthetically pleasing to readers as it offers text features to help them understand the text. These text features include and are not limited to print features such as bold print, symbols and icons; graphic aids like maps, charts and timelines; illustrations including photographs, drawings, or cartoons. It is imperative for teachers to explicitly teach students about using these features to help them with their understanding of the information presented.  Here are three ways to do this:

1.  Model through a think aloud. Talk through how you as a reader would tackle the text and how you would use the text features to help understand the text. Look at each page and ask students how an illustration helps them in their reading, or look at a map and ask why the map was added to the text. Students need to have conversations on the importance of text features in their reading to help them use them to better understand their reading. Teachers can also use this time to have students make predictions about what the text may be about after looking at text features.

2. Create a quick reference for to students to access when using text features. Here is an example list students can insert into their working notebooks or turn into posters for the classroom wall:

  • Maps: Help a reader visualize where places are in the state, nation, or world.
  • Captions: Can help understand a picture or photograph.
  • Illustrations or photographs: Help to visualize the text and make it real. They may also help determine what is important within the text.
  • Special print: Look for bold, italics, or underlined words to determine key vocabulary.
  • Graphs: Can help understand important data within the text and assist in interpreting.
Issue 6 centerfold

In this example from Issue 6, text features are used to draw attention, provide additional information, and help students visualize and understand what they read.

3.  Using Ag Today in the classroom not only helps with reading of nonfiction texts, but it also offers opportunities for students to write. Teachers can preview the text with students and then have them write questions they may have about the text features they see. In addition, there are many think and discuss prompts within the text for students to talk with another student and to write their thoughts as well. This truly helps students realize the importance of discussing, reflecting, and writing about what they are reading.

Students reading Ag Today - Issue 2In conclusion, it is imperative for students to have access to multiple types of texts in the classroom. Ag Today is an excellent example to use for not only various content areas but also learning how to use text features for understanding. I would encourage teachers to start with a few strategies such as the ones shared here and slowly add more as you see students becoming more familiar with using text features. Happy reading in your classroom!

-Jody Still Herbold, Education Consultant, Northwest AEA

Yogurt Grows on Trees?

Have you ever asked a young child where they think their food comes from? You might be capture-2-e1487971277155.jpgsurprised at the answers. One article said a young 4 year-old didn’t understand what the long orange vegetable was with big green leaves coming out of the top. The father responded that it was a carrot. The youngster thought carrots came in plastic bags.

Many children believe that food comes from the grocery store and if they run out, all they need to do is get more at the store. Many children don’t understand that all of the plants that we eat have to be grown and all of the animal protein has to be raised. Most American families don’t raise their own food, so we rely on farmers to produce crops and livestock.

With modern technology and the internet, students today have many resources at their fingertips, and yet haven’t been given the opportunity to understand some of the most basic things about food, fiber and fuel and where they come from. Very few children have thaccess to fresh fruits and vegetables that have come from a garden. Even fewer children have been able to visit a farm and see the crops growing in the fields or the animals grazing in the pasture. How about the young people in your life? Do they know where food comes from?

Children from other countries are battling this same issue. An article in the Telegraph stated that young adults in the UK don’t know that milk comes from a dairy cow or that eggs come from chickens. The same article also stated that one third of the students surveyed did not know that bacon came from a pig. In Australia, students thought fish fingers came from chicken or pigs and that yogurt grew on trees.

In our rush of the day to day obligations and priorities, have we lost a little understanding of why agriculture literacy is important to our economy? Agriculture is essential to our survival, but what can we do to help educate the next generation? Have you heard the saying “It only takes a spark to get a fire going?” As a mother of three and a grandmother of two, I intend to be certain the young people in my family have the opportunity to understand and experience agriculture up close and personal.

I read books to my grandkids that will help open their minds to where their food comescapture from. I really like “Where Does Our Food Come From”, by Bobbie Kalman. I also love to take them to the local farmer’s market and let them see, taste, and experience fresh fruits and vegetables and the people that grew them. As they reach grade school, I look forward to them experiencing lessons that integrate agriculture into science, social studies, and language arts curricula. Every year we experience the activities at the Iowa State Fair, like the Little Kids on the Farm and all of the educational things happening at the Animal Learning Center.

I encourage you to look for opportunities to share agriculture with your family and friends. Our need is real and there are limitless resources. Your local Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator has information, literature, books, lessons and may even be able to connect you with a local farmer who would be thrilled to share his experiences and expertise with you. Many Iowa communities have agriculture festivals and agriculture days’ year round. Every August the Iowa State Fair celebrates 11 days of awesome agriculture festivities. Let’s all be a spark for agriculture in our communities.


Learning about the world around us beyond the classroom

It comes as no surprise that the dynamics of the typical American family have changed and will continue to do so. The family unit is increasingly diverse and constantly evolving. According to the Iowa Afterschool Alliance, 1 in 4 families has a child enrolled in some type of after school program.

Pig Farmer.jpgI would encourage those of us who are passionate about sharing information about agriculture to extend our thinking beyond the traditional classroom. There are a host of resources and activities that are great for specific lessons, but have we thought about using these resources outside of the common teacher/student role? After school programs, library reading programs, child care centers, YMCA youth programs, and home school self-studies are all under-utilized areas for making connections to agriculture.

The after school programs, summer programs, or structured learning within a childcare center provide an ideal time and place to get students excited about learning and pursuing their own interests. Self-confidence expands as they explore new talents in areas that may not be addressed by the regular school curriculum.

Newton library 2.jpgKnowing that many libraries and summer care facilities struggle to find interactive and fun programs to fill their time, I brainstormed a way to share information about agriculture in this setting. The 2015 summer reading theme, “Every Hero has a Story”, provided inspiration for this project. I took the idea of the superhero and applied it to agriculture. “Farmers are Superheroes Too” was born. Many kids can easily relate to superheroes and cartoons. What super powers might the farmer have? The thought of a farmer duplicating animals, having equipment that can drive itself and possessing super strength is exciting and intriguing for the targeted age group within these programs.

Chicks Library-2.jpgFrom photos of animals and crops to people and equipment, each became a cartoon using free online software. Matching up the photos with the superpowers led to the creation of a short story, “Farmers are Superheroes Too”.

Our local libraries, YMCA summer programs and care centers were happy to provide me with time to share this resource. We read the book with ages PreK to 4th graders. An exciting supplement to the book was the chance to use the FarmChat program and Skype with a farmer who demonstrated how his tractor could drive itself. This added experience helped make the farmer superhero come to life while demonstrating technology in agriculture. Other activities that have accompanied the book include planting vegetable seeds for children to take home and bringing baby chicks into childcare centers.

feeding calf at julies.jpgSharing information about agriculture helps put the world around us into perspective. There is no better tool than agriculture for the application of learning. Make sure the activities you offer are fun and engaging, no matter what they are designed to teach. Most kids are tired after a long day at school, and they will be best able to absorb the content of a lesson if it looks more like play and less like a traditional classroom lesson.

Be inspired to share agriculture in new ways! If you would like a free copy of the book, “Farmers are Superheroes Too” please feel free to contact me at

-Trish Hafkey is the Ag in the Classroom coordinator for Jasper Co. Farm Bureau

Generate Excitement with Reading

School is starting across the state of Iowa and what a perfect time to get back into the routines of enjoying family reading times together. Reading is a fundamental part of life – truly something we need and will always use and enjoy. We want to help strengthen agriculture literacy in fun and exciting ways like reading. There are many opportunities to unlock the potential and nurture the importance of reading.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children who are read to at home maintain an advantage over children who are not read to. Children are more likely to also have a higher reading proficiency and stronger reading skills. That can lead to success in other subjects in school and throughout life. We all know children in our circle of life that we can influence in positive ways. We help them to develop reading and language skills just by taking time to read to them and their imagination develops as well.

As parents or role models we play a very important role in the lives of the children around us. We can help them, as well as show them the enjoyment than comes from taking time to read. A few simple changes in our day to day routines can make reading a bigger part of our lives:

  1. Turn off the television
  2. Put aside the computer games and telephones
  3. Teach by your example
  4. Read together
  5. Hit the library as a family

We can unlock potential and get readers excited to read about agriculture. Agriculture teaches by using real life examples and encourages readers to value their local communities and farmers as well as teaches them about where their food, fiber and fuel comes from. Here are a few great reads for the young readers you know

cowsCows by Jules Older is a lighthearted, yet informative look at cows, different breeds, what they eat, how they make milk and lots of other facts on cows. Children will enjoy the humor and fantastic pictures while the learn factual informaindextion.

Food and Farming, Then and Now by Bobbie Kalman is a wonderful book to help children see how farming, selling, preservation and preparation of food has changed over the years. Today most of our food is bought from a grocery store, but many years ago things were grown on the family farm and harvested for family use. This book helps kids see how much things have changed in food production. They learn where our food comes from and about the people that grow i51pQdBKPjnL._SX410_BO1,204,203,200_t.

Before We Eat from Farm to Table by award winning author Pat Brisson helps to show that before we eat, many people work very hard. They plant grain, catch fish, tend to animals and stock shelves to help feed our growing population. Milk doesn’t just appear in the refrigerator nor do apples grow in the bowl on the counter.

Fantastic Farm Machines by Cris Peterson gives superb examples of the monster machinery that work the fields 61jLvr7BNoL._SX431_BO1,204,203,200_across our beautiful country. Vivid color photos provide examples of different machines that do the planting, harvesting, and so much more. The author takes the reader on a journey from one farm to another to show many examples of machines from past and present. It is a great read for those who love tractors and big machines.

We invite you to get excited about reading and making a difference in the lives of the young people around you. Take time to read and read to those you’ve been given the opportunity to influence!


7 Ideas to “Beef” Up Reading and Writing Skills

Beef Book Cover  Have you seen our latest project, My Family’s Beef Farm?    It’s a non-fiction book by children’s author, Katie Olthoff that tells the story of raising cattle on a modern beef farm.

The story follows Cecelia, a 10-year-old farm girl in Iowa. She lives with her family on a beef cattle farm. Cecelia takes the readers on a tour of the family farm and discusses how farmers care for livestock and raise safe, nutritious beef.

My Family’s Beef Farm was mailed to every 3rd grade classroom in the state, and available to other teachers on request.   It has been fun to hear how teachers are using the book in classrooms.  While the content of the book ties to science standards, the book is a great tool to use for language arts lessons too.

Below are just a few ideas to “beef” up students’ reading and writing skills using My Family’s Beef Farm.

  1. Build-a-Sentence. Turn demonstrating understanding into a fun group activity by creating word cards for students to put together to create sentences, similar to Magnetic Poetry. Either create pre-printed words on strips, or have students write 100 words from the book on small strips of paper.  Then ask students to use the words to answer questions such as:  What is the main idea of the story?  Describe the main character.  What do farmers do to take care of animals?  Students can also use their word cards to create their own story!   Add another level of engagement and a STEM connection by attaching the words to blocks, so students can literally “build” sentences.
  1. PastureTIP Method (Term, Information, Picture). Ask students to select a word from the book that is new to them.  Then have them write the word (term), write the definition or information they know about the word, and draw a picture that represents the word.  If they are stumped, encourage them to refer back to the book and use context clues in the text and pictures to determine the definition.  As a class, share and discuss the definitions and drawings.  This method of understanding new vocabulary appeals to both visual and auditory learners.
  2.  Echo Reading. Read a paragraph of the text aloud, following the words with a pointer for students to see. After the text is read aloud, the students imitate, or echo  you while reading from their individual copies or the digital version projected on a screen.   Echo reading allows children to practice proper phrasing and expression and develop sight word
  3. Partner ReadingSee-Saw Reading. In pairs, ask students to read the book aloud to each other alternating who reads each paragraph or page. This strategy helps build confidence and reading fluency.
  4.  Say Something. Play relaxing music as students read the book quietly to themselves. When the music stops, ask the students to make a comment to a partner about what they just read.  Repeat every few minutes until all students are done reading their book.   Check out this teacher’s Say Something conversation starters.
  5. Beef BooksConnecting Text to Text. Select another non-fiction book about livestock farming, such as Amazing Grazing by Cris Peterson. After reading the second book, list and discuss connections between the two texts.  Did one book provide background information that helped them better understand the other book?  Connections enable readers to use what they already know to develop meaning about something that is new.
  6. Click Clack mooPoint-of-View letter. After reading My Family’s Beef Farm and Click Clack Moo Cows that Type, ask students to write letters from a cow on Cecilia’s farm to her family.  Ask the students to focus the letter on a particular opinion (of the cow) and provide evidence to support that opinion.  This assignment will be extra fun if you can get your hands on old type-writers!


Do you have other ideas for using My Family’s Beef Farm with students?   We’d love to hear them!


Iowa elementary teachers can request classroom sets of My Family’s Beef Farm by emailing or access the digital version and supplemental lessons hereAmazing Grazing, Click Clack Moo, and other great books are available for teachers to borrow from the IALF Lending Library.

My Family’s Beef Farm is a special project of the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation with financial support from the Iowa Beef Industry Council.

Groundhogs, Vegetables and More

Earlier this month the venerable weather forecaster Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow and made the bleak prediction that there would be six more weeks of winter. The weather in Iowa seems to agree with him as the temperature rarely rises above 32 degrees F. But, spring will come! And that means planting! That means crops. That means flowers. That means vegetables and gardens and so much more! Teaching others about the magic of growing things is fun and easy. Here are our top 8 recommendations for starting spring on an educational high note:

  1. five_me_fiveGive Me Five! This fun and engaging lesson is perfect for an upper elementary classroom. Introduce students to the importance of eating healthy and including the five main food groups. You can do extension activities and talk about all of the different types of fruits and vegetables that can fit into a healthy diet. You can also have students plant different types of vegetable seeds and grow their own salad!
  2. Why are vegetables sold by the pound in a grocery store? Find out in teaching the upper elementary lesson By the Pound to students. This interactive lesson reinforces math skills like measuring, estimation, weight and volume, addition and subtraction. How else do we measure the food we eat?
  3. Vegetable-growing-cheat-sheetPlan your garden. The soil is still too cold to put seeds in, but use this time to make a plan. Figure out what seeds you want to buy. Decide when each seed should be planted. You can even draw a map of your future garden so that you’ll be able to maximize the space you have available whether that is a pot on the porch or a half acre in the back yard. Click here to follow some step-by-step planning.
  4. Read Eating the Alphabet by Lois Erlet with your lower elementary students. Even some adults might be hard pressed to name a fruit or vegetable for every letter of the alphabet. For families this can also be a great game to play on a road trip. Go around in a circle and every person in the car name a fruit or vegetable that starts with the next letter in the alphabet. How many times can you make it A to Z? Get stuck? Check this website out for a quick hint.
  5. GardeninGlove1-225x300Garden in a Glove. Just because you can’t grow things outdoors yet doesn’t mean you can’t continue the learning indoors. This is a great visual way of comparing seeds, comparing growth, and learning about everything from the first root to the first leaves. Follow the step-by-step found here.
  6. When Vegetables Go Bad. This work of fiction written by Don Gillmor is a great tool to introduce nutrition to younger audiences (and get them to eat their vegetables). So, the lesson is: eat your veggies and the nightmares will stop 🙂
  7. Who Grew My Soup Song. We all know that students learn in a variety of ways. Connect agriculture to music with this memorable sing along based on the popular book. Read the book first and then teach the song. Talk about fun!
  8. Re-grow food from kitchen scraps. Involving kids in the kitchen can be a great way of helping them learn about nutritious eating. Invite them to help you cook a meal. Then, take it one step farther and plant some scraps to start growing your own food. When I was in third grade I did this with a pineapple we bought. Many years later that pineapple was still a great addition to our house plants. It even inspired a vacation to Costa Rica and a pineapple plantation. So, what can you grow? And where will it take you? Check out the how-to here.

cover4 We hope that these few tips will get you excited and motivated to get planting! Leave a comment below with your spring inspired lesson. Or tell us how any of these lessons worked for you!


Language Arts and Agriculture: Strategies that work!


Why in the world would you use agriculture to teach Language arts? The answer is easy. Agriculture is interesting and relevant to students. They encounter it at least three times a day. Who doesn’t enjoy talking about food? Once students begin to discover that everything they eat, wear, and use comes from a plant or animal grown on a farm, they are curious to learn more and look at the food and products around them with curiosity and wonder.

There are many great books and other publications that introduce elementary students to the world of agriculture. They explore topics such the job of a farmer, where our food comes from, and how plants and animals grown on farms make their way to our table in the form of cornflakes, spaghetti, or ice cream. I frequently see these books in classrooms and school libraries, but I often wonder if they are being used to their potential by teachers and students. Why only use these great books for a plant or animal unit? I say take them off the shelf and use them in a language arts lessons! Doing so gives them a purpose beyond teaching students about plants, animals, and agriculture. Below are a few of my favorite strategies to strengthen language arts skills. I can’t take credit for developing these myself. I borrowed them from a few brilliant teachers.

Making tracksMaking Tracks – Also called annotation or reading with a pencil, this strategy encourages students to write as they read. They attack the page with their pencil by underlining, circling, and writing questions and thoughts in the margins or on sticky notes. Making tracks as they read encourages critical thinking and helps comprehension of difficult text. It is helpful to create an annotation key with your students which includes symbols to mark parts of text that are interesting, confusing, spark a question, etc.. Our new student magazine, Iowa Ag Today is perfect for upper elementary students to make tracks on!

Vocabulary Charades – Ask students to write new vocabulary on index cards when reading a non-fiction article or book. Divide the class into two teams and have players take turns coming to the front of the room, selecting a card at random, and acting out or role-playing the definition of the selected word. You will be amazed with the words they are able to translate (and remember) through gestures and actions. Forget flashcards.  Playing charades makes learning new vocabulary fun!

t-chartFacts vs. Fiction – There are many farm-themed storybooks that combine fact and fiction. After reading a book like Otis, Hogwash, or Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type ask students to create a T-Chart to separate real aspects of the story from those that are make-believe. You can ask them to chart the entire book or focus on a particular animal or page of the book.

Stop and Jot – As you read a book to the class pause frequently and ask students to jot down something they visualized, wondered about, or found interesting during the reading. After the book is finished students can talk about their jots as a whole class or in small groups.

General Understandings – After reading a book, ask students to retell the story to a partner using words like first, next, and finally. From Corn to Cereal and Tops and Bottoms are perfect books to pair with this strategy.

My family's Farm

Text Dependent Questions – Instead of asking students questions about facts they learned while reading a book, ask questions that require critical thinking and reinforce language arts concepts. Below are a few examples of text dependent questions based on the book My Family’s Farm. Check out the digital version from the Iowa Turkey Federation or order your free copy here.

  • Key details– How does Adam help his dad on the turkey farm?
  • Vocabulary and text structure – How did the author help us to understand what wattle means?
  • Author’s purpose –  Who tells the story? How do you know?
  • Inferences– Do you think Adam’s dad, Bart works hard on the turkey farm? Why do you think this?
  • Opinions, arguments, intertextual connections– In your opinion, is raising turkeys an important job?
  • Sketch to stretch – After reading a book to young students ask them to draw what they learned from the book and then talk about their drawings.

I hope these strategies will help you to find a new use for agriculture books while adding something new to language arts lessons! Please add to our list by sharing one of your favorite language arts activities in a comment below.

– Cindy