Building Background Knowledge about Novels Using Newsela for Secondary Students

Enhance student engagement and comprehension of novels by having them read articles in a Newsela Text Set to access key background knowledge
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Novel Background Knowledge Introduction Video

About This Strategy

Before reading a novel, students will read Newsela articles that relate to the theme(s) of or topics in the novel to provide them with necessary background knowledge. Newsela has a vast library of Text Sets for many popular novels that teachers may use or edit for their selected novel, or teachers may choose to create their own. Students will keep track of the information that they learn from the articles, and they will share what they learn with their classmates. Building background knowledge about a topic or theme before reading a novel has a significant positive impact on student engagement and comprehension of the novel.

Before Reading Implementation Steps

Teacher Preparation and Planning:

  1. Find or create a Newsela Text Set for the novel.

    • Option A: Create a Newsela Text Set with several articles that address theme(s) of the novel or provide background knowledge that students will need prior to reading. To learn how to create a Text Set in Newsela, refer to the link in the Resources below.

    • Option B: Search Newsela to find an appropriate Text Set for the novel. Newsela has Text Sets for a variety of novels that teachers may use or edit. Details about how to find a Text Set on Newsela are linked in the Resources below.

  2. When creating a Text Set, teachers may consider the following questions:

    • How many articles will students need to read?

    • If students will not read all of the articles in the Text Set, how will they be exposed to important information from articles that they have not read? Teachers may want to use a Jigsaw Activity, a Gallery Walk, or another sharing strategy in order to be sure that all students have the background knowledge that they need before beginning the novel.

    • How much class time is available for students to read the articles?

    • What activities will students need to complete for each article? Will they need to do Annotations, take the Quiz, and/or complete the Write Prompt?

      • PRO users may ask specific questions for students to answer in the Annotations or may modify the Write Prompt.

      • Non-PRO users may ask students to highlight, for example, main ideas in YELLOW and information that surprised them in GREEN.

    • How will students track what they learn in their reading? Teachers may want to create a KWL chart or other graphic organizer for students to use. A sample graphic organizer is included in the Resources below.

    • Consider whether students will read the articles and track their learning independently or whether they might work with partners or in small groups.

Student Preparation:

  1. Access the assigned Text Set and choose articles to read per the teacher's directions.

  2. Review the graphic organizer/tracking document that will be used to log the information that they learn from the reading.

During Reading Implementation Steps

  1. Students will preview the Text Set to select an article or articles to read.

  2. Students will read articles from the assigned Text Set according to the teacher's expectations. Students will annotate in Newsela as they read. Depending on the article, teachers may have different expectations for the Annotations.

    • There could be general directions that apply to any article - for example, highlight new information that you learn about the topic in GREEN, connections that you make in YELLOW, and parts that you wonder about in BLUE.

    • A teacher could also have directions that are specific to a particular article. For example, if a class will be reading the novel Hoot, the teacher may choose an article about pollution and ask students to highlight any information about the effects of water pollution on the local environment.

    • Newsela PRO users may ask their students questions in the Annotations.

  3. Students will log important information about the topics and themes of the novel on the graphic organizer that the teacher provides. A sample graphic organizer is included in the Resources below.

After Reading Implementation Steps

  1. Students will share what they learn with one another. This could be as simple as having a class discussion, or it could be more formal with a Jigsaw Activity, Expert Groups, a Gallery Walk, or presentations. Ideas about how to do presentations or conduct a Gallery Walk are included  below.

  2. Students will continue to add to the graphic organizer as they read the novel and learn more about the topics/themes. The last column of the sample graphic organizer has space for them to record this additional information.

Recommended Newsela Texts or Text Sets

There are many Text Sets for a variety of novels on the Newsela website under Text Sets for Literature. Teachers may want to use or edit one that has already been created or may choose to create their own.

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

  • Essential Question: How are some schools changing their approach to punishment?
  • Grade Level: 7-9
  • Content Area: ELA, Social Studies

Beloved by Toni Morrison

  • Grade Level: 9-12
  • Content Area: ELA, Social Studies

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

  • Grade Level: 9-12
  • Content Area: ELA, Science, Social Studies, STEM

Gallery Walk to Share Learnings

Consider a Gallery Walk as a way to share the content of all of the articles in the Text Set so that students are able to access important information from the articles that they did not read.


Implementation Steps:

  1. Write the title of each article from the Text Set on a piece of chart paper.

  2. Have students write key takeaways from each article that they read on sticky notes and put them on the appropriate poster.

  3. Students will then rotate among the posters to read what their peers shared about each of the articles. Consider giving the students some guiding questions to help them focus on the important information from the articles. These could be questions that are specific to the articles and the content that you want students to learn, or they could be generic questions like the following:

    • What is the most important information from this article?

    • What questions do you have about this topic?

    • Make a prediction. How do you think the information from this article may relate to the novel we are about to read?

  4. Debrief with the large group about the activity.

Presentations to Share Learnings

Another option to help students learn about the content of all of the articles in the Text Set would be to have students give small group presentations about the different articles.


Implementation Steps:

  1. Assign small groups of students to each article. These students will present what they learn to their classmates.

  2. Consider how students will share their information with the class. There are so many different ways that students could do this. Here are two ideas:

    • Each group could make a poster on chart paper with their ideas. These posters could then remain on the wall of the classroom for students to reference while reading the novel.

    • Students could create presentations in Google Slides. If all students were given access to these Slides, they could refer to them while reading the novel any time they had questions about one of the topics. Students could also add to the slides if they discover important new information about the topics of their articles as they read the novel.

Student Recommended Articles for Text Sets

This strategy would require students to look for articles related to the topics/themes of the novel to create their own Text Sets or to build a class Text Set.


Implementation Steps:

  1. Before assigning a Text Set to the students, facilitate a brief discussion about the topics and themes of the novel. Then ask students to find articles that relate to the topic or theme.

  2. Students, working individually or in groups, could create their own Text Sets, or they could suggest articles for a class Text Set.

EL Modifications

Using Newsela allows students to read articles at their own reading levels without missing out on key content. Reading articles at a "just right" level as well as the modifications below support EL students to build their language acquisition skills.


  • Students may benefit from pre-teaching about key content vocabulary that will be in the articles.

  • Students may read the article with a peer or with a small, teacher-led group. Students may also listen to the article using a tool such as Google Read&Write (see resource section below).

  • Instead of responding in writing to the Newsela Write Prompt, students may have a discussion about their reflections related to the article. If needed, students could also respond orally using a tool such as Flipgrid or Padlet (see resource section below).

  • EL students may require extended time for this activity.

Special Education Modifications

Students with disabilities related to reading comprehension and processing are able to access key content at their own reading levels by using Newsela. Reading articles at a "just right" level as well as the modifications below support students with disabilities in their learning.


  • Students with disabilities that affect their processing and focus may have fewer articles required of them to read. The teacher may consider providing students with sentence stems to help them track their takeaways from the articles.

  • Students with disabilities related to focus and executive function may struggle with knowing where to begin. The teacher may need to check in with these students to help them identify quickly the articles that they will read.

Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Considerations

When choosing novels and articles for students to read, the teacher must consider a variety of perspectives. In the reading that students do in class, they need to see their experiences and values reflected, but they also need to see the experiences and values of others. It is important that teachers provide diverse texts for students to read. Teachers should consider history, perspectives, cultures, gender, and more when choosing texts for the class. To learn more about selecting texts, consider reading the Required Reading Reconsidered strategy in the BetterLesson Lab.