It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison, used by permission.

Last month I plunged into nonfiction by first exploring what readers really do when they read it and then looking at some of the challenges it poses at the level of comprehension—i.e., what the words literally and inferentially mean line by line and page by page. There are many challenges for readers at this level, especially when we move from books packaged by educational publishers, like Mondo and Rigby, to trade books. At the risk of over-generalizing, the former tends to maximize the accessibility of the content, with text features that support easy fact retrieval and explicitly state the sub-topics. Trade books, on the other hand, frequently operate in less straightforward ways and often require far more inferring to fully comprehend.

They also have more of what I call an authorial presence. That is, we feel the presence of the author more strongly in trade books, whether it’s Mark Kurlansky who begins his fascinating book The Story of Salt with an anecdote from his own life or Seymour Simon who starts his book Volcanoes not with a standard definition or introduction of words like ‘magma,’ but with the ancient Romans and Hawaiians who worshipped gods of fire they associated with volcanoes.

Like many of the nonfiction authors I’ve looked at this summer—Kathleen V. Kudlinski, Henry Petroski, Eugene Linden, and Neil Degrasse Tyson—these writers take us on the kind of journey of thought I described in my first nonfiction post, in which, as writer Alan Lightman puts it, “the facts are important but never enough.” These writers use facts not just to inform us but to explore ideas, and they’ve deliberately chosen and arranged the facts in a particular way to help us, as readers, ‘see’ and consider those ideas.

Doing this, however, requires a kind of mind work that’s different enough from comprehending a sentence to warrant being called something else—which is why Dorothy Barnhouse and I differentiate this kind of thinking from comprehension by calling it understanding. It’s inferring and interpreting across a whole text, not just with a line or a page, which adds another layer of challenge. So what, as teachers, do we need to do to help our students not just comprehend but engage in understanding as well?

We can begin by sharing what Donna Santman calls in her great book for middle school teachers Shades of Meaning a “reading secret”: that there are issues and ideas hiding in the texts students read and one of their main jobs as readers is to think about the ideas the writer might be exploring and how they develop across a text.

For some students, with some texts, this is enough. In Thinking Through Genre, for instance, Heather Lattimer recounts what happened in a 6th grade classroom studying feature articles when, instead of asking students to find the main idea, she asked them to simply jot down the details that stood out for them and, from that, think about what the writer might be wanting them to understand. Rather than groaning, as they did whenever they heard the words ‘main idea,’ they plunged into the text and came up with an array of fresh, insightful thinking.

Many students, however, need more support to engage in the work of understanding. Unfortunately, though, many of the strategies we offer don’t really help. To see what I mean, let’s look more closely at Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt, with its wonderful illustrations by S. D. Schindler:

A typical read aloud or guided reading lesson might begin with asking the students to predict what they think they’ll discover in the book by looking at the front cover. This might lead some students to say that they were going to learn about salt around the world and through the ages because the people on the cover appear to be from different times and places—though many a student might simply say they were going to learn about salt.

We then might do a picture walk, which might confirm that initial prediction about salt throughout the ages, as students spotted mummies, knights and people dressed in togas. But many of the pictures are baffling, such as this one:

We might also do a text-feature walk, zooming in on the section titles and headings as a way of anticipating the information the text contains. As you can see, though, from the title above, this might not get students very far either because many of the titles are as baffling as the pictures. But the bigger problem is that relying on text features encourages students to see sections as discrete entities, not as parts of a whole, and as such text-feature walks can work against the idea of the text as a journey where the whole point is discovering more than you expected as you pay attention to the turns and twists and connect detail to detail.

We also ask students to scan and skim to find the main idea, which could conceivably yield this sentence from the last page of the book: “Salt shaped the history of the world.”

Like the prediction about the book containing information about salt throughout the ages, this statement does seem to circle what we might call the main idea. But it only goes so far. It doesn’t get to the deeper exploration of why or how salt shaped the world, which can only be gotten by going on the journey and reading closely. We can, though, help students do this by using the same strategy that Dorothy and I offer students when they read fiction: noticing patterns and considering what the writer might be trying to show us through them.

Inviting students to think about patterns—whether it’s a word, a detail, an image, an event or a structural device that repeats—could help students, for instance, notice how many times the word ‘power’ appears. And noticing that, they’d be better positioned to ‘see’ how other sections involve power, even when the word isn’t used. Noticing this might also lead them to discover patterns within the power pattern, as there are several stories about salt being used as a means of control and others where salt is an agent of liberation. And that’s just from noticing one word. There are also recurring stories about how our need for salt led to innovations and stories about things—streets, cities, food—named after salt. There’s even a pattern in the book’s structure, with the book beginning and ending in the present, and the past sandwiched in between.

Any of these patterns would act as an in-road to the deeper ideas that infuse the book, which is why it’s not necessary for students to ‘see’ the exact same patterns that we’ve seen. Just the act of noticing patterns gets students thinking—for as the writer Norman Maclean says, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” And that’s what happens on a journey when we set off into the unknown. Our senses are heightened as we take in the sights and go off on detours that surprisingly lead to places full of meaning. All that’s needed is an open mind—and a strategy that supports close reading.

4 thoughts on “It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

  1. Another wonderful post! This really reminds me how informational is deep and filled with ideas and themes, and we teachers do a disservice if we require students to determine “the main point” of a text like The Story of Salt. A reader could “mine” :) that text for evidence of how communities develop, the importance of trade, the unintended consequences of contact…all sorts of themes could be “the main idea” depending on how one decided to read the text. An all-encompassing main idea would likely be so general as to be pretty much meaningless.

    • Yes! You’ve said it better than I have! Those all-encompassing ‘main idea’ statements can never capture all the nuance and diversity of a really good nonfiction text–especially when we give kids those one-size-fits-all strategies like naming the who, what, when, where and why. I think that in the end all those short-cuts we give kids don’t really help them, at least not in terms of understanding or engagement. But it seems exciting to be at a point when everyone’s trying to rethink this. I’m sure the process will be messy, but it also will be rich. And as always I thank you for joining the conversation.

  2. Pingback: On Teachers & Learners & the First Day of School | To Make a Prairie

  3. Pingback: More Thoughts on the Journey: Helping Students—and Ourselves—Understand Nonfiction | To Make a Prairie

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