Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing the writer Junot Diaz give the keynote address at NCTE. His speech was a fierce and impassioned testament to both the power of the written word and of teachers to change student lives, and I left the hall determined to read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which re-invents the American immigrant experience through the eyes of a nerdy Dominican boy who’s landed in New Jersey.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if I simply read the book. As it was, it sat unopened on my shelf for more weeks than I care to admit to because I was nervous about reading it. I’d heard that it was filled with Spanish, and not knowing Spanish, I was afraid I’d be frustrated by my inability to understand. And so the book sat there until I decided not to let fear rule my reading life. I cracked it open and immediately fell in love with the characters and Diaz’s sentences. And as for the Spanish, it wasn’t a problem. I could often get the gist from the context, and when that failed, I simply read on, so engaged and enamored with the voice and the story that those unknown words didn’t matter.

I share this because I think there’s a lesson about vocabulary here. Of course, we want to build our students’ word banks and foster an appreciation of language, especially for those learning English. But if we also want to build resilient readers who feel confident of their ability to tackle a text, we may want to reconsider how much vocabulary we introduce up front, aware that too much pre-teaching may actually undermine our students’ ability to become strong, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning unless we know all the words.

What’s needed, I think, is a balance between helping students acquire vocabulary  and helping them become stronger readers—and a recognition that those two things are not exactly the same. In a recent post, for instance, I looked at the opening of the nonfiction book Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd, which uses the word ‘pool’ on the very first page in a way I suspect many children are unfamiliar with. We could, of course, pre-teach the word so they don’t think starfish live in swimming pools. But if we use a text-based Know/Wonder chart and model its use with the first page, we could question the word instead of pre-teach it—as in “I know that starfish live in pools because the writer says that right here, but I wonder if this means swimming pools since I’ve never seen a starfish in a pool.” This would invite students to look out for clues in both the text and the pictures, with a dictionary consulted afterwards if more clarification was needed. And that hunt for clues would greatly increase the likelihood of them remembering the other meaning of the word.

To help students discover what I did when I finally dove into Oscar Wao, I also recommend that teachers give students the opportunity to see how much they can figure out from the words they do know, without getting hung up on the ones they don’t. Here, for instance, is the beginning of an article, “Can Animals Think” by Eugene Linden, that a 6th grade English Language Learner teacher was preparing to have her class read as part of a unit on animal intelligence:

The teacher worried there were too many words the students didn’t know and that those words would bog them down and impact their comprehension. But rather that pre-teaching them, we decided to see what would happen if we asked the students to work with a partner and highlight all the parts they could understand, which looked something like this:

She then asked the partners to re-read the paragraph with just the highlighted words, and in virtually every case, the students ‘got’ what was being described in a way that allowed them to continue engaging with the larger ideas in the article—and they were even able to posit the meaning of some of the unknown words. Then after they’d finished the article and discussed what they thought the writer had to say about the intelligence of animals, the teacher asked the class to vote on a handful of words they’d like to know, and those words became the focus of their vocabulary work for the week.

Depending on the word, this vocabulary work might include one or more of the strategies and tools Janet Allen offers in her wonderful book Inside Words, such as the Frayer Model, which asks students to think about how a new vocabulary word is similar and different to other words they know, and concept ladders, which invite students to dig into an abstract noun to better understand its causes, effects, uses and nuances. In this way, students have strategies that both help them learn vocabulary in a deep, more lasting way and to navigate texts with unfamiliar words with more resilience and confidence, knowing that that happens to every reader every once in a while.

Of course, there are times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. And so in Part 2 I’ll share how a group of high school teachers I recently worked with made decisions about which words to pre-teach and why as they prepared to incorporate more diverse complex texts into their curriculum. For now, though, I think what’s important to remember is that teaching students words is not the same as teaching them how to read—and that students need strategies and tools for both, along with lots of time to practice.

Applying the Process of Meaning Making to Nonfiction: A Look at Comprehension

In What Readers Really DoDorothy Barnhouse and I break down the work of meaning making into three strands or modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation. We define comprehension as the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line by line and page by page. Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes. And evaluation occurs when a reader critiques a text and/or considers what personal or social value it has for him.

What Readers Really Do explores what these modes look like in fiction, but readers engage in them in nonfiction, too. And in both fiction and nonfiction, readers move between these modes fluidly and often recursively; that is, they don’t wait until they’ve comprehended everything to engage in understanding. Instead they braid their comprehension, understanding and evaluation together as they read to construct meaning.

It is, however, useful to explore each mode of thinking separately to get a feel for the challenges of each. And so this week, I want to explore what’s involved in comprehending nonfiction. Some of my own awareness of the comprehension challenges students face comes from the educator and writer Tony Stead, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. In Reality Checks, for instance, Tony explores how students can answer questions without fully comprehending what they’ve read, demonstrating how this happens through the following text, which I’ll ask you to read then answer some questions:

My hunch is that you answered those questions ‘correctly’ by automatically drawing on your knowledge of syntax—despite the fact that the words were all nonsense. And students frequently do the same, using their syntactical knowledge to provide us with answers they don’t really comprehend.

Students also often impose their own knowledge—or what they think they know—on a text without reading attentively enough to see how that does or doesn’t match up to what the writer is saying. Last year, for example, I worked with a group of fifth grade boys who were researching and writing opinion pieces about the benefits of video games. They’d found a great article that explained how video games helped build their users’ visual skills. But when asked what they thought visual skills meant, they said it was the ability to read the smallest line on an eye exam chart. They’d plucked the fact, correctly recognizing they could use it to support their opinion, without really comprehending it. And having gotten what they wanted, they glossed over the part where the writer explored those skills more.

On top of all that, nonfiction texts often require a lot of inferring, which I noticed as I began to explore the demands that some of the Standards’ Text Exemplars place on students. Here, for example is an excerpt of the grade K-1 exemplar Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd:

Starfish live in the sea. Starfish live deep down in the sea. Starfish live in pools by the sea.

Some starfish are purple. Some starfish are pink.

. .  . Starfish have many arms. The arms are called rays. Starfish have arms, but no legs. Starfish have feet, but no toes. They glide and slide on tiny tube feet. They move as slowly as a snail.

The basket star looks like a starfish, but it is a little different. It doesn’t have tube feet. It moves with its rays. It has rays that go up and rays that go down.

Tiny brittle stars are like the basket star. They hide under rocks in pools by the sea.

The mud star hides in the mud. It is a starfish. It has tiny tube feet.

Setting aside the use of the word ‘pool’ and the puzzling thought of arms having feet, readers must infer that basket stars aren’t actually starfish. Then they must infer that, being like basket stars, brittle stars aren’t starfish either because they don’t have tube feet, which—another inference—is part of what distinguishes a starfish. Only through those inferences would students be able to meet the Reading Information Standard 3, which asks that first graders “Describe the connection between two pieces of information in a text.” And none of the standard comprehension strategies would help them, beyond a generic call to infer.

So the question for teachers is, what are we to do? We don’t, of course, have to use the exemplars; they are there as examples of the kinds of texts we should be exposing students to, not as an actual reading list. Nor do we have to meet Standard RI3 with every text we share. Instead, we could use a book like this to complicate and deepen students’ understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, since many young students think that nonfiction always has ‘real’ photographs and only fiction has illustrations.

But if we want students to truly comprehend texts like this, we need instruction that helps them be more inquiring and aware of what they don’t get. And this is how a text-based Know/Wonder chart can be as useful in fiction as in nonfiction, as it encourages students to acknowledge their confusion and connect details of a text together in order to infer. Thus students might wonder if starfish really lived in swimming pools, if basket and brittle stars were or weren’t starfish, and why their limbs were called arms, not legs. And they’d be reading forward and thinking backward to consider possible answers.

As I wrote in “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut,” the challenge for us, as teachers, is in letting students wrestle with this, trading ideas and going back to the text to look for evidence and clues, instead of intervening in order to clear their confusion up. Letting students wrestle with the text like this engages them in what my math colleagues sometimes call a “productive struggle.” Kay Merseth, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes productive struggle this way:

. . . it’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the fact of not knowing exactly how to proceed.

The worst that might happen if we didn’t step in is continued confusion, which could be remedied by inquiring further and reading another text (as I, myself, actually felt compelled to do just to make sure my inference was right). And the benefits of struggling are huge. Researchers at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore have discovered that students who struggle with problem solving actually retain what they learn far more than those who haven’t. That means that students might comprehend Starfish more than we comprehended “The Dodlings.” And if, in the end, we do ask students questions, their answers will add up to more than the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Taking the Plunge into Nonfiction

It’s true that when I look at the books on my shelves and the stack on my nightstand, fiction outnumbers nonfiction by more than ten to one. That’s because fiction feeds my soul like nothing else I know of. But the following are also true: I rarely go anywhere without a New Yorker (especially when it involves the subway, a.k.a., the Underground New York Public Library); I’m an avid fan of the science program Radiolab; I read all sorts of blogs and online digests (including my new favorite brainpickings); I don’t mind waits in doctors’ offices as long as I can read People magazine; and I’m a bit of a news junkie.

All this qualifies me as a reader of nonfiction, though as I said in my last post, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what I do as a nonfiction reader until this year when nonfiction became the big, hot topic. So I began to explore nonfiction reading by asking myself two critical questions: Why do we read nonfiction? And how do we actually do it?

Taking on the why question allows us to consider what we might call the enduring understandings about nonfiction—that is, the lasting value of reading it throughout life, not just in the classroom, that we want students to get. My hunch is that most students would say we read nonfiction to learn new information or facts. And while that’s certainly part of why I read nonfiction—to find out the Supreme Court’s decision, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act or know what to do with the butterfly bush I fear I killed in my garden—I don’t think that’s the whole story.

Beyond gathering information I think I need to garden, to travel, to work in schools and to generally be an informed citizen, I read nonfiction for many of the same reasons that I read fiction: to engage with the ideas an author is exploring in a way that will enrich, expand and illuminate my sense of how people and the world work. In fiction, the writer explores those ideas through the vehicle of the story, while nonfiction writers do it through the facts they present and what they see as the implications of those facts. And in this way, I read nonfiction for the reasons that author and guest editor Alan Lightman describes in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2000:

I want to see a mind a work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand . . . to feel that I’m going on a journey. The [writer] is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move.

Of course, Lightman is talking about essays here, which are only one form nonfiction takes. Yet when I look at the exemplar texts in Appendix B of the Standards, I see many texts in which facts are not the whole story—where there is, in fact, a mind at work, taking us on a journey, whether it’s Kathleen V. Kudlinski exploring the evolution of thinking about dinosaurs in the grade 2-3 exemplar Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs or Henry Petroski, author of the grade 6-8 exemplar “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” using facts about the development of the paper bag to explore the idea of perfectability in design, which he has an opinion about.

And here’s where the why leads into the how: Whether we’re fully conscious of this or not, I think we read nonfiction with an awareness that it’s not a single entity, requiring a single way of thinking, but, in fact, has as many sub-genres as fiction does, including essays, feature articles, all-about books, editorials, biographies, memoirs, reviews and, of course, textbooks. All of these sub-genres traffic in facts, though I think that, as readers, we’re also aware that facts are used slightly differently in these various sub-genres. All-about books and most textbooks, for instance, mainly use facts to inform—that is, they give us facts for facts’ sake. Feature articles, on the other hand, along with essays and texts like Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs use facts to explore ideas or issues. And editorials, arguments and texts like “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” mainly use facts to explore ideas or issues the writer has an opinion about. And knowing this as readers, we automatically come to nonfiction texts wondering what the author might be exploring through the facts she presents.

Unfortunately, in addition to sometimes teaching nonfiction as a single entity, we also don’t always make clear to our students what we mean by an idea, which the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus says is a near antonym to a fact. Of course, the word ‘idea’ has other meanings beyond the one stated here. But an idea is not the same as a fact. It is bigger than any single fact and usually contains some kind of judgement or observation about the facts, such as “Boy, were we wrong about dinosaurs.” That idea is stated explicitly, but most ideas are not, and they often can’t be accessed through many of the strategies we currently give students for reading nonfiction, such as skimming or scanning a text or looking for key words.

We also, I fear, make matters worse by emphasizing the notion of the ‘main idea.’ Like themes in fiction, many texts explore more than one idea, and reducing the complexity of a writer’s exploration into a tidy statement doesn’t always serve readers well. Also, we don’t always mean an idea when we talk about the main idea. Instead, we use the term either as a synonym for a topic sentence, the aspect of a topic focused on in a paragraph, or a single-sentence summary of the who, what, where, when and why of a text—none of which are necessarily the same as an idea.

I’ll share more thoughts about the how of reading nonfiction in my next post. But for now I think it’s important to remember that as the Common Core asks students to read more complex texts and engage in more critical thinking, it also invites us to think more deeply about what and how we teach. But before we start revising our practice, we need to know what we’re teaching toward—or as Katie Wood Ray puts it in a phrase I wish I’d coined myself: “Before Revision, Vision.” She uses it in Study Driven to stress how important it is for students to have a vision of what they’re aiming for in writing before they jump in and revise. But I think the same holds true for us. Before we revise how we teach nonfiction, let’s develop a deeper, more complex vision of what it really is, so we know more precisely what our instruction needs to aim for in order to better hit the mark.

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: Some Reflections on the Year

Illustration from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Between teacher effectiveness rubrics, performance-based tasks and text complexity bands—not to mention testing scandals and the growing concerns about the privatization of public education—it hasn’t exactly been an easy year. Yet when I give myself some time to look back, what strikes me most is how much I learned. And that learning helped to balance out the challenges of the year.

So what did I learn? For one, I learned that I can sometimes be wrong, which is always good to know. In this case, I was wrong about the nonfiction performance-based tasks the New York City Department of Ed required every teacher in the city to implement as part of their drive to bring schools up to speed on the Common Core. As someone who cut her teeth at the Teachers College Writing Project, I’ve always believed that the best writing comes from a process that gives students time to draft and revise with feedback from both teachers and peers. And so I questioned the ‘on demand’ aspect of the tasks. Also, the sample text-sets and tasks, which came to be known as ‘bundles,’ that the DOE posted online seemed a little too test-like to me, with administration guidelines and actual scripts like those found in standardized test packets.

I also worried that yet again the emphasis was being placed on assessment not instruction, which seems problematic to me. But here’s where I was wrong. While some teachers chose to use the DOE ‘bundles,’ many designed their own tasks as a final assessment of a meaningful content unit that was already on their curriculum. They did this by setting aside one last aspect of the unit topic for students to read and write about on their own, without the same level of scaffolding they’d provided throughout the unit. Second graders, for example, who’d been studying plants and learning to write All About Books, were asked to read two final pieces about carnivorous plants then write an information piece on demand to share what they had learned. And two impassioned first grade teachers extended a unit they’d developed that combined a study of social activists with writing reading responses by having students listen to one last book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace  by Jeanette Winter, about the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, and then write a response. And, as can be seen, the results were stupendous (though I do think they’re a testament to the thoughtful, well-planned instruction that proceeded the task more than the assessment design):

I also learned much about reading nonfiction, which I dove into deeply this year to help the schools I work with make the first two Instructional Shifts required by the Standards. Of course, I’d ‘done’ nonfiction before. I’d taught students how to use text features to both anticipate the information they’d encounter and locate facts they might want to use for the nonfiction pieces they were writing. And I’d brought in feature articles and creative nonfiction books like Atlantic and Bat Loves the Night for students to study as mentor texts to learn about structure and craft.

© 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

But I hadn’t thought much about what readers really do to comprehend and understand nonfiction. And so I tried to do what Dorothy Barnhouse and I did when we explored the reading of fiction in What Readers Really Do: “peer into the recesses of our own reader’s mind, attending to the work we do internally that frequently goes unnoticed or that happens so quickly that it feels automatic.” I also studied some of the Standards’ exemplar texts to see what sorts of demands they put on readers in order to better understand what students might need instructionally to read these kinds of texts. And for better or worse, I discovered that much of what passes as conventional wisdom about teaching nonfiction reading, like the practices listed above, don’t always help students move from plucking facts to deeply understanding what they read.

I’ll be sharing more specifics about reading nonfiction over the next few months, along with more of what I learned as I helped teachers implement a second Author Study unit in the age of the Common Core. But I’ll also be taking some time off to recharge my batteries and reconnect with myself as a reader and writer, which may mean not posting quite so frequently. In addition to finally getting to the stack of books sitting on my nightstand, I also plan on spending time reading new children’s and YA books and on joining write Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak and Fever 1793in her annual “Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge,” which she hosts in August.

I also want to update this blog to include a list of the wonderful blogs I discovered this year. For this is something else I learned: There are so many smart, dedicated thinkers among us, putting themselves out there week after week, raising questions we all need to consider, sharing their invaluable resources and experiences, and making me, for one, feel less alone. They’ve taught me much in this challenging year that I’ll be mulling over as I sit beneath my own tree that grows in Brooklyn and reap the joys of a literate life.

Illustrations from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I': Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.

Information Writing for Dummies

Frequently as I look at the Common Core Standards for writing with teachers, a question keeps cropping up: Is there still a place for genre studies? These teachers and I know that narrative, information and opinion writing are not genres per se. They’re more like modes, which Katie Wood Ray defines in her wonderful book on inquiry-based writing units Study Driven as “the meaning ‘work’ that a writer is doing in a text.” Thus narration is the mode writers uses when they mean to tell a story, while information writing, a.k.a. exposition, is the mode for the work of explaining ideas or conveying information.

Genres, on the other hand, are what a writer makes with writing: a book review, a short story, an editorial, a feature article. These genres often employ more than one mode; a feature article, for instance, might begin by narrating an anecdote about the topic, then shift into exposition and end with some argumentation (another mode) that reveals the writer’s opinion.

The beauty of genres is that they can be studied in a way that gives students a concrete vision of what their work can look and sound like. This kind of study also invites students to be more intentional and artful as they apprentice themselves to master craftsmen and wordsmiths in a way that matches my favorite definition of a writer, which comes by way of Saul Bellow:

A writer is a reader who is moved to emulate.

The Common Core Standards don’t mention genres, though neither do they explicitly prohibit us from studying them. And so I encourage teachers to remember their right to implement the Standards as they best see fit, knowing that the benefits of such study are huge. First, closely studying great texts as writers gives students more options of how to organize and convey information than the deadly structure of the formulaic three- or five-paragraph essay, which at its worst asks students to first tell your reader what your going to tell them, then tell them what you said you were going to tell them, and then end by re-telling them what you just told them.

Studying genres also requires students to understand whatever they’re writing about deeply. And as such, the end products are often better assessments of content understanding than forms that encourage students to pluck and insert undigested facts. The third graders I wrote about last fall, for instance, who emulated G. Brian Karas’s Atlantic to write their “I Am China” books fully owned the information they presented. And eighth grade science students using the same mentor text to creatively write about the rock cycle came up with fresh language—such as, “Some of my minerals dissolve in water the way marshmallows melt in hot chocolate.”—which assured their teacher that they’d learned the content.

Finally (as I prepare to shift from argumentation back to exposition), there’s the fact that engaging in the same decision-making process that real writers engage in makes students better readers. For in considering what point of view or structure will achieve the effects they’re after and deliberating on exactly which details will best suit and support their purposes, students become more aware of the intentionality in an author’s choices. They see that those details and structures carry meaning, which positions them to attend to the meaning of the choices they encounter when they read other writers.

When it comes to information writing, I’ve helped teachers design units of study on feature articles, All About Books, and creative nonfiction like Atlantic. And I’ve invited students to study Dummies books, which they’ve then emulated to convey information about all sorts of topics, from babysitting to ballroom dancing to learning Albanian. Whatever the grade, these units begin by students first exploring some sample Dummies books to discover what they can about their structure and features. And from that, we co-construct a chart of what we learned, like this typed-up one from a fifth grade room that was writing Dummies books about topics of their own choice:

Then we look more carefully at how they’re written by studying two samples, such as these excerpts from Drawing Cartoons and Comics for Dummies and Cake Decorating for Dummiesto consider what might be similar in terms of word choice, voice, syntax,  and tone. (Tip: Looking at two samples allows students to move beyond the specifics of the content to notice similarities or patterns in craft.)

 

Here students are often able to notice that the writer talks to the reader directly, through the frequent use of the word ‘you,’ in a friendly and supportive way, and that he or she uses a range of punctuation—including ellipses, parentheses, dashes and exclamation points—to create a strong, flexible voice. Dummies writers also tend to use multiple examples of lists that follow the Rule of Three—such as three excuses for not decorating a special cake or three reasons why cartoons are important—which helps elaborate and support their ideas and creates a richer texture.

With these noticings in mind, I had the fifth grade students who created the above structure chart help me write the introduction to my topic, which was cooking my favorite food, pasta:

I imagine that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to shift from personal to more content-related topics, with students writing, say, Mummification or Renewable Energy or The Bill of Rights for Dummies. Such texts would surely be more fun to write and more fun to read than a five-paragraph essay while still accomplishing the meaning work of the mode and meeting the information writing Standard. And students would surely retain more of what they learned about both the content and writing because they’d be more engaged and proud of making such a product—especially when it’s graced with a classic yellow Dummies cover, which can either be drawn or made electronically through the Dummies Book Cover Maker online.

And isn’t that what really matters: holding on to learning and feeling the power of language to engage and inform us in so many ways? Let’s not forget that in the rush to meet all the bullet points of the Standards.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.