More Thoughts on the Journey: Helping Students—and Ourselves—Understand Nonfiction

Recently I looked at how inviting students to notice patterns across a nonfiction text can help them consider the large and often invisible—i.e., not explicitly stated—ideas a writer is exploring. Raising students’ awareness of patterns and how writers use them to explore and develop ideas can ultimately help students meet many of the Reading Informational Text Standards of the Common Core, especially RI2 and RI5. It also helps students reap the full benefits of reading nonfiction, which is not always just about learning new facts but considering a writer’s unique take or perspective on those facts in a way that can deepen a reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.

To introduce your students to how writers use patterns to develop their ideas—and how readers, in turn, build their ideas about a text by noticing the patterns the writer’s laid down and considering what they might mean—you’d follow the same process that I engaged in to plan the blog post on patterns: I pulled out a handful of books from my shelves and asked myself the following questions as I looked through and read each book:

  • Does this seem like a text in which the writer is using facts to explore one or more ideas—or put another way, is it a text that I’d want students not just to comprehend but also understand?
  • Do I notice patterns in the book—words, images, events, even structural devices that somehow keep repeating?
  • Does asking myself what the writer might be trying to show me through those patterns help me dig deeper into the text?

My hunch is that we don’t always ask ourselves the last two questions—and we might not ask the first one either because of the way we’ve traditionally used nonfiction in the classrooms. We have students read nonfiction, for instance, to learn facts about specific content, whether it’s to know the names of the great explorers or the process of photosynthesis. We have them read nonfiction to learn about text features or different text structures, or to find facts for research projects. But unless we’re looking squarely at bias, we may not think about the writer at all when we’re reading nonfiction, at least not to think about why she’s chosen and arranged whatever facts she’s sharing in a certain way.

I think that all this has to change in light of the Common Core Standards, which, in standard after standard, ask students to think about how the parts of a text are related to the whole. Noticing patterns and thinking about what the writer might be trying to show us through them automatically helps students do that—without the kind of teacher-directed prompting that comes with the text-dependent questions approach. And again and again I’ve discovered that, just as with students, we, too, as teachers start noticing patterns when we look for them, as an instructional coach and teacher in Georgia attests to in her blog post “Confessions of a Plot Junkie.”

But what happens when you don’t notice patterns, which certainly happens to me sometimes when I read nonfiction? As experienced readers, we know that nonfiction writers often use facts to explore ideas they sometimes have an opinion about, and they unfold those ideas in more complicated, subtle and indirect ways than thesis-driven five-paragraph essays. Because of this we enter a text on the look-out for glimmers of ideas and opinions, asking ourselves, consciously or not, what the writer might want us to understand, as we both read forward and think backwards to draft and revise our ideas.

Unless we’re in a text outside our comfort zone, we tend to do this work automatically, barely aware of how we process and arrive at our sense of what the writers is up to. But to make this more visible for students, we can ask them to be trackers, reading the text paragraph by paragraph to sniff out possible ideas, and then reading forward and thinking backwards to consider how those might—or might not—be connected to what came before and comes after.

To show a group of K-12 educators what this approach could look like during a workshop on reading nonfiction, I searched for another text that, like many of the Common Core exemplars, took readers on a journey of thought that couldn’t be fully anticipated or deeply understood by most of the strategies we currently give students. To provide some common ground across grades, we decided to focus on a single topic, food, and for this activity I chose a short piece from The New Yorker called “The Big Heat,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which begins with the grabbing and provocative lead, “Corn sex is complicated,” before taking all sorts of twists and turns whose purpose and logic aren’t immediately apparent.

I asked the participants to read it with a partner (as I invite to to do, too, on your own or with a colleague), stopping at every paragraph to share both what they thought the writer might want them to understand and how that might or might not be connected to whatever had come before. Interestingly enough in the beginning, several found the piece so disjointed they were tempted to deem it ‘bad’ writing. But by the middle of the second page, everyone began to see that there was a method to Kolbert’s seeming madness. And at that point they had to revise their understanding of what the piece was ‘about,’ which they had to do yet again as they reached the final two paragraphs.

The participants left the workshop that day with a deeper understanding of both what, beyond obvious measures like lexiles, makes a text complex and what readers need to do to navigate that complexity in a way that allows them to understand the ideas and the train of thought that holds the facts together. They also came away understanding that food has many implications, beyond health and nutrition. And when, after reading this text together, they explored ones that were at their students’ grade levels (some of which there are links for below), they were far more aware that there were ideas and opinions lurking in them. They saw more because they were looking for more—and they were eager to invite their students to look for more than text features and facts when they got back to their classrooms, as well.

On Teachers & Learners & the First Day of School

Just like their colleagues around the country, New York City teachers will be back in their schools next week, arranging tables, organizing classroom libraries, hanging up charts and meeting with colleagues to share resources and plan in preparation for the million and more students who will arrive on Thursday for the first day of the new school year. What this year will bring, no one fully knows—especially those of us working in states that are “racing to the top.” But contrary to what some unfortunately think, I believe that the vast majority of this country’s teachers are quite capable of meeting whatever challenges lay ahead because they’re thoughtful and resourceful, flexible and resilient, conscientious and persistent—the very qualities a new book on education, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Characterby Paul Tough, equates with success.

Of course, in the age of the Common Core Standards, such a claim cannot stand without textual evidence. And so this week, to support my claim, mark the launch of the school year and celebrate the wisdom of teachers, I’d like to share some of the comments I’ve received from teachers this year. In each case, I’ve put an image that links the comment to the post it’s responding to. And in each case, you’ll see teachers actively thinking: wrestling with ideas, reflecting on their practice, listening to students, questioning and wondering, and perhaps most importantly, learning. For as writer Richard Henry Dann once said, “He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

In the pursuit of learning, these teachers push their thinking about reading, their students and education in general. And in doing so, they’ve kept me thinking and learning. They’ve also often been able to articulate something I’d been struggling to say myself. I’m hoping that they’ll inspire you, too, as you dive into this new year and begin to learn about your students as readers, writers, thinkers and learners.

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison

“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 ‘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.” Steve Peterson

“I wonder how the bigger system of public education would shift if we consistently and constantly provided instruction based on student strengths and what they know vs. on what we perceive they don’t know. How might standardized testing change (or spontaneously combust) if this was our national paradigm?” Jessica Cuthbertson (For her own take on the first day of school, see http://transformed.teachingquality.org/blogs/08-2012/teachers-night-first-day-school)

“One should always consider how much front loading is necessary. I was once doing a ‘picture walk’ with a first grader prior to his reading a book. His urgent request: “Don’t tell me the end!” Another lesson taught by a student! How many times do we ‘spoil’ the reading by over teaching.” Nancy McCoy

© 2011 D.A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

“The purpose of reading a novel is to ask questions, comprehend a story and to engage with the text. I also understand why most ELA’s are concerned about this new way of teaching. It’s NEW! It goes against everything we have been taught about reading instruction. We have taught the vocabulary, the setting of the story, the characters, introduced every concept that we think important for students in the process of dissecting the novel FOR THEM. This is where the new approach turns the tables. We want students to take part in the process and start thinking on their own . . . While changing the way we effectively teach reading, we may actually change the way students perceive reading. We may instill the enjoyment of a gift that could potentially change their lives and have them career and college ready, too.” Deborah Mozingo

“Inductive thinking—what some would call synthesizing, right?—moving from parts to whole. I find this so hard to teach readers except when thinking aloud about a read aloud we are in together, but the moments when it does work seem like magic. You see it in the eyes of the students—teaching reading is about striking the balance between the art and the science—because when you lean too much on the science then the magic disappears.” Ryan Scala

. . . I was feeling that the students and I were not connecting on the latest unit where they were reading independent books (nonfiction). The wide variety of titles and interests was becoming unwieldy for me as well . . . and I was looking for a common thread. So (in desperation) I suddenly asked what was the purpose to coming to English? Worksheets would not have worked in the brainstorming session that followed . . .and I think we are a little more ‘re-calibrated’ as to what we are trying to achieve together. I am finding a new understanding about how purpose is at the heart of every lesson . . . and that practicing ‘what is my purpose’ will make thinking about questions (to quote you) automatic and fluent.” Colette Marie Bennett (For her post on the brainstorming session, see http://usedbooksinclass.com/2012/02/15/so-i-asked-whats-the-purpose-of-english-class/)

“I wonder if we, as teachers, did a better job of presenting education as a journey into the unknown, rather than a means to an end, students would be more willing to come along for the ride.”  Catherine Flynn

These comments and others remind me (Vicki) that teaching, too, is as an art as much as a science and that the first day of school is always an embarkation into the unknown. Here’s my hope that it’s a thrilling ride for all of us, teachers, administrators and students alike, and that by engaging and valuing the journey, even when it’s messy or hard, we’ll manage to reach a deeper and more meaningful end (while meeting the Standards as well).

It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison, used by permission. http://www.facebook.com/JoelRobisonPhotography

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.

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 2)

Last week I shared a story from my own reading life to explore ways of helping students negotiate texts with challenging vocabulary without automatically pre-teaching a long list of words in order to ensure that students don’t become overly dependent on us or think that meaning hinges on knowing every single word. There are, of course, times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. What’s important, though, is finding the right balance between teaching students vocabulary and giving them time to build their reading muscle, which is what a group of high school teachers I worked with recently tried to do as part of a workshop on incorporating more complex texts in the content areas.

To get a feel for the kinds of complex texts the Common Core Standards are asking us to integrate into our curricula, I turned once again to the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B. As I said in a previous post, I don’t think we have any obligation to use those particular texts (and I can’t imagine ever having a whole class of New York City 8th graders read Little Women as the Appendix suggests). But we do need to be aware of how they differ from the texts we typically expose students to in order to make sure that we’re providing students with a rich and diverse reading diet.

When it comes to nonfiction, one thing seems clear: The exemplars tend to present information in far more varied and indirect ways than many a classroom’s standard fare. They mix-up modes, moving back and forth between narrative, exposition, description and persuasion, and they use the kind of literary techniques and devices more often associated with fiction and even poetry. In addition—or perhaps because—of all that, many of the texts defy the strategies we frequently offer students, such as scanning and skimming, identifying keywords, using text features to predict the content and, when it comes to vocabulary, thinking about prefixes, suffixes and roots and looking for context clues. This was certainly true of the text I decided to use for the workshop, “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder'” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was first published in the journal Natural History and subsequently included in both The Best American Science Writing 2004 and the CCS Grade 11-12 list of  Informational Texts for Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects. As you’ll see below, it begins with a song, speaks directly to the reader and is chock full of metaphors, allusions and challenging vocabulary.

After reading and discussing it first as readers to share what we made of it and how, we moved into teacher mode and began to talk about instruction by first thinking about which words we’d want to pre-teach and why. Here’s the beginning, which I invite you to read considering the same question:

Initially teachers came up with a long list of words—phobes, cosmology, “negative gravity”, exponentially, theorist, model, “thought experiment” and tantamount—which they said they’d need to pre-teach because the students wouldn’t already know them. Then I asked them to try to sort the words by considering the following three questions:

1. Which words might not be critical to a first draft understanding?

2. Which words might they want to have students hold on to and wrestle with as part of the meaning making process (paying particular attention to those that we, as readers, had to grapple with ourselves)

3. Which would be truly necessary or serve a larger academic purpose?

With those questions in mind, we whittled the list down to two: cosmology, because of its importance in the disciplineand phobes so that English Language Learners wouldn’t feel adrift right at the start. Exponentially and tantamount weren’t really necessary for a first draft understanding, they decided, though they were good words (or in the lingo of vocabulary instruction, “Tier Two” words) to return to later on, using some of the strategies offered by educators like Isabel Beck, Janet Allen, and Robert Marzano.

Negative gravity”, theorist, model, and “thought experiment,” on the other hand, were all words or phrases that the non-science teachers among us (including me) had to really think about. How, we wondered, did a theorist differ from an experimenter and how did that affect the scientific method? What did a ‘model’ in this context look like? And if “negative gravity” was the “mysterious and universal pressure that pervades all space,” where did it come from? How did it operate? And what did it have to do with Einstein?

These were also all words that seemed to lie at the heart of Tyson’s exploration and view of both Einstein and cosmology in general, and in each case we were able to construct those words’ meaning by connecting them to other details in the text. You could say that we used context clues, as we did with “negative gravity” above, but we did so on a grander scale than we usually teach students to do. That is, we didn’t just look at the sentence before or after the unknown words; instead we kept revising, refining and deepening our understanding of those terms as we continued reading, with some of us—i.e., me—not really ‘getting’ all the physics until much later on.

Thinking about those words across the whole text—and acknowledging our uncertainty about them—allowed us, as readers, to dig deeper into the piece. And we thought that if we let students wrestle with them, too, rather than just handing them over, they’d come away with both a deeper understanding of the content and a stronger sense of agency as readers. Plus they’d pick up some vocabulary words that they were likely to retain because they’d discovered their meaning.

A different group of teachers might have made different choices because, in the end, there’s no right or wrong. It’s all about knowing your texts and your students, considering your purpose and embracing productive struggle—and finding that balance between teaching words and meaning making, knowing the two aren’t  the same.

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.