This spring I found myself in many classrooms—from third grade right up to twelfth—working on content area nonfiction. In each school, teachers were worried that students weren’t comprehending what they were reading, even when the information was stated explicitly. And without understanding the basic facts, it was nearly impossible for them to engage with whatever less explicit ideas the writer might be exploring or with any of the essential questions the teachers had framed their units around.
Initially many teachers saw this as a problem of the students’ background knowledge—i.e., students couldn’t comprehend what the writer was saying because they didn’t have enough prior knowledge for the information to make sense. Or they saw it as a vocabulary issue, especially in those cases where the students were either English Language Learners or were working with texts that matched someone’s insane notion of text complexity (such as the third-grade-is-the-new-seventh-grade example I shared in a recent post).
I don’t want to minimize the need to help students build larger and more sophisticated word banks or to have more background knowledge. But I’m also reminded of what I wrote in a post last summer: that too much emphasis on vocabulary or gaps in background knowledge may actually undermine students’ ability to become stronger, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning if we don’t know all the words and references. Plus obsessing about what students lack sometimes blinds us to what they can do, and so before I started making suggestions, I asked the teachers I was working with what kind of instruction they’d offered students and how they had done with that—which opened up another can of worms.
In almost every case, the teachers had offered students strategies for summarizing or finding the main idea, which often involved looking for topic sentences or repeated key words, as many a classroom chart advises. Some also taught students how to use text features to predict what information they’d find, which we could also call a strategy. These strategies, however, were in fact shortcuts; they offered students ways of synthesizing a text without actually reading it carefully and thoughtfully. And as the teachers shared anecdotes and student work, what seemed clear was that too often those strategies simply wound up backfiring.
In the case of using text features, for instance, students frequently became wedded to predictions they’d made based on pictures and headings, and with those in mind, they ignored any parts that didn’t match their predictions. Main idea and summarizing strategies, on the other hand, often sent students on scavengers hunts—or what SmartBrief blogger Fred Ende calls “Seek & Find” missions in a great post on readers versus scavengers—with students searching for key words or topic sentences without really thinking about how those words or sentences were connected.
Recognizing that the very strategies they’d offered might actually be interfering with real understanding, many of the teachers agreed to change tacts and focus on questioning instead—not the kind that would send students back to the text on more scavenging expeditions, but questions that would invite them to wrestle with the concepts and information an author presents. We also wanted them to become more aware of what I started calling ‘the holes in the cheese’—that is, the places where a nonfiction author doesn’t spell everything out, but rather relies on us, as readers, to connect the dots of facts together to figure something out. And to do this, we needed to study the texts we were giving to students, like this one from a fourth grade science textbook that I looked at with an ESL teacher named Cybi, to better understand how the author presented concepts and where the holes in the cheese were.
In terms of concepts, we saw that the author explicitly described what a mineral was in the second paragraph. But by focusing on repeated or highlighted words, as Cybi had taught them to do, she wasn’t sure if her students would fully grasp the relationship or connection between minerals and rocks—i.e., that minerals were in rocks—which was exactly what happened when I modeled the shared reading later that day. Using the text features to predict the chapter’s content, the students concluded that minerals must be kinds of rocks. Acknowledging that they didn’t know that for sure, they agreed to let me reframe that as a question, which I asked them to hold in their heads as we read. But even with that, they glossed over the word ‘in’ until the very end when, with the question still unanswered, they went back and reread the beginning. At that point hands shot up around the room, and after they shared what they’d discovered, I noticed and named for them how paying attention to small words like ‘in’ had really helped them understand the connection and relationship between the more prominent words. And understanding how those words and facts were connected was really, really important.
We also wanted them to understand the concept of properties and how they helped scientists classify and differentiate minerals. Drawing on her knowledge of her students once again, Cybi thought they might be able to understand that based on the examples on this page and the next. But we both thought we detected a hole in the cheese in this page’s last two sentences where a reader would need to connect the information about hardness and scratching and apply the concept of properties to infer that calcite is harder than gypsum. And so we decided that this would be a good place to stop and ask a question, which I framed during the shared reading this way:
I want to pause here for a moment because I think there’s something the author’s not telling us that we might need to figure out. We know that hardness is a property and that properties help scientists tell minerals apart. We also know that scratching is a way of testing hardness and that gypsum is easier to scratch than calcite. But the author doesn’t come right out and say which mineral is harder, gypsum or calcite. I think he’s left that for us to figure out. So turn and talk. What do you think? Based on what the author has told us, which mineral do you think is harder and why?
This kind of question asked students to synthesize and apply information, not to simply retrieve it. And it asked them to actually think in a way that allowed them to construct understanding, not just consume and regurgitate information, as scavenger hunts often do. Ultimately, though, we wanted the students to be in charge of the questioning, and to that end we combined teacher-created questions, like the one above, that put students in problem-solving mode, with open invitations for the students to share whatever they found confusing or curious. And after I shared my holes-in-the-cheese metaphor, we began asking students if they thought there were things the writer hadn’t fully explained—i.e., holes in the cheese—then gave them time to figure those things out based on what the writer did say.
And as for those shortcuts: In the end, they weren’t so short after all, as they often took students away from real reading and real understanding, helping them, perhaps, to practice a skill but not really engage in deep thinking.
I appreciate your emphasis on careful reading, discussion and questioning which allows students to take time to infer and synthesize information. I am always concerned with activities that ask students to “hunt” as you say for specific information which leaves them with a page full of facts – not always correct, and certainly not really understood. The most effective learning experiences that I am part of with my students is when we make time for discussion, sharing our thinking and when questions lead us to more questions and making meaning together as we understand text. Yes, this is time consuming, but giving the process time gives value to the fact that it is important to slow down and really read and engage with the text. I really appreciated this post. Thank you.
And having just stopped by your blog, Carrie, I’ve come away with a whole new score of great titles to add my nonfiction summer reading list!
As for the time issue, it’s so easy for teachers to feel like there’s too much to cover, too much to do and too many Standards to meet for this kind of reading. But not only do the Standard’s ELA Shifts ask teachers to be patient and “create more time and space in the curriculum for this close and careful reading,” we simply can’t teach everything, and I believe our time is better spent in teaching kids how to really think and learn so that they can better independently access content rather than us trying to cram more content in.
And, you’re right, the best is when questions lead to more questions, as happened with the fourth graders, who started wondering if there could be rocks without any minerals at all, which I thought was a fabulous question.
I love the image of the holes in the cheese. I think it is one that teachers and kids alike can think about. So much of reading, as you keep reminding us, has to do with that subtle monitoring that is going on in the reader’s head about what is making sense, what is not, what is the author asking us to think about? If the writer did fully explain everything, reading would be so boring!
Thanks, Suzanne. Someone recommended that I read Questioning the Author by Isabel Beck & Margaret McKeown last year because they thought it echoed some of my thinking. They, too, talk about what a writer doesn’t say but they pin it on the writer’s fallibility–which, perhaps, being a writer, I was uncomfortable with. (Also I wondered why we would give kids texts that weren’t well written; what’s the point in that?) I prefer to think of it as the writer trusting us to figure things out because stating everything explicitly would not only be boring; it also seems a little condescending as I think that readers should be writers partners in meaning making.
Another reason could be that a lot of writers seem to operate out of a constructivist theory?? They know (at whatever conscious or unconscious level) that writing is more alive, and communication is deeper and richer when the reader is actively engaged in creating the text, too. Having the reader deeply involved in understanding, perhaps even living!, the text is less boring, less condescending, but also perhaps more effective because thought (analytical and/or imaginative) is so necessary for engagement?
Yes! This definitely seems true about narrative writers–and reminds me of John Gardner’s injunction to new writers to create a “vivid and continuous dream” for readers to inhabit, with dreams being, of course, open to interpretation. And I think any nonfiction text that traffics in ideas and/or uses any kind of literary techniques does that, too, because thought and engagement are also necessary for retention. Even that textbook page, for instance, began with an invitation to think about your own experience with pebbles as a way of sparking curiosity, which I think is a critical ingredient for engagement. And curiosity seems deeply connected to your and Peter Johnston’s ideas about learning communities as well.
Thank you for explaining how you approached this with teachers. I often wonder what or how they are teaching strategies but some teachers become defensive very quickly when asked any questions.
As I looked at the text, I thought of another “hole” in the mapping diagram that appeared to assume that the main idea would be first and then the details would follow after (if the reader is following the logic of the map.)
Encouraging teachers to slow down and follow the lead of the students is a challenge in these #CCSS days, but it is so important to understand what the student is thinking (and what the teacher is prompting) in order to remedy the resulting “off-road experiences.”
Thank you for your thoughtful illumination of “understanding” student reading and thinking!
You’re absolutely right about the diagram. It reinforces that top-down deductive thinking that doesn’t work for so many students who don’t really see how to construct an idea bottom-up from the details or the facts in the first place. The textbook also more or less tells you the main idea in the prompt, then sends kids off a seek and find mission to find supporting details, which again places more importance on finding evidence than developing an idea.
As for teachers’ defensiveness, in their defense I think they often stick to those traditional strategies because of the culture of testing and the emphasis on skills over understanding, which too many interpretations of the CCSS have embraced as well. But it’s incredibly exciting to see the thinking that’s been sparked by the WWRD book group. It’s teacher-owned PD at its very best! And it will be a privilege to join you all on Sunday!
As always, Vicki, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Your example underscores the fact that we always have to be reflective about our practice. If our practices aren’t working, then we have to modify them. Thank you for this insightful post!
Thanks, Catherine! I think we, as well as students, need to be problem-solvers, constantly assessing not just our students but what our practice. I think the catch is that we need to have a deeper vision of what we’re teaching towards, and the continued climate of standardized testing doesn’t help us develop that. But as always I find myself inspired by the wealth of great–and deep–thinking and writing of educators online.
Wonderful to see your thinking with nonfiction text. Wondering about those questions to get students to synthesize and problem solve. So important and difficult to avoid leading questions.
I have been studying What Readers Really Do with my #wrrdchat friends.
Growing so many ideas. It is a big shift in thinking. WRRD so appreciated. Looking forward to your next book.
I spent a fair amount of time this year wrestling with nonfiction and how reading it was both similar and different than fiction. What seems completely similar is the importance of thinking about how the parts are connected, which so many common practices don’t get at at all, and of drafting and revising our understanding in order to be more aware of what we don’t yet get. But I did find myself initially throwing out more questions in the kind of expository nonfiction I shared in this post to give kids more opportunities to apply the concepts and think about the implications of the facts they were reading than the textbook actually provided. (Most were variations of the “if we know this and this, then what about this?” question I asked in the post.) Within a short period, though, the kids got better at asking those questions–and the holes in the cheese metaphor really helped. But it means creating classroom cultures in which questions are valued as much–if not more so–than answers.
Hope to share and hear more thoughts about this during Sunday’s WRRD chat!
I spent a significant part of last year working with nonfiction in my sixth grade classroom, and your post brought back some of the struggles I encountered – part of it due to the way textbooks are set up, and part of it due to the holes-in-the-cheese metaphor you so beautifully described. I think we, as teachers, need to take the time to allow our students opportunities to construct understanding and problem solve. In the long run, our kids benefit so much more than they would by merely scavenger hunting the text for vocabulary and main idea/supporting details.
So glad that this affirmed what you were already thinking, Tara. Textbooks, I think, are particularly problematic because they’re so busy and not always well written–and I do sometimes open the door with them to blame the author for being confusing as Isabel Beck does in Questioning the Author. But even the best authors want their readers to do more with their words than reduce them to a main idea sentence and they write in a way that gives readers room to think–which, if you think about it, is actually wonderful and very respectful of readers.
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