When I think back to my past teaching connected to nonfiction reading, I often (no matter the grade) did a unit on nonfiction text features. We worked for a few weeks identifying and exploring the features in nonfiction text such as labels, diagrams, and glossaries. I thought I could tweak this lesson series a bit to make it work for Web reading. I figured we could look at the text features that make Web reading unique and go from there. It was only after watching and listening to my students that I realized I would need more than a few tweaks to my lessons.
Observations and Informal Assessments
I started to observe the students in their nonfiction reading — both on and off the Web. Students were very interested in nonfiction topics. They are naturally curious, and want to access interesting information. I noticed that kids would choose nonfiction books, but when they sat down with them during independent reading time, many would merely browse the pictures and not read the text. Students were doing very little cover-to-cover nonfiction reading. Instead, they browsed nonfiction for hours on end, never really digging into texts.
I soon realized that many students had experience with lessons on nonfiction text features — they could name and identify them — but their understanding often stopped there. I listened in as students made sense of nonfiction texts. They were consistently making incorrect inferences when they were confused. Instead of using multiple reading strategies to find answers or clear up confusion, they often made things up. There was little connection to them between the text and visuals. They were not skilled at putting information from text and images together to make sense of what they were reading. I also realized that many kids did not have the same stamina for reading nonfiction that they did for reading fiction. When reading websites, they were experts at finding games, videos, and unrelated advertisements. Many students immediately browsed for an activity when visiting a new site, rather than making sense of the information presented.
Students were honest about their frustrations with nonfiction when I talked with them. Several told me that they were good at watching videos and exploring websites for entertainment, but that it was hard to read online. I saw the same patterns whether students were reading a book, reading a website, or watching an informational video.
I started from scratch and abandoned the idea of tweaking lessons I had always used. I started by asking myself these questions to determine how best to meet student needs as nonfiction readers:
- How does Web reading fit into the bigger picture of living life as a reader?
- What does each group/child already have in place? What can I build on?
- How do my students currently approach Web reading?
- How do they currently approach other nonfiction reading?
- Which needed skills cross over to other areas of reading?
- Does it make sense to teach Web reading as a single unit of study? Does Web reading stand alone?
- What is it that these kids need right now to become better readers of nonfiction text?
- Can I do a cycle of lessons that will help students approach not only website reading differently, but all forms of nonfiction in a different way?
After reflecting on all I had learned from observing my students, I determined that this was ultimately a stamina issue. Students did not have the skills, strategies, or behaviors to stick with nonfiction long enough to understand it. They became easily frustrated, skimming and scanning. They created their own information or gave up quickly. Without the stamina for reading and making sense of nonfiction text, no other teaching would matter.
Nonfiction Teaching Now
There is no question that we need to rethink the work we have traditionally done with nonfiction texts. The days are over when we could do a single nonfiction unit of study, or when we could embed all of our nonfiction reading work into the content areas.
Years ago in a workshop, Regie Routman asked us to jot down everything we’d read in a twenty-four hour period. The list helped me see that even though I thought I was primarily a fiction reader, nonfiction was really what I spent the bulk of my time reading. Much of our days are filled with nonfiction text. When I think back to the workshop with Regie, I realize how long ago it was. The Internet was not part of our daily lives. I can only imagine how much of our students’ reading lives focus on nonfiction texts now.
Much of what I read now is on the Web with links, multimedia, and social component that weren’t available even a few years ago. The whole idea of nonfiction text is expanding, and there are many ways kids can access information. With the Common Core, the role of nonfiction text for students at all ages expands.
Technology is also expanding our students’ lives as readers. Much of their nonfiction reading is Web based, and we can only imagine the new types of reading they may need to do in the future.
When I reflect on what I want for my students as nonfiction readers, I have to take into account all of the ways literacy has been expanded, and all of the new ways our kids have to experience nonfiction. It isn’t enough to read nonfiction books. I want them to be able to pull information from a variety of sources, read with depth, synthesize the information they find, and be critical readers of information.
Nonfiction is difficult for many students. When I observed my students, I realize that I often did my lessons on nonfiction text features and then jumped right ahead and taught them how to judge the source or take notes. I never focused on building stamina to dig into nonfiction, to read beneath the surface, or to put the pieces together to be critical readers.
Another important thing I realized as I was planning this lesson cycle is that the Internet is merely a medium for nonfiction. As a Web reader, you need to do what you do with most nonfiction: make sense of the organization and features and understand how they work together. There are so many different types of nonfiction (biography, documentary, news articles, how-to articles) that making sense of the organization and the way the text features work together is crucial. Later I will move on to judging the source and more sophisticated analysis, but first I want my students to read nonfiction for understanding.
Some experts seem to blame the Internet’s wealth of information for the fact that many of us no longer read deeply. But instead of using that as an excuse, we must work to teach children how to read deeply. I agree completely with Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains when he said in a recent CNN article, “As important as it is to be able to find lots of information quickly, what's even more important is to be able to think deeply about the information once we’ve found it. We need to slow down” (2010). If we truly believe this, we need to take time to help children learn the skills and strategies necessary to do it. Here are two sample lessons that demonstrate how I am changing and deepening my nonfiction instruction.
Sample Lesson: Capturing New Thinking When Reading Nonfiction
Nonfiction reading is a big part of our reading lives. Much of it is about adding new information and understanding to your knowledge base. Readers in grades 3-6 are interested in new information, but they are also interested in making correct predictions. This lesson places value on finding new information, and begins to build the idea that readers change thinking based on new information. It is important for students to attend to their own thinking while reading nonfiction, so a lesson like this one meets both goals.
Possible Anchor Text
I want several things in a text for this lesson. The text needs to be short enough for students to read in one sitting, but long enough to include lots of information to ponder. A book with stand-alone two-page spreads works well for a lesson like this where I model first, using one of the two-page spreads. A book I like for this lesson is The Life and Times of the Ant by Charles Micucci. This is one of a great series of nonfiction picture books that is packed with information. The author makes the topic interesting, there are several nonfiction features on one spread, and the topic is one that students are familiar with but probably don’t know too much about. This leaves room for lots of strategic reading. One of my favorite pages to use is the one titled “Inside an Ant Hill.”
How I Teach It
Although I have a teaching point in mind for this lesson, I also use it as an assessment. This lesson often guides me, letting me know where to go next. I want to see the kinds of thinking this particular group of students is comfortable with, and the skills and strategies they already have in place when dealing with nonfiction text.
I make sure that each child has a copy of the pages we are discussing, or I enlarge the text on a document camera so that each child can read it independently. I create a very traditional chart that is similar to a K-W-L chart with a few revisions. The first column asks kids to look at the heading of the page and to jot down what they already know. I give kids time to fill this out and then move on to the second column. (There is no sharing of this information, because it will affect the next task.) Before moving on, I let kids know that after we read, the second column will ask them to document new learning. As they read, they should mark the text to remember the new things they learn — whether they are brand new or changes in what they thought to be true. Although I don’t want them to fill in the chart as they read, I want them to read with this purpose in mind. After the reading and time to fill out the chart, I ask kids to talk about new things they wonder, now that they know a bit more about ants and anthills.
During the lesson, I am listening to see how comfortable students are with monitoring their thinking, learning new information, and admitting when they learn something that challenges prior assumptions. My main message is that we think during nonfiction in the same ways we think while reading fiction. I also want to begin the conversation about valuing the learning of new information while reading.
Questions I Might Ask to Start the Conversation
What do you already know or think you know about this topic?
What are some new things you learned while reading?
Did anyone learn something that made you rethink what you thought you knew?
Is this a topic you are more or less interested in after reading about it?
What new questions do you have?
The follow-up to this lesson would be based on inconsistencies I see in students’ willingness to record thinking, document new learning, or change their thinking. Depending on what I noticed, I may need to back up and focus on just one area at a time. To do this, I could use other pages of The Life and Times of the Ant or another book from the series.
Sample Lesson: Identifying Unknown Vocabulary
No matter what nonfiction text we read, it is almost certain that we will come across new vocabulary. Being able to identify this unknown vocabulary as well as being able to use strategies to figure out the meaning of words is important to any type of reading, but especially nonfiction.
My main goal in this lesson is for students to begin to pay attention to and identify unknown words. I also want them to become aware that many words can be figured out with context clues, but some cannot. I may decide to create an entire cycle of lessons around nonfiction vocabulary based on student need.
This skill of identifying unknown words is not specific to nonfiction reading. However, content-specific vocabulary is key to understanding a great deal of nonfiction text. I don’t want students to skim and scan over unknown words. Instead, I want them to know that understanding vocabulary in the context of nonfiction reading is critical. I also want them to know when it is appropriate to skip an unknown word, and when readers need to dig a little deeper for meaning.
Possible Anchor Text
For this lesson, I want to find nonfiction text that has unfamiliar words that are easily defined by the context. I also want there to be some words that require other strategies.
A good book for this lesson is Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner. This is a picture book that explores concepts of underground life. The book is told in narrative form. The author’s note is critical for learning more about the subnivean zone, and the note includes a great deal of additional information as well as more new vocabulary.
The narrative portion of this text has some content-specific vocabulary, but it also has words within the narrative (such as glide) that students may not understand completely. The combination of words that may be familiar with those that may be completely new will spark a good conversation.
How I Teach It
I read aloud the book Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner to the class. As I read, I have students use a sticky note to jot down words they weren’t sure of. I pause at the end of each page so students would have time to jot down words.
After the reading, I ask students to revisit their lists, putting stars next to words that they “kind of know” and circling words that are totally new to them. As a class, we would chart the two types of words on the easel. Discussing similarities and differences is important, because I want students to understand that individual readers will have individual needs. We won’t all have the same lists, and we all come to a piece with different backgrounds. Then we discuss the chart.
We revisit the pages where a few of the unknown words appear, and determine strategies for making sense of them. We often then sort the words into three categories (word meanings that can be determined by illustration, word meanings that can be determined by context, and word meanings that require outside sources for definition).
Questions I Might Ask to Start the Conversation
Which words are on your list that you’ve never heard?
Which words are words you’ve heard before but whose meaning you aren’t sure of?
Which words are most interesting to you?
Which words are keeping you from understanding the text?
Which word meanings can you infer from the illustrations?
Which word meanings can you infer from the words and sentences on the page?
Which word meanings are impossible to determine without going to another source?
I would follow up this lesson with posts from the website Wonderopolis. Wonderopolis posts a new inquiry each day. The variety of topics is one of many things I love about the site. By discussing an online piece, students can see that strategies for identifying unknown words are similar, but that the Web requires some Web-specific skills (such as clicking on links for unknown vocabulary).
I would also follow up this lesson by revisiting the charts we created throughout the study. Inviting students to use sticky notes to add their own words to the lists as they come upon them in independent reading will help them transfer the learning to their own personal reading. Sharing their findings with classmates will help them practice being aware of new words in their reading.
Editor's Note: This essay is an excerpt from Franki Sibberson's book, The Joy of Planning: Designing Minilesson Cycles in Grades 3-6.