This post is the final post in a three-part series based on my learning from the book Reading Nonfiction as well as recent PD that I attended that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. In the first post, “How do we take them further?” I talked about those 3 questions that should guide our thinking when reading nonfiction:
- What surprised me?
- What did the author think I already knew?
- What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?
When we get our students to think about these three questions as they are reading nonfiction, they will notice more, question more, and dig deeper into the text.
In last week’s post, “Defining Nonfiction” I wrote about how we define nonfiction. I first shared a word cloud based on our own definitions of nonfiction reading:
But we then transitioned to a much deeper definition of nonfiction:
Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.
To be able to truly dig deeply into a nonfiction text, we must understand the author’s purpose. In this post I’m going to be sharing with you a couple of the signposts that Beers and Probst recommended as a starting point to really get our students thinking about the author’s purpose.
The first signpost that Beers and Probst shared with us specifically during our PD was the concept of Contrasts and Contradictions. For those of you who have been using the Notice and Note to teach fiction reading strategies, this one should sound familiar. In fiction you look for things that the characters do that contrasts or contradicts what you might expect. In nonfiction we should notice if the author shows us “a difference between what you know and what is happening in the text, or a difference between two or more things in the text.”
Think about it for a second. If you are reading a news story, and it contradicts something that you have seen in a different story, or something that you believe you already know, that is going to give you pause. When you stop to think about those differences, you might come to the conclusion that an author is trying to change your opinion – this is a hint of what the author’s purpose might be. Remember, our students can’t just think of nonfiction as not fake. Our students have to have that questioning stance so that they can be a bit skeptical of the opinions being shared.
Once we recognize the signpost for contrasts and contradictions, students then need to take it a step further – just noticing the signpost doesn’t get the level of inquiry we want. Next we need our students to ask themselves a question about that signpost. I love the chart on page 121 of Reading Nonfiction because it shows anchor questions for different levels of students, or questions that could be asked in the content areas. The most basic anchor question for this signpost would simply be “What does this make me wonder about?” while a deeper anchor question might be “What is the difference and why does it matter?”
The other signpost that Beers and Probst said was so important in finding the author’s purpose was Extreme or Absolute Language. This is defined as language that “leaves no doubt about a situation or an event, allows no compromise, or seems to exaggerate or overstate a case.” Virtually any statement that includes the words all or none would be an example. It seems this year that you can’t listen to a political speech or read an article about the presidential race that doesn’t include some form of extreme or absolute language. The extreme language can range from obvious and probably harmless to the subtle and potentially dangerous. Take the following 3 statements that many of us may have heard at some point:
- It’s freezing out there!
- You have to let me go to that party! Everyone is going to be there!
- Simply stated, we know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.
As you can see, the first statement is probably pretty harmless, the second might give the parent of a teenager pause to think about whether or not it is appropriate for their child to attend the party, but that last one is an example that led to the loss of many lives and history has come to show us it was not accurate. We need our students to understand that when they encounter language that is extreme or absolute, they need to “be alerted either to the strength of the author’s feelings or to the possibility that the writer is exaggerating and may even be deceiving or misleading the reader.”
Just like with any other signpost, simply noticing it is not enough. We need to continue to remind our students to stop and think about the anchor question. Just like with the contrasts and contradictions signpost, the most basic anchor question is “What does this make me wonder about?” while a deeper version could be “Why did the author use this language?” Again, you can see content specific anchor questions on the chart on page 121.
Between teaching our students about the importance of a questioning stance when reading nonfiction, a true and accurate definition of nonfiction, and at least a couple of the signposts, our students will have the tools they need to be able to read deeply, think deeply, and understand an author’s purpose. It is so important for our students to develop these skills not only so that they will be successful in school, but also so that they can be productive members of a democratic society. If we don’t teach our students to have a questioning stance, they will believe whatever they see on the news, no matter whether it is ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any of the other multitude of news outlets that are out there. I love this following quote from page 32 in Reading Nonfiction:
“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”
We need thinkers who can listen to political speeches and read political writings and decide who will best serve their needs. We need students who can look at the writings of a so-called nonprofit and decipher if a donation will be used in a meaningful way. Instead of accepting what they are told, our students “need to develop intellectual standards that open them up to new possibilities and challenging ideas and give them the courage and resilience to change their minds when they see persuasive reasons to do so.”
Share with us your thoughts on the importance of nonfiction reading. Why do you feel understanding nonfiction is important for our students? What have you noticed about student’s thinking as you push out a questioning stance and the nonfiction strategies? Let us know about them in the comments below!