Reading Nonfiction — Noticing and Speculating, part 1.

Vacuum Tube Etch-A-Sketch
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson via Compfight

The internet has been a wonderful thing for me and my teaching.

I’m fortunate to have “met” Julieanne Harmatz, teacher, writer, thinker, while following the work of Vicki Vinton on her fantastic blog, To Make a Prairie. I’ve been struck by the eloquent and thoughtful comments Julieanne offers.

So it was no surprise that Julieanne had another thoughtful post on her blog, this time puzzling out the differences between the engagement of students during read aloud and independent reading time. Which got me thinking about how read aloud and independent reading function in a classroom setting. Why even bother thinking and talking about books? It must give students something important to go through all that effort.

Which then got me thinking about another difference I’ve also noticed in my classroom: the difference in energy the children have for reading and discussing informational text vs. fiction text. What is the difference in how we approach fiction vs. nonfiction that might account for that different level of energy?

Most of the kids in our classroom are reading fiction these days. Some dabble in informational text, for sure, and some read mostly informational text, but I’ve noticed a lack of specific passion for nonfiction both in what the students read independently as well as how much and deeply they discuss during my read alouds. We simply don’t get the engaged kind of conversation that have emerged from our fiction reading. (For examples of how fiction has grabbed us, check out some recent posts here (The One and Only Ivan), here (Ivan, again), and here (the graphic novel, Rust.)

I’m not sure why there should be such a noticeable difference in conversation, but I want to use this space to think through that conundrum.

First off, I can’t rule out my own contribution to this difference in energy, but it is hard for me to see the low hanging fruit that would allow me to change quickly and easily. In other words, I don’t think this can be explained away by something obvious I’m either doing or not doing that squashed conversation or interest.

For example, I love informational text and often share my love for it with the kids. In fact, much of what I read for myself is informational text. I read informational text to the kids in short snippets as well as longer chunks. We explore ideas together. Also, at least 1/2 of my classroom library, which extends to over 1,000 titles, is devoted to informational text. I’ve organized my library by subject, with some favorite author bins for Nic Bishop, Seymor Simon, Nicola Davies, Steve Jenkins, and others. So, the lack of comparable energy for informational text isn’t easily explainable by lack of teacher interest, lack of library, or by books that are “hidden” from view.

While the kids do enjoy reading and listening to informational text, I think one thing informational text doesn’t offer that fiction does is a clear entry into the text through the doorway of story, an entry that facilitates speculative, engaging conversation. Nonfiction texts, particularly those that do not have a narrative, seem more difficult to engage.

I’m going to speculate here, but I suspect that what the fiction we read offers the kids is a story, plain and simple. Story offers the kids a easy opening, a doorway, through which we can all enter the text. By offering a story, authors help students enter a world populated by characters and events that the students can use to create interpretive “drafts” of what is happening or what characters are thinking and feeling. Readers can argue their points based on the evidence from that world that is available to all who read. They can listen to others argue their points because we all live inside the story; the details the story provides are sufficient to create a world to inhabit and walk around in, to talk about, to explore, to understand.

That living in the text hasn’t happened as readily with nonfiction that isn’t narrative. (Narrative nonfiction is another animal.)

Again, I’ll speculate. The children often enter informational text through the doorway of wonder, or amazement, or “wow, that’s cool!”, which is great, but only goes so far as a seed for a good conversation. Once we’ve noticed that “coolness” what else do we say? And to make it doubly hard for good conversation to develop, for some kids it’s hard to NOT already know the cool thing that we just read about. Often we construct our identity as ONE WHO KNOWS.

I’ve noticed that even for kids who are in the habit of reading fiction deeply and interpreting tentatively, even for those who often admit that they don’t have THE ANSWER in a conversation about a character’s motivations, these children sometimes say, “I knew that already.” when we read and talk about nonfiction. Or partway into our reading, they’ll “finish” the explanation offered by the author by offering up an explanation that is partially true, but is missing key elements that would make the explanation so much cooler, or deeper, or more interesting. And, after we are done, they won’t know that they don’t know. They’ll still be carrying whatever misconception they had at the beginning with them through the end.

If you happen to stumble across this post, do you notice a difference in the way students interact with informational text compared to fiction? Do you notice a difference in the quality of conversations that emerge from read alouds that are informational vs. fiction? What do you think is going on?

I’m figuring that this is part 1 of my reflection on nonfiction reading because I’m just now going back to re-read Georgia Heard (who I often go to for inspiration). I suspect that to foster better nonfiction reading and better nonfiction conversation, I will need to get to the heart of the matter, since that’s where the good stuff lies. There are few writers on my bookshelf who get to this place more completely than Georgia Heard. I’m not sure where this is taking me, but I’ll report more on where I end up in a future post.

awkening the heart a-place-for-wonder Finding the Heart



7 thoughts on “Reading Nonfiction — Noticing and Speculating, part 1.

  1. Steve,
    You’ve definitely hit a cord here and made me think — as always! I agree my students are more engaged in fiction, no question. And I think you’re on to something with the idea of accessibility. Students know how story goes. They understand character. So they have the ground work laid in their minds in order to go deeper.

    I have those same types of categorized bins with wonderful nonfiction, but students aren’t digging deeply in these text. They enjoy, but the engagement is on the surface.

    What seems to work for deeper reading of nonfiction in my classroom is studying a topic together and then having students go off in research teams to study areas of the topic with a partner or small group. This sort of sets them up to go off with a questioning mindset.

    I have also given them choice with articles I have curated for them. That works to some extent.

    I also get Scholastic Magazine, a weekly. They love this. It is short accessible text. Perhaps this is an area to try to develop.

    But those bins with the wonderful non fiction…How do we engage deeply with those texts?
    Looking forward to your thoughts….

    • Oh, and one more thing…

      I wonder if what a story offers is something to interpret, rather than something to “know.” A story offers us a set of causes and effects, a bunch of metaphors to unpack, a world to inhabit and examine. A well-told story offers us these things to use to create something for ourselves.

      I can see that my next post on this subject is going to explore how I read nonfiction. Maybe I’ll be able to discover something about the difference between fiction and nonfiction that way??

  2. Julieanne,
    Thanks so much for the ideas! The kids definitely like the shorter snippets of informational text. I think they read these in the manner of a collector of interesting tidbits of information. This is a great reason to read (I do it, too!), but doesn’t lend itself to richer conversations that process information more deeply. I’m wondering how (if at all) we can get there…?

    I’m curious, what do you think accounts for the interest in Scholastic Magazine? And have you seen the same sort of interest in digital periodicals like Dogo News or Wonderopolis?

  3. Interesting thinking happening here! Informational text has so many different facets to offer. I have been puzzling on point of view in informational text for over six months since hearing Kate Roberts at #tcrwp last June. Authors tell us as much by what they do not include as what they facts and information they DO include. I have found that I have to make a conscious effort to include “know/ wonder” charts in informational reading and understanding work. Otherwise the students seem to only be factoid reporters!

    Looking forward to hearing more about your learning journey!

    • What an interesting thought to read point of view in nonfiction text. I know that I do it when I read, but I”m not sure how I consider it…Maybe that will have to be a “research project” on myself. I also have a couple scientist friends who are interested in this teaching gig, so they might be interesting “informants” for that research, too.

      I like this idea of using know/wonder charts. We’ve done more of them verbally, but not as much in writing.

      My heart is leading me towards poetry, or written work as a way to “live in” nonfiction text for the length of time it takes to really let it sink in. As Mary Lee said below and Julieanne said above, stories are simply more available to young people than the context of ideas. Ideas take longer to sink in, to play with, to bat around. Maybe poetry (or short writing in other forms) might help students slow down to notice and also live with the implications of those ideas. Hmmm…I think maybe that’s why I my heart is telling me to return to Georgia Heard…

  4. Love your thinking, and I agree, agree, agree.

    I’m wondering if there’s one more piece to the puzzle about response to informational text. Could it be that life experience is what moves us past the “that’s cool” stage to the one where we’re fascinated by the interconnectedness of information…because we’ve lived long enough to develop a network of cognitive connections? Maybe story is a doorway that is so hardwired that we can walk through at any age (in some way, shape or form), but informational text functions like life experience or mathematical learning — in more of a sequential, cumulative way. Maybe we need to embrace the differences in response to fiction and nonfiction, rather than trying to make them the same.

  5. Mary Lee!
    I think you are right about the differences between how kids approach fiction v. nonfiction as being, in some ways, irreconcilable. And I DO want to appreciate this difference and not short-circuit the WOW of new learning but trying to force a particular kind of response…

    Still, where you are going with art (and I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the short videos you created with the class), is probably a similar place I hope to end up with nonfiction. I think it was either Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson who said that the desire to preserve emerges from a place of love. Perhaps that love, that kind of deep appreciation for a thing or an idea, helps make it easier to connect it to a larger and larger world?

    Maybe, at the root of all this thinking about nonfiction and fiction, is a sense that the kids might be missing something important that I’ve experienced. I want them to feel that deeper connection to ideas, history, and the natural world that I’ve found through nonfiction reading and through talking with others about it.

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