Reading Nonfiction

My colleague Bob Probst and I have been thinking a lot about nonfiction as we work on our next book which for now is titled Notice and Note for Expository Texts, the companion to our book that focused on literary texts:  Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading.  Part of the research for this new nonfiction book meant each of us ramped up our own volume of nonfiction reading.  As a result, in the past year or so, I’ve learned a great deal about many topics including Sumerians, planets, plagues, early Civil Rights advocates, the dust bowl, volcanoes, the cotton industry, the dung beetle, World War II, photosynthesis, and wine (well, that one was for a different research project…).

For a year, at the end of each week, Bob and I would ask ourselves what we noticed about our reading of nonfiction.  We wanted to focus on what we did while reading nonfiction that we didn’t do while reading fiction.  What struck us both, no matter the topic, was the number of times we said to ourselves, “Really?” or “I didn’t know that.”  For instance, I didn’t know that the Russians landed a probe on Mars years before the USA did.  When I read that, I remember stopping and thinking, “Really?” and then doing more–going to other sites, calling my son and asking if he knew this (“Yes, Mom.  It was the early 70s. Once it landed, though, it didn’t transmit images as they had hoped it would.” I hung up and looked for someone else who, too, was amazed.  Luckily a neighbor’s daughter is only six years old.)

We want students aware of what they are discovering as they read.  We want them to enjoy that feeling of surprise, amazement, and even skepticism.   We want them to say, “Really?”  So, we worked with a group of teachers in Florida and Ohio (thank you Orlando and Akron folks!) and eventually settled on this simple note-taking template that you’ll see below.  You can download this blank template here.

Really template blank jpg from bud







And here’s an example of one completed by an 8th grader:

Really worksheet completed by student


When we talked with this student, she reported, “Sometimes I read and just turn the pages to get finished.  When I used this to keep notes, it was like I was really thinking about how what I was reading was telling me stuff I didn’t know.  I really was like, “Really?” and it helped me keep thinking while I was reading.  Now I find myself doing this even without the worksheet.”



That’s the goal of any good scaffold–to offer support until the support isn’t needed.  If your students have decided that the goal of reading is to finish, then perhaps this  template will help them slow down to focus on what they are learning, on what they’ve discovered that’s new to them.


A Preliminary Report on the Teaching of Chapter Books and Novels, grades 4-8


A Preliminary Report from the July 2013 Survey

What Teachers Tell Us About the Novels/Chapter Books They Teach

By Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst


About a week ago we posted a survey on asking teachers in grades 4-8 to tell us about their teaching of novels and chapter books.  This survey was a slightly modified version of a survey we had first conducted in 2008.  We hoped that the current survey would tell us something about the novels finding their way into classrooms, about the approaches teachers were taking to the instruction, and about the influence of the Common Core State Standards.  What follows is a first-look at some of the data.

How many books are we teaching?

We received 435 responses, mostly from teachers with 6 to 20 years of experience.  Of those 435 teachers, 426 responded to the question that asked how many novels or chapter books were taught during the school year.  Of that number, about 90% reported that they teach at least one novel a year.  About 20% reported teaching four a year.  We were surprised that 10% — 41 teachers – did not teach any novels or chapter books at all and just as surprised that a little over 10% reported teaching more than seven books in one year.

How many books are taught in 1 year?


Who chooses the books?

Most of the teachers responding choose the books they will teach, with 60% apparently having great autonomy and another 28% required to choose from a list established by the district or at the school level.  Only 2.2% reported that they had no choice whatsoever.

Who chooses the books you teach?


What’s the criteria for choosing books?

We were especially interested in the criteria teachers employed in choosing books for their classes.  To over 50% of respondents, the potential for student enjoyment was the single most important criterion.  Of somewhat lesser significance were the elements or standards the novel would enable them to teach, the literary quality of the books, and the theme.   Only a few—4%—choose a book for the genre it would enable them to study, and only one solitary teacher chooses the novel for author study.

What's the criteria for choosing books?


How are books being taught?

We were also interested in how novels/chapter books were being taught.  We offered respondents a variety of scenarios from which to choose.  We found that about 34% of the respondents said that they introduced the book, gave some structure over how much should be read, and then had large or small group discussions about each section.   We found that the same number responded that they introduced the book and then read the book with the class either through read alouds or listening to portions on tape.

How I teach novels


What books are being taught?

All of the books we inquired about in our 2008 survey are still being taught.  The Giver is still the most commonly taught of all the young adult novels we listed, and none of the other titles had vanished from the list.  Here is that 2008 list as it appears in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading:


Most Commonly Taught Novels 2008 survey


What new titles have you added?

There were some new titles, however, to add to our 2008 list.  Some are new books teachers reported they are now teaching, and some are books they’d like to teach.  Among the most popular of the new books now being taught are, listed in order of frequency mentioned:


The Hunger Games

The One and Only Ivan

The Lightning Thief

The Westing Game

Wonder, The Hunger Games, and The One and Only Ivan were also the three most commonly mentioned books teacher would like to teach if given the opportunity.

Other titles that appeared in that list with noticeable frequency were:


Out of My Mind

The Book Thief


What do we see when we look at data by grade levels?

When we look at data by grade level, we found that “Potential Enjoyment” continued to be the decisive factor in choosing a book.  While we’re still culling data by grade level, here are some first results:

Most commonly taught books from the list provided

4th Grade:  Because of Winn Dixie

5th Grade: Bud, Not Buddy and Number the Stars

6th Grade: The Giver and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963

7th Grade: The Giver and The Outsiders

8th Grade: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Giver, and The Outsiders


Mostly commonly taught book that was not on the list provided

4th Grade:  Wonder

5th Grade: Wonder

6th Grade: Wonder

7th Grade: Wonder and Hunger Games

8th Grade: Hunger Games


Most common length of time spent teaching one book

4th Grade:  3 weeks

5th Grade:  3 weeks

6th Grade:  4 weeks

7th Grade:  4 weeks

8th Grade:  4-6 weeks


How has or will the Common Core State Standards affect your teaching of novels/chapter books?

When we looked at information about the effects of the CCSS, as many teachers reported that it would not affect their teaching of novels/chapter books as reported that it would.  Those who reported teaching 1-3 novels a year thought they would continue teaching that number.  Those who taught more, feared that they would be unable to continue teaching as many.  An overwhelming majority of respondents reported that the focus on nonfiction, more than anything else, would change their teaching.


Final comments

While there’s more data to be culled, we wanted to share this preliminary if cursory glance at it, and to thank all who participated.  We’ll use this survey as a pilot, do some refining, and put it in the field again in September and we’ll continue to report findings over the next few weeks.  The comment we enjoyed the most, though, must be shared now:  “I teach novels not because the CCSS says students need to learn to read texts closely or learn to find details or learn something about the author’s craft.  I teach novels because I teach kids and I want kids to love to read.  And if they are going to love to read, they need to read novels.  They need to read some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen; some that are hard; some that are easy; some that make them laugh; some that make them cry.  We’ll read some together, and they’ll read some on their own.  We read novels because novels take us places we’ve never been and let us be people we are not.  That’s why I teach novels.”


We agree.




An Ah-Ha Moment

I recently posted a note on my Facebook page regarding a conversation Bob Probst (author of Response and Analysis: Teaching Literature in the Secondary School) and I had in September with teachers, grades 4-12, in a school district close to Detroit.  As a back story, it was that posting on Facebook and the many resulting comments that led me to ask Karl Fisch how I might share such an important conversation with others.  He said, “It’s time you start to blog” and before I could list all the reasons I could not do this, he had enlisted Bud Hunt and the two of them were promising they would help me into this world of blogging.  They have, and I so appreciate their mentoring.

Back to the posting on Facebook.   It was obvious that the conversation I shared struck a chord—harmonious for some, dissonant for others.  I continue to receive emails about the conversation and that is what compels me to share this story a second time, though this time, with more space, I’ve added thoughts.

Bob and I began the day by asking the teachers to work in small groups to define comprehension. Once groups began to share, we didn’t hear the same definition from each group, but we certainly heard a shared theme. These teachers defined comprehension as …

  • evaluating a text (oral or print) to determine its accuracy and truth;
  • figuring out what your own biases are as you respond to the text;
  • recognizing the universal truths in the text;
  • collaborating with the text and with others to defend or deny its accusations;
  • knowing when you stand alongside or in opposition to the ideas in the text;
  • questioning the text and the text’s motives
  • making connections between the text and your own life
  • knowing how to find information in the text to support inferences you make from it.

Next, we asked them to discuss how their students would define comprehension. The answers came quickly: being able to answer the questions at the end of the chapter; knowing the right answer; finishing the homework; knowing what the teacher wants for an answer; finishing a worksheet; getting a good grade on a test.

Quietly the teachers considered the two sets of definitions. Then, I asked them what it was that was happening in classrooms that led students toward those definitions and away from what teachers understood comprehension to be. One teacher spoke up: “It’s what I ask them to do. Answer questions at the end of the chapter; take multiple choice tests; maybe have a discussion, but the discussion is to get to the answer I want from them; maybe write a paragraph about what they think something meant, but too many times I’ve already shared with them what the theme is I think they should know. I want them to get good grades, so I’ve taught them, in some way, that comprehending is about just getting a good grade. They think that’s what comprehension is because in my class that’s what I let it be.”

And there it was, the ah-ha moment. If our actions, the things we ask students to do, are about completing worksheets, teaching students to turn to the end of the chapter first so they will know the questions before they begin to read instead of reading to formulate their own questions, if we give fill-in-the-blank worksheets to accompany great works of literature and think we should reduce discussion of theme to a multiple choice question, then why would we be surprised when students develop a diminished understanding of comprehension?   As another teacher said, “If we build it, they will come.  And what I have built in my classroom is a definition of comprehension I don’t really believe and sure enough, my students have come to that definition.”  Most in the room nodded their heads.

We talked at length about this practice of having students look at the questions at the end of a chapter before reading so that they would have the “right” questions in mind as they read.  Almost all teachers said this was a strategy they taught students.   I would suggest that while this might be an important test-taking strategy, one about using time efficiently, it might not be a powerful reading strategy.  Independent readers are those readers who, along with other things, can formulate their own questions as they read a text.  As Bob points out, articles in USA Today or Atlantic Monthly or for that matter People magazine don’t come with questions at the end of the articles.  As independent readers, we are expected to formulate our own questions as we read.  A steady diet of reminding students to see what someone else has decided is the important question about a text before reading can eventually say to students that those questions—the ones from someone else—are the ones that matter.  I saw that first hand when working with a ninth grader not too long ago.  When I asked him what his questions were after reading the first few chapters of a Chris Crutcher book, he said, “About what?”  I told him I was wondering what questions he might have formulated at this point about the characters or the plot or perhaps even about what the author might be trying to say about people and our relationships with one another.  He was quiet for a moment and finally said, not too kindly, “You didn’t show me any questions before we got started.  What questions?”

I wish I had asked that student to define comprehension.  I fear I already know his answer.