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.


It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis

It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

[It seems that the way to solve problems in education, make everyone college and career ready, and probably stop the melting of the polar ice caps is to make sure we have enough rigor in our classrooms. But far too often the synonym for rigor is hard. Below, I share a few thoughts about rigor from our forthcoming book  (co-author Bob Probst), Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, in press).]

“The essential element in rigor is engagement. The rigor has to be achieved by engaging the readers in a process that is sufficiently interesting or rewarding that they’ll invest energy in the work. If they are to read rigorously, students must to be committed to understanding some intriguing character, to solving some problem, to figuring out what a writer believes or values and how those thoughts compare with their own or to understanding how other readers have made sense of a text.

Granted, students should learn over time to cope with more and more difficult texts. We know of no teachers who do not want students to be able to read increasingly complex texts as the year progresses. But students are more likely to do that if they are invited to read texts with which they can become engaged and are lured into the sort of thinking that might be both challenging and enjoyable.

Rigor, in other words, lies in the transaction between the reader and the text, and then among readers. The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment. A classroom that respects what the students bring to it, what they are capable of and interested in, and that welcomes them into an active intellectual community is more likely to achieve that rigor.”

–From Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst

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.