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Reading Nonfiction

Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies

By Kylene Beers, Robert E Probst

We all know the value of helping students define nonfiction and understand its text structures. Reading Nonfiction goes the next crucial step—helping kids challenge the claims of nonfiction authors, be challenged by them, and skillfully and rigorously make up their mind about purported truths.

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This product is part of the series:  The Notice & Note Series


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Visit www.heinemann.com/ReadingNonfiction for special previews, videos, and more. 

Also available: Reading Nonfiction Student Bookmarks and Notice & Note/Reading Nonfiction Signpost Student Bookmarks

“When students recognize that nonfiction ought to challenge us, ought to slow us down and make us think, then they’re more likely to become close readers.” That means we need to help them question texts, authors, and, ultimately, their own thinking. No matter the content area, with Reading Nonfiction’s classroom-tested suggestions, you’ll lead kids toward skillful and responsible disciplinary literacy.

Picking up where their smash hit Notice & Note left off, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write: “Fiction invites us into the writer’s imagined world; nonfiction intrudes into ours and purports to tell us something about it.” This crucial difference increases the responsibility of the nonfiction reader, so Kylene and Bob have developed interlocking scaffolds that every student can use to go beyond a superficial reading:

  • 3 essential questions that set students up for closer, more attentive readings of nonfiction texts
  • 5 Notice & Note nonfiction signposts that cue kids to apply the skills and processes that sophisticated readers use instinctively
  • 7 proven strategies readers can use to clear up confusions when the text gets tough.

We all know the value of helping students define nonfiction and understand its text structures. Reading Nonfiction goes the next crucial step—helping kids challenge the claims of nonfiction authors, be challenged by them, and skillfully and rigorously make up their mind about purported truths.

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Invitations and Intrusions

From Kylene: Early in our discussion of this book, we kept pushing each other to define the most critical difference between fiction and nonfiction. We discarded the idea that one was true and the other not because we read a great deal of nonfiction that we know is not based on facts or truths. Then, during the 2014 Boothbay Literacy Retreat, Bob made the following comment: "Fiction invites us into the writer's imagined world; nonfiction intrudes into ours and purports to tell us something about it."

Everyone in the room stopped taking notes and looked up, and I knew we (well, Bob) had said something that resonated with many. People broke into groups and began discussing this. During dinner that night, Lester Laminack wanted to know more about this idea. Over the next several months, Bob and I continued to discuss this vision of how fiction and nonfiction differ. Eventually, we agreed that his comment captured something we find critically important.

Perhaps fiction allows (at times) a more relaxed reading because it acknowledges that it's inviting us into an imaginary realm. It may ask us to regard as true, for the moment, what we know to be unreal. When we enter the novel we agree to accept many of the inventions; when the author presents to us a character, we accept him or her and pretend for the moment that the character is a living person. When the author shows us something happening, we accept that it happens. Some genres within fiction ask us to accept more than others. In a work of science fiction or fantasy, for example, we may be asked to believe—temporarily, of course—that one can travel through time or upon the back of a dragon. If we are to read that novel with enjoyment, we probably have to say to ourselves, in essence, "All right, while I'm in the pages of this book, I'll pretend that dragons do exist."

This momentary suspension of disbelief does not require us to leave our values and understandings behind, nor does it deny us the right to make our own judgments about the fictional text. Indeed, we may doubt whether the motivations and the behaviors depicted are believable, we may question the ethics of the characters, and we may condemn the morality of their choices. Or the reverse may be true. We may find that reflection upon the fictional text causes us to question some of our own understandings of human behavior, perhaps question our own ethics and some of our own choices. But if we don't accept, momentarily, some of the author's invention, we may as well not read the novel in the first place.

Developing that Skeptical Eye

Nonfiction, on the other hand, enters our world and tells us something about it. It must enter our world if it is to be meaningful to us. We aren't invited into the author's invented world to mingle with her invented characters and witness her invented happenings; the nonfiction writer intrudes into our very real world, tells us about real people, describes real events. At least, we want to trust the writer to do so. The nonfiction text may tell us about the newest tech tool, what caused World War II, how dinosaurs evolved, whom we should vote for in the next election, or how to fix dinner; no matter the content, it will give us information or make some argument about the world we inhabit. Writing that enters our world so directly needs to be read with a questioning stance, one that reminds us to be somewhat skeptical of that person intruding into our world. We don't raise that question about the flying brooms in the Harry Potter novels, but texts about health care, climate change, Ebola, women's reproductive rights, cyber-bullying, testing mandates, marriage equality, or the lengthening of the school year deserve that consideration. Perhaps we have a better opportunity at holding on to that skeptic's eye if we remember we aren't guests in the author's world; he is a guest in ours.

Complexity and Readability

In a workshop for about 200 teachers, we shared a strategy and modeled it with an article we liked. Teachers liked it, too, and several inquired about the Lexile level of the article. When we asked why, one spoke up and said that she couldn't use texts unless they were in a certain Lexile level band. Others said they would be reprimanded if they used texts below a student's Lexile level.

The Common Core State Standards have encouraged us to give students more challenging texts. But if we aren't careful, that may reinforce the commonly held misconception about rigor, which is that if we simply make the text harder we will make the student's reading more rigorous. That seems logical. The heavier the cart, the harder we will have to pull to move it. The more difficult the text, the harder we will have to work to comprehend it. To an extent this is true.

Text complexity is multidimensional. It involves vocabulary and syntax. And those factors are influenced by clarity, coherence, inferences the reader must make, ease in spotting author bias, the style of the writing, and most certainly the content discussed. In short, there are qualitative factors and reader-and-task factors that must be considered.

Quantitative Factors

We are loathe to see students' reading choices limited by a number, or a letter, or a color code. We want texts that kids can struggle with, rather than texts they must struggle through. Struggling with ideas is less likely to happen if kids are instead struggling through words they don't understand or struggling through syntax that is too complicated for them. Seen that way, it makes sense to look at a formula that gives us an idea about sentence length and word difficulty. With the Lexile formula, a higher number suggests that the sentences are longer and the word frequency is lower. A lower word frequency means the word isn't one readers will encounter often. Verdant has a lower frequency than green.

But reducing text complexity to a formula based on sentence length and word frequency isn't the solution. Such a limited view of "readability" misses the point that those formulas can't "gauge the clarity, coherence, organization, interest, literary quality, or subject matter adequacy of books" (Heibert et al., p. 65). Even information on the Lexile site confirms this: "It is important to note that the Lexile measure of a book refers to its text difficulty only. A Lexile measure does not address the content or quality of the book" (retrieved online from https://lexile.com/about-lexile/grade-equivalent/grade-equivalent-chart/).

The next time someone requires that you use a Lexile number to match a child to a book, encourage a conversation about the efficacy of this as a sole measure. Be quick to point out that word frequency and sentence length don't address many of the issues that make a text difficult or appropriate for a reader. Many times, difficulty—especially in nonfiction texts—is in the content. Consider this passage about African Americans fighting in the Civil War from a textbook titled United States History: Beginnings to 1877 (Holt McDougal, 2012):

As the war casualties climbed, the Union needed even more troops. African Americans were ready to volunteer. Not all white northerners were ready to accept them, but eventually they had to... About 180,000 African Americans served with the Union army. They received $10 a month, while white soldiers got $13. They were usually led by white officers, some from abolitionist families. African Americans faced special horrors on the battlefield. Confederates often killed their black captives or sold them into slavery. In the 1864 election, Lincoln suggested rewarding African American Soldiers by giving them the right to vote (p. 531).

With a Lexile level of 810L, teachers who have been told to depend solely on the score to match kids to text would say this text belongs in fourth grade. We agree that the short and direct sentence structure and vocabulary put very few demands upon a reader; we don't agree that the content is appropriate for nine-year-olds. Very few nine-year-olds have the maturity to discuss the inequalities African American soldiers faced during the Civil War. Instead, we want to see eighth graders talking about why African American troops made less money and were led by white officers. We want them to question why whites in the north didn't want them in the army. We want students to question why the African Americans would go to war for a country that did not grant them the opportunity to vote. If they could not vote, were they indeed emancipated? We want them to think about the racial tensions evident in our country today and wonder why some changes are so slow.

When districts tell us that they couldn't use this text because it would be "too easy" and they must "raise the rigor," we remind them that rigor is about relevance and not about a Lexile score.

The Importance of Stance

Fiction invites us to take one stance. The novel invites us to explore the imagined world the writer has created for us. We enter it willingly, and if we don't enjoy it, we put the novel down, acknowledge we just don't like this author or this genre, and move one. If we do enjoy it, we stay there til the end, maybe so immersed in it that we might describe ourelves as lost in the book Nonfiction, on the other hand, should come with a cautionary note that reminds us that gettinglost in the text might be dnagerous. The reader needs to remember that a work of nonfiction will try to assert something about his world, and he needs to take those assertions with a grain of skepticism. They may be perfectly true, they may be somewhat slanted or biased, or they may be flat out lies. The slightly skeptical stance implies three questions...

Creating the Questioning Stance
We began to experiment with asking students to read with these questions in mind:

  • What surprised me?
  • What did the author think I already knew?
  • What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I already knew?

These questions were easy enough that kids could remember them and yet robust enough that they yielded the closer, more attentive reading we wanted. And before long, we began hearing kids say, When I was looking at my skateboarding magazine, I was surprised that... or My brother, he has Down's syndrome, and so I was reading about it and I found this part where I didn't understand, and I just asked myself, 'Well, what did the author think I already knew?' and then I figured out what was the problem and I knew what to do next. It was cool.

Reading with these Big Questions in mind encourages a critical, attentive stance and develops habits of mind that—if we can instill them in our students—may help them deal more attentively and intelligently with the nonfiction texts they will encounter throughout their lives. These questions encourage a stance that reminds students that nonfiction is intruding into their lives and their job is to decide if that intrusion is welcome or not.

What Surprised Me?
First, we want students to adopt a stance that suggests they expect the text to offer something that's surprising. We're not fond of pop psychology, but we must admit there is something behind the statement, When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change (Dwyer 2009). When students approach a text with a closed mindset, saying to themselves that this will be boring or there's nothing here for me, they are more likely to finish the text with those same thoughts. But if, for a moment, they are willing to read looking for something surprising, then sometimes they will find it. But if students learn to read searching for the new—the information they didn't know before that moment, the line of reasoning they hadn't thought of that reconfirms an idea they already held, or the evidence that requires them to reconsider and possibly reject a belief that they had, until this moment, strongly held—then they will be able to learn from the nonfiction they read. This stance is critical, and therefore What surprised you? is the first question we encourage students to ask as they read.

What Did the Author Think I Already Knew?
Second, we want students to read expecting that when they find themselves confused, they can solve the problem. Too often, at the first moment of confusion, kids look at us and declare, I don't get it, and we—being the fixers we all are—rush to explain what it is they don't get. That solves the problem for that paragraph, but it doesn't help the student with the next confusion. Instead, we want to empower students to identify the confusion and then set about solving it. So we tell students when they are confused to pinpoint the confusion and ask themselves, What does the author think I already know?

When we ask students to figure out what the author thought they already knew, they can define the prior knowledge they need to acquire. We no longer have to guess and provide information before students read. Instead, we can let students identify what's missing, as they will have to do once they leave our classrooms and our schools. What did the author think I already knew? helps students clarify confusions.

Samples

Companion Resources

Appendix A Surveys

  1. Teaching Nonfiction, Grades 4-12
  2. Let's Talk About It Survey

Appendix C Teaching Resources and Booklists

  1. Magazines Most Often Used
  2. Websites Most Often Used
  3. Thirty of Our Favorite Nonfiction Books
  4. Forty of My Favorite Nonfiction Picture Books
  5. Signal Words
  6. Really Template
  7. Word Knowledge
  8. Semantic Map
  9. Chemistry Notes
  10. Math Notes
  11. Social Studies Notes
  12. Possible Sentences
  13. KWL 2.0
  14. Somebody Wanted But So
  15. ABC Boxes
  16. Worksheet for Analysis of Text Complexity of a Nonfiction Text
  17. Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction

Reviews

Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies is without a doubt the most easily applicable professional reading I have ever encountered. For those teachers who have been anxiously waiting for the book to be published, it is well worth the wait. For all those Tweeters out there, get ready to tweet (@HeinemanPub) your thoughts, ideas, and success stories. For those Notice and Note Facebook fans, I can’t wait to read your posts. To Kylene and Bob, how can we begin to thank you?
—Linda Biondi on MiddleWeb
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"This is much more than a book about nonfiction and signposts.  I believe this is a cornerstone text that will revolutionize teaching of any nonfiction topic."
—Melissa Jones on LivingTheWorkshop
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“As much as I loved Notice & Note…I think I love Reading Nonfiction even more. As I read, I kept finding myself nodding and, in my head, yelling, ‘Yes! Why didn’t I think of that before?!’”
—Jianna Taylor, Oakland Schools Literacy
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 [Readers’] thinking went way beyond the basic concept in the lesson…. Students stopped groaning and complaining when the period came around, but rather looked forward to and enjoyed their learning much more.”
—My Lucky Stars Teaching
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Related PD Services

Speakers

Email planningservices@heinemann.com if you would like to contact Kylene Beers directly about professional development support.

Speakers

Email planningservices@heinemann.com if you would like to contact Robert E Probst directly about professional development support.