Cart Search Mobile Navigation
Hero-unit image

Nonfiction is some of the most important reading we do. Students must develop the habits of mind that let them read with a skeptical eye and an open mind. They must be open to challenge and change.

—Kylene Beers and Robert Probst

RN book cover

List Price: $40.00
Web/School: $32.00

The differences between reading fiction and nonfiction

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.” So Reading Nonfiction presents interlocking nonfiction scaffolds that move every student beyond a superficial reading—to challenge authors’ claims, be challenged by them, and skillfully make up their mind about purported truths.

Sneak Previews

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.

Rigor and Relevance

If music artist Meghan Trainor (with her hit song "All About That Bass") were a teacher, we could easily imagine her singing, "It's all about the rigor." Since the release of the Common Core State Standards, education has indeed been all about the rigor, to the point that we now offer a workshop titled "It's Rigor: Not Rigor Mortis."

That title might lead you rightly to infer that we are frustrated with what we consider to be an overemphasis on the word rigor. Do we want to see rigor in classrooms? You bet. Do we think there are times when all of us must recognize that a particular lesson wasn't what anyone would deem rigorous? Of course. Should each lesson and every activity of each and every day be "rigorous?" We aren't sure what that would look like, but we think it would be overkill—and that's what results in rigor mortis.

We do agree that we have an obligation to make sure kids are doing meaningful work. We want them engaged, focused, and curious. We want to see them working independently some of the time and cooperatively at other times. We want to see them participating in student-led discussions. We want to see them asking questions in the classroom—questions about the content they've read and not merely about whether a particular topic will be on the test.

We want to hear students making connections from one topic to another and from one class to another. And we want them reading more and more complex texts as the year progresses. Actually, just reading more as the year progresses, whether the texts grow more complex or not, surely would increase their stamina. For many kids "more" is a critical step toward becoming a reader—but it's a missing step in many schools (Anderson et al.1988; Beers 1996; Criscuola 1994; Fielding et al., 1986; Greaney 1980; Greany and Hegarty 1987; Hafner et al. 1986; Krashen 1993; Searls et al. 1985; Taylor et al.1990; Watkins and Edwards 1992).

The Importance of Rigor in Nonfiction Reading

If rigor is important in our attention to fiction, it may be even more vital in our reading of nonfiction. We have to admit that we read much of the fiction in our lives somewhat casually, even lazily. When we pull out a book to read on the plane, we may not push ourselves very hard. We want to be entertained. The more energy we put into it, of course, the more we'll get from it, and if it's a book that resonates with us, we may find ourselves thinking very seriously—rigorously—about the moral and ethical issues it raises. We may find ourselves pausing, staring out at the tops of clouds passing by below, trying to analyze the implications of accepting the vision of human life the novelist is offering. But if we don't, if we just sit back and enjoy the telling of the tale, the only consequence is likely to be that we will have missed an opportunity for reflection. If we are that lazy with every work of fiction we read, our intellectual growth may be stunted, but the world will go on.

On the other hand, if we read nonfiction with that same laziness, there may be serious consequences. Not all nonfiction, of course. If we read the recipe carelessly, our cornbread may not rise. If our reading of the repair manual is less than rigorous, the only consequence is that we'll have to take the lawnmower to the shop so that a more competent mechanic can undo whatever damage we have inflicted upon it (or sell us a new one). But if we read the political speech carelessly—without rigor—we may end up voting for someone who will do more harm than good to our community. If we read the reports on anthropogenic climate change inattentively, we may find ourselves supporting damaging environmental policies and decisions. If we read the reports on the Affordable Care Act superficially, we may end up condemning something we actually—if we knew better—would support. Our reading of nonfiction—some nonfiction—prepares us for participation in this society. What we know affects not only us; it potentially affects those around us. And so, some nonfiction demands a rigorous reading.

Democratic Requirements

One teacher told us that he didn't have time to have kids read the text in his world geography class:

"Most of them wouldn't read it; some of them can't read it. It would take too much time, and then I'm not sure what they would understand. They will learn it faster if I just tell them what they need to know."

We understand his comments and admit that at times we've reached the same conclusion about the kids before us. High-stakes tests and pacing guides that demand we move at a break-neck speed means we all understand the need to help students "learn it faster." But we can't confuse faster with better. No matter the inclination to simply tell kids what they need to know, we must give them many opportunities to struggle with the content and figure it out themselves. This was affirmed for us after reading a national study about the public's attitudes toward the Affordable Health Care Act (Gross et al., 2012). To understand our conviction, take a look at this brief excerpt from the executive summary of the study's findings.

National surveys conducted in 2010 and 2012 suggest the following conclusions:

  • American understanding of what is and is not in the ACA [Affordable Care Act] has been far from perfect.
  • Older people and more educated people have understood the elements we asked about better than have younger and less educated people.
  • Between 2010 and 2012, public understanding of the bill did not change notably.
  • Most people have favored most of the elements of the ACA that we examined, but not everyone recognized that these elements were all in the plan.
  • Most people opposed the elements we asked about that were not in the ACA, but some people thought these elements were in the plan.
  • If the public had perfect understanding of the elements that we examined, the proportion of Americans who favor the bill might increase from the current level of 32% to 70%. Taken together, all this suggests that if education efforts were to correct public misunderstanding of the bill, public evaluations might increase considerably in favorability. (Gross et al. 2012)

So there it is: if the public correctly understood the bill, their attitude toward it might be more favorable. The public's understanding is critical because more times than not, legislators decide whether or not they will support a bill based on public opinion (Gross et al. 2002; Anand & Krosnick 2003; Krosnick 1988). Too often, we all presume that public opinion is formed from knowledge that is accurate and complete. But what happens when public opinion is formed on omissions, distortions, half-truths, or blatant misinformation? In this case, we see that the public was so uneducated or mis-educated that some people did not know that elements they would have found favorable were actually in the bill; nor did they realize that elements they found unfavorable were not included, as they had been informed.

Where did the majority of the public go to get information about this critical bill? Mainstream news sources such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN as well as Fox News, MSNCB, radio news, and Internet news were the sources for information.

Do you see what's missing? No one read the bill (including the two of us and, we fear, members of Congress). We—too many of us—turned over our understanding of this critical piece of legislation to news commentators (and we have no knowledge of whether or not they read the bill). Furthermore, in all likelihood, we each listened to the commentator whose personal political views matched ours, and we let those folks tell us what was in the bill, or wasn't in the bill, and what we should think about it. We let their commentary become our knowledge, form our opinions, direct our thinking. Public opinion was, in actuality, the opinion of a very few that was adopted and then parroted by many. We let others tell us what they wanted us to know. We fear this is often the case.

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

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.

Disciplinary Literacy

If you are a secondary teacher, you have probably been told "we're all teachers of reading." That was news to us when we began hearing that admonition in the mid-1980s because we were both sure we had studied literature and composition. We had been licensed to teach English (or as it was later called, English/Language Arts) for grades 6–12. We had not studied the science of teaching reading, so when confronted with being told we were expected to be reading teachers, we politely said, "No."

Of course, that was an unacceptable first-response answer, but we contend that the pronouncement that we should now "be reading teachers" was wrong. We would have been far more inclined to nod our heads "yes" if we had been told, "Teach your students how to read literature better." Now that would make sense to us. We knew about teaching literature. That would mean helping students notice unreliable narrators, look for implied theme, detect symbolism, understand recurring images. We could show students how to make inferences from Tough Questions or Words of the Wiser. We could teach them how to follow the development of a character through Aha Moments and Contrasts and Contradictions. We could even show them how to use the context to define unknown words. That we could do.

Over the past decade, we've seen that most middle and high school teachers echo our sentiments. Biology teachers might not see themselves as reading teachers, but they are quite agreeable to helping their students read biology texts with deeper understanding. History teachers feel the same. Those of us at the middle and secondary level who have studied a specific content and are prepared to teach that content recognize that teaching the basics of mechanics of reading—decoding and fluency—requires preparation that wasn't covered in teaching students how to dissect a frog, understand rate and velocity, trace the economic development of a country, look at the proof of a theorem, or determine which of those two trains traveling in opposite directions will get to point X first.

So, let's make sure we all understand what this book is about, or first, isn't about. This book isn't about teaching you how to help students with decoding or fluency. We don't take up teaching important prefixes. We don't focus on reading with expression. We think those are important skills; in fact, we believe they are so critical if kids in middle and high school struggle with word recognition or fluency, we want them to be in a special class with a teacher trained to help in those specific areas. We hold in highest regard those teachers who help our most disabled readers, and we suspect you do, too. In your class, we want you to help your students read your texts better.

And that leads us to something called disciplinary literacy.

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.

What Surprised Me?

Of our three questions, this is the one we teach first; furthermore, if we could teach students only one question to keep in mind as they read, this would be it. It takes little time to teach (Kids, as you read, ask yourselves, 'What surprised me?' and mark those parts.), it works across grade levels, and it is appropriate for all types of nonfiction texts.

Understanding the Question
What did you learn? we asked a group of eighth graders after they finished reading an article we had given to them. We were hopeful that their comments would reveal insight into their thinking. Most shrugged and responded, Nothing. Those students with more metacognitive awareness (but little patience for complete sentences) offered IDK. As we visited other classes in other schools, we discovered that nothing, not much, and IDK were top contenders, though one ninth grader who was particularly frustrated with an article on biodiversity did have a question for the author: Why did he write such a boring article? We tried asking, What did you find interesting? That question yielded virtually the same responses.

And then, one day, without serious thought, we told one group of sixth-grade students in Orlando, Florida, As you read this, keep looking for what surprises you.

Like what? one boy asked.

We aren't sure, was our honest response. We don't know what will surprise you as you read. So just be on the lookout for the things that make you say 'Really?' almost as if you can't believe what you just read.

Students responded with more questions: How many things do we have to mark? Like how big a surprise? What if it's not a surprise to you? So if it makes us say 'Really?' then it can be a surprise? We had not had this much response from this group with any of the previous work we had done with them and therefore felt encouraged. We distributed the text, titled Hard at Work. We spent no time introducing it other than to tell students to mark what surprised them.

Soon we saw students actually marking sentences or paragraphs, and then they wanted to explain why the passages they had marked were surprising to them. Students were talking about the text, talking about their understanding of the text, and addressing many of the points we would have made about the article had we been doing the talking.


As we've listened to many students discuss what has surprised them, we've found four categories of surprise:
1) New information (I didn't know that!)
2) Suspicious information (Really? Is that true?)
3) Clarifying information (Oh! Now I get it!)
4) A different perspective (I hadn't thought of it that way or "How could anyone think that way? or This surprises me. Is there another way to see this?)

What Did the Author Think I Already Knew?

We teach this question second, though once kids learn it, we find they often turn to it first. This question requires students to consider confusing parts in the text through a new lens. Rather than simply looking at something in a text and stating, "I don't get it," we now push kids to ask themselves, "What did the author think I already knew?" When they look at confusing passages with that question in mind, they almost always identify what it is they need to do to clear it up. We've found that as students talk about what the author thinks they already know, they begin to identify solutions. When that happens, we can say, "Well, if the author thinks you know the meaning of a term, and you don't, perhaps you need to look it up." Or "If the author thinks you know how to find the area of a circle and you don't, maybe you should turn back a page in your math text to find the formula."

Understanding the Question
Our struggling readers often lack knowledge in two areas: how reading works and how the content works. They don't know the signposts authors use to give us hints about what they are doing, and they often don't know much about the content they are reading (ancient Greece or electromagnetic waves). So when they become confused, they are reduced to "I don't get it."

We wanted to give students enough knowledge that when they were confused, they might be able to solve the problem on their own, or they at least could talk intelligently about that problem with another reader. Our first step was to get kids to identify the "it" in their comment "I don't get it." And that's when we realized that we needed them to think, for a moment, less about what they didn't know and more about what it seemed the author expected them to know. So we began "blaming the author" by asking them, "What did the author think you already knew?"

Two things happened, especially for our older struggling readers. First, the cause of the problem was now the author. "The author thought I already knew what anti-coagulate means" or "The author thinks I know how to find the area of circle." We watched our middleschoolers and high school students relax a bit when they could identify the author as the source of the problem. Second, as students talked about what the author thought they already knew, we realized they were identifying solutions. Now we could tell them, "Well, if the author thinks you know a term that you don't, perhaps you need to look it up" or "If the author thinks you know how to find the area of a circle and you don't, perhaps you need to turn back one page in your math text where that is discussed."

As we listened to many students identify what the author thought they already knew, we began to hear four types of problems:

  1. "The author thought I'd know what this word means." (Vocabulary)
  2. "The author thought I could picture this." (Visualizing)
  3. "The author thought I'd know something about this." (Prior knowledge)
  4. "The author thought I'd get how this happens." (Sequencing or causal relationships)

Once students have identified what the author thought they already knew, we can show them what they need to do to clear up their confusion. This is a critical step toward creating independent readers. Now you're not telling students what they need to know; you're helping them recognize what they need to do on their own. If the problem is vocabulary, they might need to look up the word or phrase if the author doesn't define it in context.

  • To help with visualizing, students might need to use a strategy called Sketch to Stretch (which we discuss on page XX).
  • If the issue is prior knowledge, at least in math and science the topic almost always will have been covered in a previous section of the book. Start by sending kids back to the appropriate section. Perhaps they'll need to visit another text to fill in some background knowledge.
  • When students reveal that the issue is probably sequencing or causal issues, they might need to focus on signal words that can help identify text structure. We have them try Syntax Surgery (see page X) or Sketch to Stretch if those strategies seem useful with the passage, and we might need to review signal words with them (see page XX). Students may need to reread, looking for the signal words that help them think about sequencing or causal relations.

What Challenged, Changed, or Confirmed What I Already Knew?

This question is neither difficult to teach nor hard to understand, though it is one that makes some students uncomfortable by demanding that they think rather than simply remember. And it is important for the messages it conveys. This question doesn't emphasize memorizing data from the text. It doesn't characterize student responses as right or wrong. It tells the students, in a slightly subtle way, that changing your mind is perfectly respectable and that, in fact, it ought to happen occasionally, perhaps even often. It respects the students' responses to the text by asking them to consider how the text has shaped their thinking. And it equips them with observations that should sustain their subsequent talk.

Understanding the Question
We were in a meeting with the associate superintendent of a very large school district. We had a yearlong contract with the district, and every time we met with this person, her question was the same: "Will you guarantee that test scores will improve?" Every time we answered her the same way: "No." At this particular meeting, we shared several research studies showing that as volume of reading goes up, reading skills improve. She responded, "I don't care what that research says. I know that doing drills in skills will improve kids' test scores. My mind is made up." That comment, that her mind was made up, struck us as shortsighted for her district. What about the compelling research that reveals a better way to reach an outcome? What about new understandings that ought to cause us all to rethink old practices? What could we say or do that might help her change her mind about the critical role she has decided to give to test scores? It was that encounter that cemented our commitment to creating readers who approach nonfiction with a willingness to change their minds.

Contrasts and Contradictions

The Contrasts and Contradictions Signpost alerts readers to opposing ideas. That opposition might be seen within the text, especially if it is an argumentative essay, or it might be seen between the reader and the text, especially in historical texts. Recognizing contrasts and contradictions helps students with several reading skills, especially making comparisons, noting cause and effect relationships, identifying supporting details, finding the main idea, and reflecting upon the author's purpose.

When we teach this signpost, we use an anchor chart similar to this one. All the signpost anchor charts were created by Jennifer Ochoa, a middle school teacher in New York City. Notice this one has an anchor most appropriate for middle grades. In the sidebar, we show other questions that could be used with younger and older students.

Anchor Question Progressions
ELEMENTARY: What does this make me wonder about?
MIDDLE: What is the contrast or contradiction and why does it matter?
HIGH SCHOOL: Discipline-specific questions such as...

    History: Why did the author point out this contrast/contradiction? Does this reveal a bias or new knowledge?
    Science: How does this differ from previously held beliefs or understandings?
    Math: Under what conditions is this true?

Understanding the Signpost
We were in a first-period, seventh-grade language arts classroom teaching students about the Contrasts and Contradictions signposts they might see in fiction. The bell rang to signify class was over, and kids got up to head out. In this school, the kids rotated as a cohort from class to class. So, the kids who came to us had just finished social studies, and now our students were headed to that class. When second period ended, we had a break, as did the social studies teacher. We know because he came to see us in the language arts classroom. He came in, shut the door, and asked, "What the hell have you folks been teaching down here?" He had our attention, to say the least.
Why? we asked.
Because when I put an article about a girl living in Pakistan up on the screen we couldn't get past the first paragraph without the kids interrupting and saying 'There's a contrast!' or 'That's a contradiction.' They all wanted to know why the government over there would act this way.
They pointed out that the article says loudspeakers call people to prayer early in the morning and over the loudspeaker they hear that it is better to pray than to sleep. One boy interrupted and said that was a huge contradiction because his dad wouldn't say that. Another girl said that it was a contradiction because in this country we only have loudspeakers for football games, not to wake everyone in a city up. Another kid said that it looked like they didn't have rules about keeping government and church apart like here. I've taught this article for a couple of years and never had that type of interest or conversation from the first paragraph. They said it was because of what you taught them. What are you teaching?
We were positive, at that moment, that no matter what other nonfiction signposts we discussed, Contrasts and Contradictions would be in the list.


In literary texts, we tell students to look for places in which the character acts in a way that is a departure from previous actions. We also tell them to look for places in which the character acts in a way they, themselves, wouldn't act. Similarly, we want readers looking for two types of contrasts and contradictions in nonfiction texts—those that are discussed in the text and those that arise as the reader thinks about how his life or knowledge contrasts with what's described in the text. Contrasts and Contradictions within the text are often directly signaled with words such as but, yet, unlike, however, opposed to, on the contrary, instead, and although. These signal words (and the others shown in the Appendix) can help students navigate complex texts.

Contrasts and Contradictions between the text and the reader's understandings require that the reader be thinking about how the text matches what he knows. We've found that if we teach students to read with the question What surprised me? in mind before teaching this signpost, they see far more Contrasts and Contradictions than we would have imagined.

The Anchor Question
Once students see a contrast or contradiction within the text, we want them to ask, What is the contrast or contradiction and why does it matter?" Again, elementary teachers might simply ask "What does this make you wonder about? and high school teachers might consider the text-dependent questions shown in Figure 32.

Extreme or Absolute Language

Extreme or Absolute Language makes an exaggerated, overblown, and probably untrue claim. It admits of no exceptions, and it seems to forbid doubt or questions. Clues such as every, all, always, indisputably, and unarguably should raise questions for readers. When readers spot this language, they will be alerted either to the strength of the author's feelings or to the possibility that the writer is exaggerating and may possibly even be deceiving or misleading the reader.

When we teach this signpost, we use an anchor chart similar to this one. You might also want to second anchor chart of words that signal extreme or absolute language. In addition to the examples above, perhaps include never, none, totally, unquestionably, hardest, meanest, hungriest, perfectly, completely, absolutely, unconditionally, entirely, and exclusively.

Anchor Question Progression
ELEMENTARY: What does this make me wonder about?
MIDDLE: Why did the author use this language?
HIGH SCHOOL: Discipline specific questions such as...
   History: What does this reveal about the author's biases or purpose?
   Science: Is this science or pseudo-science? Why would the author use this language??
   Math: Is this language appropriate at all?

Teaching Texts
We use Vampire Bat Debate: To Kill or Not to Kill. (in the Appendix) with our less skilled readers and Evidence of Acceleration of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption on All Fronts (found online at /22999-evidence-of-acceleration-on-all-fronts-ofanthropogenic-climate-disruption) with our more skilled readers.

Understanding the Signpost
We debated (um, argued) including this signpost because we think that many of you probably teach it already. You might call it hyperbole; you might call it a propaganda technique. You might call it test-taking skills: Items that ask you if no one or everyone does something are probably false. We think we all (oops!) teach kids about Extreme or Absolute Language.

Just when we were leaning toward not including this signpost, we taught this lesson in Jen Ochoa's classroom at MS 324 in New York City. We gave the kids an article that had several examples of Extreme or Absolute Language using terms such as no doubt, unquestionably, every single voter, and worst ever. The kids identified the language, said it made them wonder if the author was exaggerating, and that was about it. We were back to wondering if the signpost was worth teaching.

This was a double-block class, so we moved on to the next signpost lesson. We gave the kids the vampire bat article (Vampire Bat Debate: To Kill or Not to Kill. found in the appendix) and said we wanted them to read looking for Quoted Words (another signpost lesson we taught after Extreme or Absolute Language). They were to ask themselves if the person quoted was a Voice of Authority or a Personal Perspective and then they were to think about what the quote added. The kids marked the quotes, and we had a good conversation when we came back together as a big group. Then a couple of boys spoke up:

BOY 1: So, I saw the quotes, but I also noticed the extreme language. I marked blood-slurping creatures.
BOY 2: eah, me too, so I marked dive-bombed. That was like, so, you know, dive-bombed. That made me think of a fighter plane dive-bombing. That was really extreme.
BOY 1: Yeah, and then later, here [pointing to paragraph nine] it says continual battle. Wage a continual battle. Really? Continual? And battle? Like a war?
BOB: And you recognized this as extreme?
BOY 1: Yeah. You said that it's language that doesn't leave any room for doubt. Well, going to battle, wanting to exterminate them, putting poison on them, saying they dive-bomb and are blood-slurping. There's no doubt he hates them. That's extreme.

And he was right. The author had set up an extreme situation via his word choice. And once those boys saw it, they asked, So, were these the author's words or the farmer's [cattleman's] words? When we asked why they asked that question, they said, Maybe the farmer doesn't really hate them that much, but the author just made it sound that way to, like, make his story better.

We considered the boys' comments and realized these more novice readers (more novice than we are) had shown us something about this signpost that we had not considered. Since we first noticed the obvious examples— all, none, never, always, completely, irrevocably —we had wondered why the obvious would need to be taught. Surely kids had noticed those words, too? But these boys showed us that they were thinking far beyond the obvious. They took us at our word, and when we told them that Extreme or Absolute Language meant the author used language that left no uncertainties in mind, they began reading looking for phrases or words that did just that. We had to reconsider just who the novice readers were.

A few weeks later, we taught this signpost in a workshop, and about a week after that a teacher who was there told us that he told his tenth graders that Extreme or Absolute Language was language the author uses to eliminate all doubt or to suggest a condition that has nowhere further to go—undisputable, fastest, worst, total. He said his students were reading about cyber-terrorism as a part of a unit on first-world problems. He also said his students saw far more than the obvious words (all, none, everyone), and their class discussion was more rigorous than he had expected as they pointed out extreme language:

STUDENT 1: This says that cyber terrorism will destroy the civilization as we know it. That's extreme.
STUDENT 2: Yeah. And it said that people who think that antimalware protection is protecting them are fools. Not maybe are fools. Just are fools.
STUDENT 3: And did you see that part that said that no computer is safe? Really? No computer? Not one?
STUDENT 4: Is this true? I mean if it's true, this is bad.
STUDENT 5: Or is he [the author] just, like, really trying to scare people? That part about hacking into electricity grids, that was scary if it's true.
STUDENT 6: So how do we know if it's true? I mean, look, he's quoting people that seem really smart. You know, they have important-sounding jobs.
STUDENT 5: But, I don't know. How do we know if it's true?

That teacher encouraged us to keep this signpost, telling us that his kids were reading closely, looking for far more than those obvious words. We agreed, stopped arguing, and have found repeatedly that this is the signpost that encourages kids to think about word choice, which often leads to conversations about author's purpose and occasionally author's bias.

Numbers and Stats

Authors use numbers and statistics to provide precision—or to avoid it. It's not "a bunch" of dentists but 9 out of 10. The refugee camp isn't just large but holds 50,000 makeshift houses. Some words let authors avoid precision: many, often, occasionally, impressive amount, and few. This signpost helps students make comparisons, draw conclusions, make inferences or generalizations, differentiate fact and opinion, identify details, recognize evidence, and understand author's purpose or bias.

When you teach this signpost, you'll want to make an anchor chart similar to this one. Be sure to remind your students that numbers might show up in a text written as two or as 2.

Anchor Question Progression
ELEMENTARY: What does this make me wonder about?
MIDDLE: Why did the author use these numbers or amounts?
HIGH SCHOOL: Discipline specific questions such as...
    History: How do these numbers help me see patterns occurring across time, regions, and cultures? What do these numbers help me see?
    Science: What purpose do these numbers serve in this context? Do these numbers help prove a point?
    Math: (in a word problem): Which numbers are important? What words show me what to do with these numbers?

Teaching Texts
As you read this lesson, you'll see several very short passages that you might just write on your whiteboard. We also use two longer texts, which you might have to photocopy for the students. These are Garana's Story and an excerpt from Up Before Daybreak, both of which are found in the Appendix.

Understanding the Signpost
We began thinking about Numbers and Stats after a comment from a fifth grader. With her class, we were reading the vampire bat article. Our goal was to talk with them about Contrasts and Contradictions. But as is often the case when working with kids, the best laid plans...

Early on in that article, the reporter explains that a cattleman captured several dozen bats, and then applied a poison to the back of each. Those bats, when groomed by 20 other bats, would spread the poison. The reporter explains that the cattleman sees this as necessary to protect his 300-head herd from the bats.

We noticed one student wasn't participating in the class conversation but was instead jotting lots of notes in the margin. When we asked her what she was doing she explained:

So, isn't a dozen twelve? So several dozen, would that be like three dozen? So like twelve times three that would be thirty-six. And then those thirty-six get groomed by twenty. Is that twenty different bats for each of the thirty-six? I don't know. But if it is, that's 720 bats. The author should have said that 720 bats lived near his cattle. That's huge. I mean huge. When you think of a bat, you think of this little thing. I haven't ever seen one, but in pictures they aren't so big. So, one little bat against 300 cows doesn't seem like really a problem. Even a couple of dozen against 300 cows. But 720 bats? That's a lot of bats! And that's just the ones he caught in his net. What if there were twice as many out there? Or more than that? The author should have said there were 720 bats. I could have seen how big a problem this was with that.

That's what numbers do; they provide readers the details that help them visualize the point the author is trying to make. In this case, the student was explaining that although the numbers the author used were impressive, he could have used numbers to an even bigger advantage. In this article, the numbers helped prove that the problem the cattleman faced was large.

As we began reading nonfiction staying alert to the Numbers and Stats, we realized how often numbers did help us visualize a situation or a problem or a scene. We had to admit that while we always saw the numbers authors used, we didn't always pause to reflect on why the author had been so specific. And then, when we talked with students about the signpost, we realized that students, too, sometimes failed to grasp the importance of numbers. Students told us:

  • Sometimes I just skip over the numbers."
  • I just sort of look at the numbers, but that's it.
  • What do I notice about the numbers? I don't know. Like, they are dates and things. I guess I don't notice them too much.
  • It's like I see them, but I don't know. I want to get more to what happened, so I just look at them and then keep reading.

Once we began to encourage students to stay alert for numbers and stats, we began to hear different comments from them: These numbers, they made me see that it's a bigger problem than I thought.

  • So, some of the numbers here, they were like, just numbers. You know, it said that he was twenty-two years old. But then this next part, it was talking about how much money we spend on tips, and it showed that people give the same percent, like 20%, to a dinner whether that was just a $10 hamburger or a $50 steak even though the waiter giving you the steak might have worked harder. When I asked myself why the author used these numbers, I saw he was showing how unfair it is.
  • When it said that that the bill passed by a margin of 51% to 49% I realized that if the author had written that the bill passed, that wouldn't have shown me how close it really was. The numbers pointed out that many people won't be happy.

Quoted Words

Asking students to be alert for Quoted Words really means asking them to think about what was quoted and who was quoted. This helps students recognize the author's purpose, make inferences, draw conclusions, and identify point of view. Noticing who is quoted and what is quoted might also help students think about facts and opinions, see cause and effect relationships, make comparisons or contrasts, draw conclusions, infer, and think about the author's point of view, purpose, or bias.

Students quickly identify quoted words; what they do less quickly is think about why the author used a quote and what that quote added. When they look closely at what was quoted, they often see it was to offer a Personal Perspective or a Voice of Authority.

Anchor Question Progression
ELEMENTARY: What does this make me wonder about?
MIDDLE: Why was this person quoted or cited and what did it add?
HIGH SCHOOL: Discipline specific questions such as . . .
    History: What is this person's perspective?
    Science: What are the qualifications of this person?
    Math: Why was a quote needed? What does it add to the thinking?

Teaching Texts
We use several short passages in this lesson and then we use the vampire bat article which is reproduced in the Appendix.

Understanding the Signpost
No matter the text we read—save technical reports and how-to manuals— we almost always found Quoted Words. As we looked closely we found that these Quoted Words could be divided into three categories:

  • Personal Perspectives
  • Voices of Authority
  • Others' Words

Personal Perspectives offer students an up-close look at events or ideas. The person being quoted often has no expertise other than having lived through something. For instance, in an article about tornadoes ripping through the small city of Van, Texas, the basketball coach is quoted as he describes rushing people from the school gym to the basement. This isn't an article about basketball, nor is the coach a parttime meteorologist. But he was there, and his personal perspective balanced the Voices of Authority and showed how any person might react in that situation. Often the Personal Perspective is a critical tool for creating an empathetic bond.

Voices of Authority often appear alongside Personal Perspectives, to balance the person-on-the-street view with the more detached, more expert view. So, in that same article, a meteorologist explained why conditions were right in Van for the tornadoes, the local law enforcement officer explained how people were warned, and the city manager explained how the town was prepared for such a disaster.

Others' Words are those citations often used in research papers (or books) when authors want to show that there is strength in numbers. The author doesn't highlight the words of one particular authority; instead, she shows that many others have studied this topic. The Quoted Words signpost in research documents often takes the form of citations rather than quotations, and we find it is more appropriately discussed when students are writing or reading research reports themselves.

Word Gaps

This final signpost turns our attention to the gap between the words authors use and what students know about those words. For many this gap is the critical problem in understanding nonfiction texts. That said, our youngest students can struggle with unknown words, too, as pointed out by a second grader who explained, Some authors just show off all the hard words they know when easier words would let you have easier understanding.

In this chapter, we share what our research reveals about causes of vocabulary problems and then we share some solutions. We don't follow the same lesson format you've seen in the other chapters, but we do still encourage you to create an anchor chart to remind students what to do when they encounter words they don't know.

Anchor Questions for all grades
Do I know this word from someplace else?
Does it seem like technical talk for this topic?
Can I find clues in the sentence to help me understand the word?

Teaching Texts
Find examples of short passages with the various vocabulary challenges we present in this chapter. Additionally, you might reproduce the Dung Beetle found in the Appendix to use a quick assessment of types of problems students identify as problematic.

Understanding the Signpost
If there is anything that unifies teachers across content areas and across grades, it is probably the issue of vocabulary instruction. We all know the difficulties of helping kids learn new words. Collectively, we've felt the dismay of giving that quiz on National Vocabulary Test day (Friday, of course) only to have students stare at us blankly when we use the same words during Monday's lesson. It's not only that they forgot the words; they don't remember having ever learned them.

Many of us have bought special materials to help kids master vocabulary; we've taught roots and prefixes; we've put up synonym charts; occasionally we've even used the words we're teaching: Oh, what a vibrant verdant field that is! Or My interpretation of that ref's call is that he made an unjustifiable assessment of the situation. And still, words confound our students.

Far too often the lesson design that includes identifying words for kids, discussing the meanings of those words, and eventually giving quizzes on the words hasn't turned our students into the wordsmiths we want them to be. Our textbooks have highlighted words, put them in bold-faced font, defined them in the margin (because looking to the bottom of the page required, we guess, too much effort), and still kids say, I don't get it. Something needs to change.

Realizing that, we didn't want to offer a chapter on how to teach vocabulary. Others have skillfully done that (Allen 1991; Baumann and Kame'enui 2004; Beck et al. 2002; Blachowicz and Fisher 2004; Graves 2000; Nagy 1990; Stahl 1999). Instead, we focus on tools kids might use when a lack of word knowledge gets in the way of comprehension. So, the format of this signpost lesson doesn't match the others— purposefully. We begin this signpost lesson—one we call Word Gaps— by sharing our own realization about what confounds us. Next we discuss what kids identified as problems. Finally we move to steps we teach students so they can close word gaps.Our Own Confusions

Words, which ought to be the gateway to understanding, too often are barriers. We experienced this firsthand when we overheard one ninth grader explaining something to another during lunch: "No. If you're going to do an Ollie North, you have to heelflip like when you learned kickflips, and then you can move to those and to a nosegrind. See?" Though this question was directed to his buddy, we looked at each other and mouthed the word, No.

Lacking prior knowledge of skateboarding, we had no schema to activate. We didn't know those technical words, so we were up a creek without a paddle, flying as blind as a bat, or, put most directly, had no idea what he was talking about. We could immediately identify what we didn't know, but identifying the unknown words didn't help. When you don't know anything about what you don't know, then realizing you don't know it doesn't actually help you know it.

We saw this again when we read this passage:

In mathematics, a Lie algebra (/li/ not /lai/) is a vector space together with a non-associative multiplication called "lie bracket" [x,y]. It was introduced to study the concept of infinitesimal transformations. Lie algebras are closely related to Lie groups which are groups that are also smooth manifolds, with the property that the group operations of multiplication and inversion are smooth maps" (

It did not help that the term Lie algebra was bold-faced, that pronunciation was provided, that a definition was offered, or that we were told its origin. We still looked at each other and said, I don't get it.

Sadly, though, we could answer the following questions:

1) What is a lie algebra?

2) Why was it introduced?

3) To what are Lie algebras closely related?

4) True or False: Smooth manifold groups include Lie groups.

Well, we aren't positive about question 4, but if this were a test (which each item worth 25 points) and we received credit for the first three we could answer correctly, we would have scored 75 points and would proudly display that grade on the refrigerator door. And there's a 50-50 chance we'd get that final one right and be able to brag that we got 100 on the test.

An A+ and we would have no idea what any of it meant.


Although noticing what we didn't know was humbling, it didn't offer us a lot of insight other than the fact that we obviously don't know much about skateboarding and even less about algebra. We decided to move on to listening to kids.

Possible Sentences

Understanding this Strategy

Possible Sentences, as originally described by Moore and Moore (1986), was intended to be a before-reading strategy to help students think about a passage by turning their attention to key vocabulary. Students are given eight to fourteen words (or phrases) from the passage and are told to use those words to write sentences that might be found in the passage.

When Moore and Moore presented this strategy, they suggested students use two words from the list in each of their sentences. So, if given the list desert, barren, dry terrain, denuded, little plant life, and lack of precipitation, students might write, The desert is barren. The dry terrain means there is little plant life. Because there is a lack of precipitation, it is denuded. Students then read and, using the context to help uncover the meanings of unknown words, they next decided if their sentences were accurate. If not, students would correct their sentences. For instance, students would discover that denuded means "stripped of covering" and would rewrite the sentence to read, The denuded land was barren. And that would mean that they would rewrite the first sentence to read, In the desert, there is a lack of precipitation.

We have made a slight modification. In our work with this strategy we have found that when unknown words were included in the word list, students made too many errors with their sentences and became too frustrated by the many corrections they had to make. So we encourage teachers not to use many Tier II words and to use no Tier III vocabulary with this strategy. It's just too hard for students to write a possible sentence if they do not know the meaning of the words. Also, we found that when students only included two of the key words in their sentences, too many times the sentences they wrote had little to do with the actual text. As a result, we now ask students to use no fewer than three key words in each sentence they write. We also tell them not to use more than six key words in a sentence, to prevent some students (and you know who they are) from writing just one sentence that contains all the key words.

Related Blog Posts


Purchasing Options & Related Resources