Launching a nonfiction unit of study

This year’s nonfiction launch was influenced by one of my summer PD books: Franki Sibberson’s The Joy of Planning.  I spent a lot of time reading and marking up the entire book, but the nonfiction section was especially important to me – our kids just need to be reading much more nonfiction, and we need to find better ways to make sure that they are really making meaning of the text, and practicing a wide variety of strategies.   I was especially struck by this passage, because it reminded me of so many of my sixth graders and the struggles they experience with nonfiction:

 I soon realized that many students had experience with lessons on nonfiction text features – they could name and identify them – but their understanding often stopped there….They were consistently making incorrect inferences when they were confused.  Instead of using multiple reading strategies to find answers or clear up confusion, they often made things up.  There was little connection to them between the text and visuals.  They were not skilled at putting information from text and images together to make sense of what they were reading.  ..I also realized that many kids did not have the same stamina for reading nonfiction as they did for reading fiction.

As I studied the lesson cycles Franki writes about, I began to realize that I had rushed through teaching some of the most important aspects of nonfiction reading: how to put all the pieces of nonfiction together to read critically.  So today’s launch went slowly, and I spent much more time discussing the meta-cognitive thinking that goes into reading nonfiction, and modeling the process using the New York Times’ article  Avalanche at Tunnel Creek  and trying to make this thinking visible with these charts:

We began our investigation with my reading and modeling my thinking, paying especially close attention to previewing the text and reading the captions closely for information.  It was amazing to me that most students confessed that they never bother to read these, and yet, after I had walked them through the process, they all noted that there was actually a lot of information embedded in those captions which they needed to know to better understand the text. Well, yeah! I thought, that’s what it’s there for.  So, I am glad I remembered Franki’s advice to “revisit past teaching” and recalibrate the pace and focus of this unit. My kids seem to know what these elements are, but forget to use them to clarify their thinking or gain a better understanding of details.   I’ll spend much more time practicing these skills and demonstrating connections between maps, photographs, diagrams, etc. and the text.  This would also make for a wonderful chart talk activity, with students examining how these elements were used in various articles and sharing their thinking that way.  It would be another way to practice these skills before they moved on to our nonfiction book clubs in reading workshop and writing feature articles in writing workshop.


3 thoughts on “Launching a nonfiction unit of study

  1. Excellent points, Tara. Our school does much focus on non-fiction research so your questions for synthesizing from 'all' the parts of the text is an eye opener to me too. I will share this with the teachers I work with, & set them wondering too if their students are using 'all' the source. Thanks very much. Hope you had a good first day back.

  2. Wow!! Love the connections with Franki's book I also agree tons of great information. I will be starting my NF unit soon and will intertwine with persuasive writing. Thanks for sharing your anchor charts. I echo Mary Lee's comment.

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