Nonfiction unit: building stamina and figuring out strategies


Before launching our nonfiction unit three weeks ago, I asked my students what they thought about this genre in general:” it’s boring ” was the most common reaction, but the one that stuck with me was this – “well, it’s just reading boring books and answering boring questions. I don’t get why we have to do it.”   So, before I had even taught a single mini-lesson or introduced a text, I knew that I had one big barrier to cross – my students’ conviction in their belief that nonfiction was boring and of little value. I would have to work hard to change that.

My next goal remained the same as it had been when I blogged about this unit last year : my kids really didn’t know how to read nonfiction, and this unit would have to be a slow and steady progression of mini lessons, modeling, shared partner reading, discussion, written responses, small group instruction, and lots of individual conferring.  I had blocked out eight weeks from start to finish (topic based non fiction book clubs), and I was going to need every moment of this time.

This year, I launched with a book bag full of nonfiction books designed to entice the interests of any sixth grader, to drive home the point that nonfiction encompassed a huge range of interests, and you could zero on on things that you were fascinated with, curious about, or had a passing interest in.  And, unlike fiction, you could often choose a book or magazine and just read the parts you were interested in.  This year, I launched with a book about Navy Seals, which really captured my kids’ attention.  We went chapter by chapter, following the same procedure:

  • preview the chapter
  • box and bullet important information
  • synthesize new information with what was known to jot new understandings
  • note questions that arose which may or may not be answered in the chapters to follow and would need further research

Modelling the thinking was a bit tricky – I had to break down my own, now automatic, reading thinking to show my kids how I stopped, thought about what I’d read, re-read if necessary, marked up the text and then moved on to the next bit of reading. I based my teaching strategies on three books that are front and center of my nonfiction thinking:  Lucy Calkins’ (and other authors) Units of Study, Stephanie Harvey’s Nonfiction Matters, and Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do .  This was hard work, and even though it was slow going, it made all that thinking visible for my kids. As one of them put it: “I thought reading and getting this kind of stuff was like magic – you got everything all at once. But now I see that it’s more like putting a puzzle together kinda slowly.” Exactly.  I think it also helped that we had been modelling strategies all year, starting in fiction with “Notice and Note” signposts  , and,  in writing workshop,  through similar work with memoir mentor texts. By now, my kids are used to this sort of  making the inner workings of the reading process visible, and they expect that this is the way we go about our reading and writing lives.  

Our next move was to take what we had learned from our whole class nonfiction reading experience, and use this experience to partner read effectively.  I had experimented with this last year, and it had worked so well that I pretty much followed the same process :

  1. Read a chapter at a time, jotting notes  through the lens of ready: prior knowledge, set: what I’m learning, woah: my new understandings, and ???: questions I now have.
  2. Meeting with their partners to discuss and clarify (here’s where the talk was especially interesting – sometimes, a student had forgotten to read captions or study the maps carefully, and their careless reading became apparent in partner conversation: “woah! I didn’t even see that!” “where’d you read that?!”)
  3. Creating a box and bullet chart to clarify and identify main ideas and  important information:


Finally, we were ready to discuss the “big idea” of our books, the “reverse box and bullets” from Units of Studyand to think about some “burning questions” we might be left with (as we most often are) , upon completing these texts.  So, we gathered to do a bit of thinking about the work we’d done, and gear up for this:



and here’s what that work looked like:


When we return to school on Tuesday, we are ready to begin our nonfiction book clubs – these are topic based groups of readers, with each student in the group reading an aspect of the topic.  Again, I am relying on what I


3 thoughts on “Nonfiction unit: building stamina and figuring out strategies

  1. Pingback: Our Nonfiction Genre Study Cycle Concludes…For Now | A Teaching Life

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