Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Reading Nonfiction Aloud: Encouraging Student Responses

I talk to lots of educators who are interested in sharing more nonfiction read alouds with their students, but they have some concerns. Here are the three main questions they ask: 

1.    How do I locate appropriate nonfiction titles?

2.    How do I read nonfiction aloud in a way that engages students?

3.    How do I encourage and facilitate student responses to a nonfiction read aloud?

I addressed the first two questions last week and the week before. You can scroll down to read my suggestions. Today, I’m going to focus on question number 3.

When someone asks me for advice on how to encourage and facilitate student responses to a nonfiction read aloud, I reassure them that this is the last thing they need to worry about. Here’s why:

During a fiction read aloud, students have no idea what to expect. The story could go in any direction at all. The only limit is the author’s imagination. As a result, during fiction read alouds, students often sit quietly, waiting to hear how the story will unfold.

But students come to nonfiction read alouds armed with a powerful tool—their prior knowledge. They’ll have a cornucopia ideas and opinions before you even open the book. In fact, one of your students may even be a mini-expert on the topic.

Instead of passively waiting to hear the story, children will be eager to contribute. All you have to do is let them. Encourage children to talk with one another about what they’re hearing and thinking and wondering. Every once in a while, stop reading and invite students to share their thoughts.

While organic student-led conversations are often sufficient, in some cases, you may want to document a nonfiction read-aloud experience. In his wonderful article “Nurturing Inquiring Minds with Nonfiction Read Alouds,” highly-regarded educator Tony Stead suggests recording student thinking before, during, and after the read aloud using a table with the following headings: “What We Think We Know,”  “Confirmed,” “We Don’t Think this Anymore,” “Exciting New Information,” and “Wonderings.”

This strategy works especially well when students come to the read aloud with misconceptions about a topic. It can also spark inquiry and guide students as they independently research and write about a topic.

So what do you think? Has this 3-part series made nonfiction read alouds seem more manageable? If you still have questions, please let me know. I’d like to help if I can.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 7

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format on October 7 and text scaffolding last week. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m going to share some ideas about text density in informational writing. This is a topic I started thinking about recently because an editor said she wished my writing could be “more breezy.” It made me realize that compared to the fiction she’s used to editing, expository writing is often jam-packed with ideas and information that kids (and editors) have to digest as they read. That’s a lot of work!

As I said in my October 7 post about text format, breaking expository writing into discrete chunks gives readers a chance to pause and ponder. And when the chunking follows a recognizable pattern, it can help readers organize ideas and information in their minds.

As I was writing that post, I remembered a great essay I read on the #STEMTuesday strand of the From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors blog last January. In it, children’s book author Jodi Wheeler-Topen (@WheelerTopen) discussed “the interruption construction”—a common feature of expository writing. Here’s an example from page 4 of Snowy Owl Invasion! Tracking an Unusual Migration by Sandra Markle:



“On one sand dune, peeking through winter-dried plants, sat a big white bird—a snowy owl.”

Notice how the dependent clause “peeking through winter-dried plants” interrupts the main sentence. Why does the author include this extra bit of information? Because it’s a lovely detail that enriches the writing by helping readers visualize the owl and its surroundings.
 


Here’s another example from page 11 of Itch! Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About What Makes You Scratch by Anita Sanchez:

“Parasites are organisms that use other living things—like you and me—for food and shelter.”

In this case, the interruption “like you and me” improves the writing by helping readers feel more connected to the content.


If students feel overwhelmed by the density of an expository passage, they can hunt for examples of the interruption construction and cover them with their finger. After they understand the main part of the sentence, they can lift their finger to get some bonus information.

Can you think of other common constructions in expository writing? If we can teach students to recognize these text patterns when they’re in fourth or fifth grade, it will help them tremendously as they encounter increasingly complex nonfiction texts in middle school, high school, college, and in their careers.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Radical Revision!

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating and re-running some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s post originally appeared on September 2, 2016.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think taking a break between drafts is a critically important part of my writing process. I’ve written about it here and here.

I discuss this important step every time I present the school visit program Creating Nonfiction: Researching, Writing, and Revising. I’ve given this talk many times over the years, updating it as I develop a better understanding of how I work and how I can best explain the process to young writers.

Recently, many teachers have told me they really like the Let It Chill Out part of my presentation and that it has made them re-think how they ask their students to revise. They’ve come up with lots of great ideas—letting manuscripts chill out during lunch and recess or over the weekend or even during a school break.

The best idea of all came from the fourth-grade teaching team at Kennedy Elementary School in Billerica, MA. As the teachers listened to me describe the 10-year process of revising No Monkeys, No Chocolate, they hatched a plan for a whole-school project I love.

This year, the first graders will write a piece of nonfiction. Next year, when the students are in second grade, teachers will share the No Monkeys, No Chocolate and Can an Aardvark Bark? revision timelines  on my website and ask the children to revise the piece they wrote in first grade.


Good idea, right? But it gets even better. Both drafts will be placed in a folder, and the students will revise the piece again in third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade. Wow!
Imagine how different the final piece will be from the original. It will allow children to see tangible evidence of their growth as writers and give them a true sense of how long it can take to write a book.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Reading Nonfiction Aloud: Tips and Tricks

I talk to lots of educators who are interested in sharing more nonfiction read alouds with their students, but they have some concerns. Here are the three main questions they ask: 

1.    How do I locate appropriate nonfiction titles?

2.    How do I read nonfiction aloud in a way that engages students?

3.    How do I encourage and facilitate student responses to a nonfiction read aloud?
Last week, I addressed question number 1. You can scroll down to read my suggestions. Today, I’m going to take a look at question number 2.

Reading nonfiction picture books aloud can be a challenge because they often contain significantly more words than fiction picture books. And even if the art is enticing and the writing is engaging and the information is fascinating, a picture book read aloud shouldn’t last too long.

When I plan a nonfiction read aloud, I ask myself lots of questions.

·        What parts of the book should I highlight?

·        Should I skip over anything?

·        Would additional visuals or props improve the audience’s experience?

·        Would using a document camera help?

Sometimes I make the right decisions on the first try. But other times, the kids surprise me, and I make adjustments as I go along.
In a book like Flying Frogs and Walking Fish: Leaping Lemurs, Tumbling Toads, Jet-Propelled Jellyfish, and More Surprising Ways that Animals Move by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, some double-page spreads have six animal examples. Depending on the age of your audience, that may be too much. But it’s fine to let a student volunteer choose just one example for you to share with the class. Then, if children want to know more, they can read the rest of the examples themselves later.

In a book like Cute as an Axolotl: Discovering the World's Most Adorable Animals by Jess Keating, which has a lot of information on each page, you can share just a couple of spreads as a read aloud. As with Flying Frogs and Walking Fish, you can encourage interested students to read the rest of the book on their own.

Books like Warbler Wave by April Pulley Sayre have a short, poetic main text with lots of interesting extra information in the backmatter. Feel free to take your time savoring the gorgeous language and stunning photographs with students. Then, as time permits, share just a few sections of the backmatter. When it comes to nonfiction read alouds, there’s no rule that says you have to read every single word! 

During the read aloud, be sure to put expression into your reading. Be animated. Be dramatic. Show that you’re eager to discover whatever fascinating facts and amazing ideas the author will reveal. Remind students that professional nonfiction writers spend years researching, writing, and revising each book. Here’s how long it took me to write some of my most popular picture books—from inspiration to publication:
6 years    Can an Aardvark Bark?      
8 years    Feathers: Not Just for Flying    
10 years  No Monkeys, No Chocolate
5 years    A Place for Butterflies
6 years    Seashells: More than a Home
5 years    Under the Snow

Encourage students to think about how passionate professional nonfiction writers must be about their topic and how motivated they must be to share information with other people to keep working on a book for so long.

I hope these ideas help you with the second question above. Next Wednesday, I’ll address the third question.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 6

Since the beginning of the school year, each Monday, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

For the first few weeks, I focused on the pre-writing process. Then, last week, I turned my attention to text characteristics and discussed text format. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m going to look at an element of nonfiction writing that may be new to you—text scaffolding, a term that I first heard in a lecture by uber-talented children’s book editor Alyssa Pusey.

As you probably know, when a teacher utilizes instructional scaffolding, she gives students the support they need to gradually learn a new skill or concept. In the same way, an author can provide support to help readers understand a complex idea.

Because children have limited prior knowledge and may have trouble thinking abstractly, nonfiction books often include clusters of sentences that slowly build an explanation. Authors start by meeting readers where they are. Then they craft a series of connected sentences that act like building blocks to guide student thinking as they gradually develop an understanding of the concept.

Here’s the example Alyssa shared with me:
On page 7 of Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up, author Jennifer Swanson “deftly employs text scaffolding to explain why nanomaterials have a large surface area.

—She begins by clearly defining the term surface area, in case it’s new to her readers.


—Next, she uses an everyday example (a potato being cut into french fries) to show how surface area increases as an item (the potato) is cut into smaller and smaller pieces.


—She then forges a connection between this example and nanoparticles, which are like billions and billions of itty-bitty potato pieces.


—Finally, she describes how these billions of pieces give the nanomaterial a much greater surface area than that of a regular substance.”


Because Swanson’s precisely worded sentences build one upon another, step by step, readers feel supported as they move from one idea to the next, and ultimately, gain a clear and accurate understanding of the complex information.

To help students understand how text scaffolding works, use a document camera to display page 7 of Super Gear: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up on the your classroom interactive whiteboard and show students the steps Jennifer Swanson uses to help readers build an understanding of why nanomaterials have a large surface area.

Next, divide the class into small groups and pass out copies of either expository or narrative nonfiction titles that deal with complex topics. Two of my recent favorites are Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark and Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet by Liz Rusch. 

Encourage each team to read their book together and mark examples of text scaffolding with a sticky note. They should also make a quick note about the concept being explained. When the groups seem ready, invite the teams to share their findings with one another.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Nonfiction Smackdown!

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating and re-running past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. The original version of today’s post appeared on October 30, 2015.


I’ve attended a lot of nErD camps and EdCamps in recent years, but one of my favorites was held at Dedham Middle School in Dedham, MA, in 2015. It was sponsored by the Massachusetts School Library Association and organized by a committee led by teacher-librarian Laura D’Elia. I came away with so many amazing ideas. One of my favorites was the Nonfiction Smackdown!, brainchild of beloved teacher-librarian Judi Paradis, who worked at Plympton School in Waltham, MA, until her untimely death earlier this year.
In this activity, students in grades 3-8 read two nonfiction books on the same topic. They can be two narrative titles, two expository titles, or one of each. Students evaluate, classify, and compare the titles, recording their thinking on a Nonfiction Smackdown! worksheet like this one:


Note: You can find a more printable version of the Nonfiction Smackdown! worksheet on my pinterest Reading Nonfiction Board

When students are done, they can share their responses with classmates. Or the worksheets
can be hung around the room or placed in a folder, so that other students can use the information to help them select books in the future.

The fun activity gets kids reading and thinking and sharing. It’s great!

Here are some possible book pairings:

For Intermediate Readers
Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sara Levine
and
Who Owns These Bones? by Henri Cap, Raphael Martin, and Renauld Vigourt

Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVIN by Michelle Cusolito
and
Otis and Will Discover the Deep: The Record-setting Dive of the Bathysphere by Barb Rosenstock

A Seed Is the Start by Melissa Stewart
and
Seeds Move by Robin Page

For Middle School Readers

Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers by Kelly Milner Halls
and
Rotten: Vultures, Beetles, Slime and Nature’s Other Decomposers by Anita Sanchez

Dog Days of History: The Incredible Story of Our Best Friends by Sarah Albee
and
Made for Each Other: Why Dogs and People Are the Perfect Partners by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Eye Spy: Wild Ways Animals See the World by Guillaume Duprat
and
What If You Had Animal Eyes? by Sandra Markle

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Reading Nonfiction Aloud: Locating Appropriate Books

As teachers and librarians become increasingly aware of research showing that many students prefer nonfiction, they are searching for ways to integrate it into their lesson plans. One great option is read alouds.

Since studies reveal that 42 percent of students prefer expository nonfiction and, overall, students choose nonfiction for pleasure reading about 40 percent of the time, I’d suggest choosing a nonfiction book as a read aloud about 40 percent of the time. If you’re doing #classroombookaday, that means selecting a nonfiction title—preferably an expository nonfiction title—twice a week.

This goal may sound good in theory, but is it realistic? Is it sustainable?

I talk to a lot of teachers who are hesitant to read nonfiction aloud. They ask me the same three questions over and over:

1.    How do I locate appropriate nonfiction titles?

2.    How do I read nonfiction aloud in a way that engages students?

3.    How do I encourage and facilitate student responses to a nonfiction read aloud?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to provide some advice that should help.

If you scroll down to last Friday’s post, you’ll find a list of 25 great expository nonfiction titles that I highly recommend as read alouds.

As you search for more books on your own in the future, it’s important to think about how students will respond. For starters, look for books that will engage young listeners right away.
For example, An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Trout Are Made of Trees by April Pulley Sayre have provocative titles that will immediately spark curiosity. 

Next, read the beginnings of books to see if they will hook your audience and make them want to hear more.
For example, here’s the first line of Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me by Susan L. Roth:

“The differences between a bowerbird and me are fewer than you might expect.”
And here’s how Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Stewart begins:

“Everyone loves elephants. They’re so big and strong.

Everyone respects cheetahs. They’re so fast and fierce.

But this book isn’t about them. It’s about the unsung underdogs of the animal world. Don’t you think it’s time someone paid attention to them?”

Who could possibly resist openings like thse?

As you preview potential titles, look for books that aren’t loaded with academic vocabulary. If more than 10 percent of the words are unfamiliar to you students, it’s probably not a good choice for reading aloud.

I hope these suggestions help you with the first question above. Next Wednesday, I’ll address the second question.

Friday, October 11, 2019

25 Great Expository Nonfiction Read Alouds

Since 2019 marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays this year, I’m updating some past posts that sparked conversation or that I think still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s post is an updated version of a list that originally appeared on December 15, 2018.

Here are some of my favorite expository nonfiction titles that are perfect for sharing in 10 minutes or less.*
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Birds of a Feather: Bowerbirds and Me by Susan L. Roth (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2019) 

Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2014)

Daylight Starlight Wildlife by Wendell Minor (Paulsen/Penguin Random House, 2015)


An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006)

Frog Song by Brenda Z. Guiberson and Gennady Spirin (Holt, 2013)
Homes in the Wild: Where Baby Animals and Their Parents Live by Lita Judge (Roaring Brook, 2019)

A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg (Greenwillow, 2017)


If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian and Barbara Hirsch Lember (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000)
Mama Dug a Little Den by Jennifer Ward and Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton (Candlewick, 2017)

Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)

Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell (Boyds Mills Press, 2014)

One World, One Day by Barbara Kerley (Scholastic, 2009)

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs by Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018)

Rodent Rascals by Roxie Munro (Holiday House, 2018)

Seashells: More than a Home by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen (Charlesbridge, 2019) 

The Street Beneath My Feet by Charlotte Guillain and Yuval Zommer (words & pictures, 2017)

Summer Green to Autumn Gold: Uncovering Leaves' Hidden Colors by Mia Posada(Millbrook, 2019)

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)


Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton (Candlewick, 2014)

Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcie Flinchum Atkins (Millbrook, 2019)

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)

With a Friend by Your Side by Barbara Kerley (National Geographic, 2015)

*I wish I could have included more books by IPOC or members of other traditionally marginalized groups on this list. Unfortunately, there are currently very few available. I hope that will change in the near future.