Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Re-Thinking the Transactional Theory of Reading

According to Louise Rosenblatt’s highly-regarded Transactional Theory of Reading, there are two different stances (or approaches) to reading—aesthetic and efferent. The difference between the two approaches lies in where the reader’s attention is while reading.

Rosenblatt's theory states that when readers adopt an aesthetic stance, they read for enjoyment and focus on how they’re experiencing the book. For example, are they connecting emotionally with the main character? How do they feel about the main character’s response to the situation? 


In the efferent stance, readers are focused on learning and retaining information. One example Rosenblatt often used was reading the label on a cleaning product after a child has accidentally swallowed some. At that moment, all the reader cares about is how to save the child. They want to digest the information on the label as quickly as possible, so they can take action. 

There’s no doubt that no matter how much a reader loves stories and storytelling, in an emergency situation, they’re going to adopt an efferent stance. Rosenblatt claimed that same the reader will switch to the aesthetic stance as soon as they’re handed a novel. This belief is based on the “common knowledge” that everyone loves stories.

For years, I’ve questioned this idea. Based on my own experience as a reader, conversations I’ve had with children and educators, and a growing body of research, it seems that some children are, indeed, naturally drawn to narratives. But others aren’t.

Instead, these children prefer expository nonfiction because they’re passionate about facts, figures, ideas, and information. Ron Jobe and Mary Dayton-Sakari call these young analytical thinkers “info-kids” because they read to learn.

Every day.

All the time.

In other words, they never adopt the aesthetic stance.

So rather than a transactional theory of reading in which readers easily switch back and forth between two stances, I envision a narrative-analytical thinking continuum.

According to this model, some readers do naturally have the flexibility Rosenblatt suggests. Because they’re at the center of the continuum, they enjoy narratives and expository text equally. But other readers have a noted preference for narratives. And still others have a strong and persistent preference for expository nonfiction.

Why does this distinction matter?

Because, as the table below shows, the reading preferences of many teachers and librarians are significantly different from those of the students they serve.

Writing Style Preferences*

 

Expository

Narrative

Both

Grade 1 Girls

38%

24%

38%

Grade 1 Boys

67%

14%

19%

Grade 4 Girls

19%

19%

62%

Grade 4 Boys

48%

19%

33%

Educators

8%

56%

36%

For info-kids to become strong, passionate readers, educators must work hard to build book collections that include a diverse array of expository nonfiction as well as a healthy mix of narrative nonfiction and fiction.

*This table combines data from Repaskey, L., Schumm, J. & Johnson, J. (2017) “First and Fourth Grade Boys’ and Girls’ Preferences for and Perceptions about Narrative and Expository Text.” Reading Psychology, 38: 808-847 and a survey of more than 1,000 classroom teachers, literacy educators, and school librarians I conducted in 2018.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Resources for Educators: Point of View in Nonfiction


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors. 


On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to continue discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the
Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.

Under the Point of View link, you’ll find a description of first, second, and third narration with mentor texts as well as an activity that gives students and opportunity to explore writing with various points of view. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Why Students Plagiarize—It’s Not What You Think

As you read the mentor essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, you’ll see that the importance of making personal connections emerges again and again.

A nonfiction’s writer’s personality, beliefs, and experiences in the world have a tremendous impact on how they evaluate, assimilate, analyze, and synthesize their research to make personal connections.

 

Each writer views the facts and ideas they’ve gathered through their own lens, and that’s what allows them to present information in unique and interesting ways. It’s the reason that Death Eaters: Meet Nature’s Scavengers by Kelly Milner Halls is so different from Rotten! Vultures, Beetles, and Slime: Nature’s Decomposers by Anita Sanchez and Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill by Heather L. Montgomery even though all three books have some overlapping content.


Currently, most students don’t take time to think before they write. They don’t “digest” the information they’ve gathered. And because this critical step isn’t part of their prewriting process, they sometimes end up plagiarizing.

You see, plagiarizing isn’t merely the result of students being lazy. It occurs because students lack the skills necessary to put the information they’ve collected through our own personal filters and making their own meaning.

When students are able add a piece of themselves to their drafts, they can move beyond writing dry, encyclopedic survey pieces that mimic their sources and begin crafting rich, distinctive prose.

 

How can students learn these critical skills? I’ll share some of the suggestions in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Eyewitness Books for High School Readers by Margaret Altman

During a recent conversation on Facebook, school librarian Margaret Altman shared some of the great ways she uses the Eyewitness Books in her high school collection. I was so impressed, that I asked her if she'd write a blog post with some of her ideas, and I'm delighted that she agreed.


I'm a big fan of the Eyewitness Book series, published by Dorling Kindersley, and recommend these titles for browsing and informational research at all grade levels. They aren’t just for elementary students. The two-page-spread format is student friendly, the text is clear and direct, and the illustration can aid understanding tremendously.

I currently Another work at as a librarian/media specialist and book club advisor at Hammonton High School in Hammonton, New Jersey, and have many Eyewitness Books in my collection. Students appreciate the text features, such as the table of contents and headings, that help them locate the exact information they’re looking. They also value the photos and illustrations, which can help them visualize objects and ideas that are unfamiliar. And because information is presented on two-page spreads, it doesn’t intimate students. 

During a recent senior honors English research project, I offered many students Eyewitness Books to help them fill specific gaps in their research. For a student focusing on foods in ancient Egypt, the Eyewitness Book Ancient Egypt was a huge help. I showed her how to use the detailed table of contents to find the pages about food, and she was thrilled. It’s so much easier than wading through other kinds of books for bits of information.

Another High student found a treasure trove of information for her project in the Eyewitness Book Pyramids. I helped her see that it was okay to use just the parts of the book related to her thesis statement. It’s so important for students find ways to research more efficiently and effectively, and these books make it easy to model that.

High school students also enjoy browsing through Eyewitness Books to satisfy their own curiosity about a range of topics. The books are easy to spot on library shelves thanks to their large trim size and distinctive spine, and they contain just the right amount of detail in words and images. There are so many benefits to this series that I think Eyewitness Books should be in all school and public libraries and used at all age levels.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Resources for Educators: Rich Language in Nonfiction

More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view.

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors.  

On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to continue discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.

Under the Rich Language link, you’ll find a description of this text element as well as an activity with mentor texts that gives students an opportunity to identify various common language devices. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Thought Prompts

For the last few weeks, I’ve been sharing strategies from Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep that can help young writers can find a focus for their topic. In many cases, the focus solidifies in a writer’s mind while they are researching. But not always.

As you can seein this Interactive Timeline, the focus for my book Can an Aardvark Bark? only emerged after I had written many, many drafts.


Tanya Lee Stone describes a similar experience in her Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep essay. It was the act of writing and re-writing that eventually allowed Tanya to understand what Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream was really about and why that mattered to her.

While it’s hard for a writer to second guess their process after the fact, I suspect that I wouldn’t have struggled quite so much with
Can an Aardvark Bark? if I’d used a fantastic strategy I later learned from
Ryan Scala, a fifth-grade teacher in East Hampton, New York.

When students are done researching, Ryan encourages them to review their notes and circle facts and ideas they consider especially important or interesting. Then he invites them to choose one of the following prompts and jot some thoughts in their writer’s notebook:

The idea this gives me …

I was surprised to learn …

This makes me think …

This is important because … 


I decided to try this technique while writing Ick! Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses. I knew I wanted to include a 100-word section about flesh flies in the book, but I wasn’t sure what to focus on. I had so much great gross information:


·        Some flesh flies drink juices from rotting fruit. Many sip liquids from animal poop and animal carcasses. 

·        Some female flesh flies place their worm-like maggots (larvae) on dung. Others choose rotting carcasses or the open wounds of living animals.

·        Some flesh fly maggots burrow into live animals, including other insects, snails, and toads.

·        Some flesh fly maggots eat their hosts from the inside out and eventually kill them.

I could have tried to cram all this information into the book, but I knew that would be a mistake. Anytime writers use too many general words like “some” and “many,” the writing gets less interesting. I wanted my writing to be lively and full of fascinating, specific details.

But I was having trouble deciding what to highlight, and I felt overwhelmed. So I searched through my notes for Ryan’s four thought prompts. Then I reviewed my research, chose a prompt, and jotted the following in my writer’s notebook:

Until I wrote that sentence on paper, I hadn’t really thought about the irony of a fly eating a toad. I decided that would be a fun focus, so I did some more research to learn as much as I could about the flesh fly species that targets toads. Then I eagerly wrote about their unusual relationship, and I was delighted with the result.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Writing Is Sharing: Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

Rachel Carson considered herself a scientist first and a writer second. In fact, she often said that the natural world gave her something to write about.

I couldn’t agree more.

I've been enamored with the wildlife and wild places since I was 8 years old, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a career that allows me to spend my days exploring the world around us and then sharing my new knowledge with kids.

During school visits, students often ask me why I write nonfiction. And my answer is that while fiction writers enjoy inventing characters and creating worlds, for me, the natural world is so amazing, so magical, that I feel driven to share its beauty and wonder with other people. I tell my young audience that if one of my books inspires them to lift up a rock and see what’s underneath or to chase after a butterfly just to see where it’s going, then my job is done.

For me, writing is sharing. While I wrote for myself long before I was published and continue to do so today, writers generally crave more than an audience of one. That’s one of the reasons I’ve maintained this blog for 11 years.

I often use this blog as a way of working out my own ideas about the world and the craft of nonfiction writing. Some posts don’t get much of an audience, but some of my most popular posts have received more than 100,000 hits and one received 500,000. Clearly, the ideas I threw out into the world those day resonated with my audience, and I should keep pursing them. So far, ideas that started on this blog have turned into four books for educators, and perhaps there will be more in the future.

So why is any of this relevant to you, my audience of teachers, librarians, and writers? Because young writers are no different from me. They want to be seen and heard and understood, and we need to show them that writing can be a powerful way to do that. How? By giving them an authentic audience. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Share a final draft with a small group of classmates. This is less intimidating than doing an oral presentation for the whole class. Encourage listeners to discuss the writer’s ideas but not to critique the writing.

2. Share a final draft with younger students. Encourage the audience to respond with writing of their own or by drawing pictures or making an audio or video recording.

3. Create a class blog and encourage students in other classes, parents and grandparents, and family friends to read the posts and leave comments.

If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments below. I know there are lots of ways we can make this happen for our students.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Resources for Educators: Nonfiction Voice


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view.

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors. 


On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going to continue discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.


Under the Voice link, you’ll find a description of this text element that includes mentor texts as well as an activity to help students understand the range of voices nonfiction can exhibit, from lively to lyrical. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Look for the “Oh, wow!”

Wouldn't it be wonderful if nonfiction writers could always identify their focus at the beginning of the prewriting process? Unfortunately, that often isn’t the case. Sometimes writers really have to be in the thick of things before their focus becomes clear. 

What should writers do when they begin researching with nothing more than a general topic in mind? Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing includes some helpful suggestions.


For example, author Deborah Heiligman recommends a targeted note-taking strategy in which students read broadly about their topic and only jot down information that makes them say, “Oh, wow!” This approach helps writers view the topic through their own lens and pinpoint the ideas and information that interest them most.

As you'll discover in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, this is literally what Jason Chin did as he was creating Grand Canyon. After reading widely about his topic without a specific approach in mind, Jason decided to visit the canyon. And the first time he walked up to the edge, he had an “Oh, wow!” experience that inspired him and guided his creative process as he wrote and illustrated the book.

When Deborah employs her “Oh, wow!” technique, she uses the notes she’s taken to develop a “mantra”—a statement that helps her determine what information to highlight and what to leave out. She writes the statement on a piece of paper and tapes it to the wall above her computer.

Barbara Kerley describes a similar process in her essay. Whether she’s writing a picture book biography with a narrative writing style or a concept book with an expository writing style, she creates a sentence that focuses her thinking and her writing.

Chris Barton may not have written down the “mantra” that guided him as he wrote What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, but his essay clearly explains how a core idea that emerged during his research process helped him focus his manuscript and fueled his passion for the project.

Next week I’ll share another idea that can help nonfiction writers focus a topic. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Steve Sheinkin Explains His Nonfiction Storyboarding Process

 

Last week, I posted these intriguing before and after images of uber-talented nonfiction author Steve Sheinkin’s storyboard, which I spotted on Twitter. Then I posed some questions about  it and discussed the visual-tactile strategies I’ve developed to help me organize my books.

The good news is Steve agreed to answer my questions and discuss his process. I’m sure you’ll find his explanation as fascinating as I did.

Okay, the index cards? Very twentieth century, I know, but they work for me, and I’ll never switch to using a computer for this part of the book-writing process.  

It started with my attempts, and failures, to outline the research I collected for what became my nonfiction thriller, Bomb

I was finding lots of great stuff, “must-have” material as I call it—the makings of lots of great scenes. But I couldn’t figure out how to fit it all together, how to turn these different story lines into one cohesive page-turning plot. 

I tried lots of conventional outlining techniques, but things kept getting muddled. The notes spread over many pages and I couldn’t see it—I literally couldn’t see the story.

I realize now that I’m a visual learner. I guess that term hadn’t been invented when I was a kid, though it would have helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses as a student.

Anyway, I decided to try using the kind of storyboarding I’d learned about in a screenwriting class. Break your story into scenes (about 40 for a typical movie structure) and use one index card or sticky note to represent each scene. Then stick everything on the wall and see how it looks. Sit back and watch it. See how one scene flows into the next. See how the storylines interact. Check for dull parts, unnecessary tangents, make sure your momentum is building.

With Bomb, I knew I wanted to weave together three related storylines: scientists racing to make the first atomic bomb, spies trying to steal the secrets, and commandos assigned to sabotage Hitler’s bomb research. So I used three different color index cards: one color each for scientists, spies, and commandos. Simple, but it really worked for me.

On each card I wrote a bullet point or two describing a distinct bit of action, say, Robert Oppenheimer learning about fission and sketching a bomb on his blackboard at Berkeley, or two spies meeting on a bridge in Santa Fe. Each card represented about 400 words. Once I put all my best stuff on different color cards, these became like pieces of a puzzle. Then came the fun part—putting it together.

The image above shows part of my storyboard for an upcoming nonfiction book called Fallout—my take on a Cold War thriller, with a lot of the science and spying and fast cutting between storylines I tried for in Bomb.

The white cards on the board simply represent chapters. I’m constantly changing where chapters begin and end, right up until my final deadline.

One change I’ve made over the years is to add an extra color for context/background info. You always need a certain amount of “okay, here’s why we’re fighting the Cold War” kind of stuff, or “here’s what else was going in the world at this time,” and I’ve found it helpful to use a different color for that stuff—purple in this example. That way, I can see right away where these sections fall, and get a feel for where I may be slowing down to do too much explaining.

The benefit of having all of this right in front of me as I write is that I can look up and see where I am in the story. I can see what just happened, and what happens next. I can watch the scene on one card in my head, then watch the next one, and see if they work together.

I can always reach out and move stuff around, or put something to the side in the “cuts” area, a sad but necessary part of the process. I’ve even got a little magnetic Lego Steve (made by my son) that moves along with me through the first draft—it’s very satisfying to move “me” along as I finish one card and start the next!


Steve Sheinkin’s nonfiction titles include The Notorious Benedict Arnold, Bomb, The Port Chicago 50, Most Dangerous, Undefeated, and Born to Fly. His books have received a Newbery Honor, three National Book Award finalist honors, three Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for nonfiction, and a Sibert Medal. Steve’s upcoming book, Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Unlikely Cold War Showdown is due out in September.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Resources for Educators: Formatting Nonfiction


More and more, teachers are requesting educational resources that go beyond traditional teachers guides and activity sheets. So while I do still have those kinds of materials on my website, I’m also offering resources that delve deeply into the nonfiction reading and writing process from an author’s point of view. 

Some of these resources focus on books I’ve written and describe various stages of my creative process in detail, while others provide more general information  and highlight books written by a wide variety of nonfiction authors.  

On Mondays this year, I’m sharing some of these resources and providing ideas for how they might be used in the classroom. Today, I’m going continue discussing the Writing Activities and Mentor Text sections, which you can access by clicking on the Nonfiction Writing Resources icon.

Under the Format link, you’ll find an activity that looks at how and why nonfiction writers can employ layered text and different combinations of text features to achieve their author purpose.

Under the Format link, you’ll find an activity that looks at how and why nonfiction writers can employ layered text and different combinations of text features to achieve their author purpose.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: Starting with a Question

As you read the mentor essays in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing, you’ll notice that, in some cases, professional writers start with a specific focus in mind. But for others, finding a focus is part of their creative process. In most cases, student writers will probably be in this second group.

Do how can writers find a focus? One way is by asking questions.

As you'll Questions discover in Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep, when I saw a Pinterest board with an incredible variety of seeds, I asked myself: “How does a seed’s external features contribute to its ability to survive and germinate?” That question focused my thinking and helped me target my research for the book that eventually became A Seed Is the Start.


Questions also help guide Laura Purdie Salas and Jen Swanson in early stages of the writing process. Laura’s favorite question is “What else?” She asks it over and over as she shapes the ideas and information her manuscript will explore.

Jen is a curious person who is always asking questions. Her books often begin with a BIG question, but she also asks herself dozens of smaller questions as she organizes information and searches for the best way to present her topic to her young audience.

If your class has adopted the Idea Incubator or One Amazing Thing strategies I’ve discussed in previous posts, students may already have questions that they can use as a starting point. If not, invite them to seek out questions that interest them in their Idea Incubator list or brainstorm questions about some of the amazing things they’ve been noticing around them. Students can use these questions to guide their research.

Not only does this approach guarantee that students will have some skin in the game, a specific query will lead to more targeted note taking. It will also give students authentic opportunities to make connections between information they find in a variety of sources.