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Moving Kids (and our Teaching) Along a Trajectory of Non-Fiction Goodness

August 30, 2010

The Glorious Strands of Non Fiction

(Most of this information comes from workshops led by Cory Gillette and the TCRWP. Thank you, Cory!!)

This past season has been one of great strides in the teaching of Fiction. The research on Bands of Text Difficulty changed my life as a teacher. Small group work (and my own clarity) has never been more consistent and effective (and JOYFUL) as it was this year. I believe it’s because we are really starting to understand the nuances of teaching students through Fiction. My brilliant heroes at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project have worked hard this year trying to do the same for Non-Fiction. Finding similarities among levels in Non-Fiction books, however, proved to be much more difficult. The answer was not in BANDS, rather in STRANDS, predictable patterns of increased difficulty. There are three: Elaboration, Vocabulary, and Main Idea.

Students spend the majority of their time in 1st and 2nd grades reading Non-Fiction. They LOVE it. Yet as they enter the upper grades, the love affair ends. Reading NF (for some) becomes a point of dread and anxiety. I honestly believe this new work may alleviate that and bring the joy back to Non-fiction.

Predictable problems in Non Fiction:

Students take the stance as detail holders, memorizing details as little facts and  miss the big idea (often drowning in anxiety).

The GOAL is to get the big idea. We as non-fiction readers need to SYNTHESIZE. To constantly move in and out from tiny details to BIG IDEA.

In lower level non-fiction texts, the BIG IDEA is obvious. (For example, the big idea is often given as 1 sentence on 1 page: Sharks are dangerous.) As texts become more complicated, ideas become embedded in more elaborate details. The reader is expected to dig through the information to find or infer the bigger idea. As texts get harder, we have to keep caring about the BIG IDEA.

So our task then is to help students become able to deal with more difficult texts. (And maybe re-evaluate what we expect from them along the way. We don’t want them to read like researchers, collecting every tiny fact… we want them to synthesize!)

In order to understand HOW non-fiction texts get harder, it helps to think of strands of text difficulty. According to the brilliant comrades at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Non-fiction text difficulty can be broken down into 3 major strands:

  1. Elaboration
  2. Tricky Words
  3. Determining Main Idea
Elaboration Tricky Words Determining Main Idea

More Difficult




Main Idea is obvious and written on the page Text is in small chunks. Ex: 1 Sentence: Sharks are dangerous.

Size of chunks increase (paragraphs).

Main Idea is inferred from more words. (Here we need to teach what’s most important. The reader has to be able to let go of detail to get to the main idea.)

Certain words in NF carry weight:

-this, that, these, those, for example

We must notice and determine extraneous details

Words are defined plus text feature support:

In lower level texts, new vocabulary is often taught with a picture, caption, title, and text. The meaning is obvious.

Later, the author assumes you are brining a certain amount of knowledge to the text and you must look further to find the meaning of the word.

In more difficult texts, the reader has to be even more flexible. Vocabulary shifts; it may become more figurative.

Readers must expect synonyms. Vocabulary could be defined 1 way and referred to in another. Ex: Station/Depot/Terminal

Main Idea is directly stated with support of features.

Main Idea is stated without support of features. (As texts become increasingly more difficult, notice that features stop being retells and more ENHANCEMENTS. It may not have anything to do with Main Idea.)

Main Idea becomes implied.

There may be more than 1 main idea.

The title becomes less literal and more figurative. Readers now need to read to figure out the meaning of the title, not the other way around.

It is helpful to tackle this work by taking on certain identities or STANCES as a reader. We are readers who. . . _______________________ as we read.

Introducing Strands

We need to teach students how to move through strands by showing them the work with will be doing. For example, you could say, “ Look! You were reading books like this…. (point out pages from text). Now, you’re reading stuff like this… (point out pages from text). So now, you have to be a reader who…”


The goal in NF is to interact with and make sense of the text. In expository text, you don’t have personal connection with text, so we need to give kids opportunities to interract with the text.

The way to make meaning and gain knowledge through NF is to merge YOUR thinking with the content. Readers need to work, play with, mess around with, and manipulate facts.

Three big ways to Synthesize

  1. Make a comparison
  2. Have an inference (often a trait)
  3. Form a judgement

Comparison is the most common. Kids can use their past knowledge to form a connection to the subject or idea. Ex: Sharks teeth are like puppy teeth … because… Camel humps are like pantries…because…

Inferring means that we might watch the subject like we’d watch a character.

*It’s important to remember that the assignment is to Synthesize, not to compare, judge, or infer. The reader needs to determine what works for her. (It’s a compare OR judge OR infer kind of thing.)

Comprehension is NOT about memorizing facts. It’s about interacting. Use whatever you need to glue the bigger parts of the text together. Play! mess around with! manipulate!!  I truly believe doing this will help us discover the joy in Non Fiction again!

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