Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reading Conversation

A couple of weeks back, my students and I made a chart of all the things we expect when we pick up a nonfiction book. The number one expectation was FACTS. Along with that, we listed all the various structures of nonfiction (index, glossary, pictures, captions, etc.).

Yesterday I asked them to give me the top 5 expectations they have when they open a fiction book. Here they are, in the order they were given:

1. A beginning, a middle, and an end. (Wow! The basic structure of fiction on the first hand up!)

2. Enjoyment.

3. A problem.

I had to stop them there because they had said so much in their top three and I wanted to make sure they really heard themselves.  I probed, "You expect to enjoy fiction, and yet you also expect problems? You ENJOY the PROBLEMS?" They laughed, delighted by the wrongness of that truth and assured me that they enjoy the problems. "Do you ALWAYS enjoy problems?" And they laughed again about that, and assured me that they do NOT always enjoy problems. "So why do you enjoy problems in books?" They couldn't really put it into words, so I gave them the simple truth that they already knew about fiction: We can enjoy the problems BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT OURS! An example from just the day before:  When S. decided to read THE GIRL WITH 500 MIDDLE NAMES by Haddix, it was with the expressed mission of finding out how the character in the story handled the teasing. Not her problem.

4. Characters.

5. Story. Not facts, story. Unless, as the boy who's reading CRACKER by Kahodata pointed out, you're reading historical fiction, and then you expect some facts mixed into your story.

When I sent them off to read, it seemed like the silence in the room was a bit deeper than usual, and I was unwilling to break it by having conferences. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the way they were holding their books as they read looked like they were holding mirrors up to their own hearts.


  1. Their nonfiction list was interesting. You might be interested in the discussion about plot in nonfiction over at Nonfiction Matters. I'm currently focusing my students in the issue of telling history --- say in nonfiction vs. historical fiction. Today I will be reading aloud and discussing Deborah Hopkinson's Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek which I think wonderful addresses this topic.

  2. Monica,
    Interesting point about plot in nonfiction. In fact, our conversation yesterday DID wander around in that territory. They DO totally understand that nonfiction contains story. I edited that part out of my post so that I could...TELL A BETTER STORY!!!! :-)

  3. That is so cool, Mary Lee. It is so interesting to me that *story* doesn't immediately surface when we talk with kids about nonfiction. Would love to hear more about that part of your discussion

  4. Love that image of the children reading, Mary Lee. Lovely piece of writing here.

  5. What a beautiful post and what perceptive students!


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