Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaching "What's Important?" in Nonfiction

One thing I have noticed that I need to focus on in my teaching is helping kids understand strategies for finding what's important. As I look over assessments, chat with students and listen in on conversations, I've noticed a few things. First of all, students aren't quite sure what "important" means.  It is hard for them to understand the difference between important and interesting but some of that seems to come from the idea of not understanding author purpose. The other thing I notice is that although my students can name text features and understand what they say in isolation, they rarely use them in the context of a text to make meaning.

So, this week I started the conversation around what is important in nonfiction text.  You never know if your first lesson/book choice is the right pick.  I try my hardest to make sure the first lesson is scaffolded just right to begin important conversations but usually I have to revise after that first lesson. This round though, I seem to have found the perfect book to start this conversation with my students. So, I thought I shared.

I used TIMELESS THOMAS by Gene Barretta this week to introduce the idea of what is important. I hoped that between the title and subtitle (Timeless Thomas:  How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives) and the organization/headings, it would get the kids thinking about this idea. And it did.

I read the book aloud to students. What I like about this book for this purpose is that the organization repeats throughout the book. Each two page spreads focuses on one of Edison's invention starting with the ways in which we use it now and going back to Edison's lab. The organization and headings on each spread are repeated throughout the book.

When I finished reading the book aloud, I had kids turn and talk about the part of the book that they thought was the most interesting. I told them that for me, it was the page at the end that listed the people who worked in Edison's lab because I have always been fascinated by the way they all problem solved together and the collaboration that happened there. Others shared their most interesting points (most were interested in the ipod connection, of course:-)

After our conversation, I did a kind of think aloud about even though the fact that I thought the collaboration part was interesting, it might not be the thing the author wanted me to get from the book-- that the author's purpose might have been different and that authors leave clues about what they hope we/readers learn from their writing. I talked about how I try to read for what's interesting AND what's important, depending on why I am reading.  I shared that often the organization of the book and the headings were one way authors told us about what was important. I also shared that the title in nonfiction often gave a clue as to what was important.

We had a great conversation following. The first part focused on the word Timeless from the title that one student noticed. The next part of the conversation focused around the subtitle. Then we opened the book and revisited the headings/organization and added to our thinking.  We talked about how these 3 pieces come together and we can use those to determine importance. It was a great conversation and a great start to a long conversation about determining important information. The kids actually seemed excited to think about this. It was like they were in on some big secret. And for the rest of the week, kids were noticing things about books, chatting about how they never really paid much attention to headings before, etc.

A very simple lesson but the perfect book to make it accessible and interesting for kids.  I'm thinking next, we'll spend some time with a few of Steve Jenkins' books because the organization of his books are so unique and tell so much about the topic.  Then we'll move to a page from a book like THE LEGO BOOK to determine the important information on the page based on layout, organization, heading.  In the meantime, we'll have an informal conversation around this week's issue of Time for Kids related to headings, organization and importance. I didn't actually think this would be a fun thing to teach but it is turning out to be interesting and fun to watch the kids approach nonfiction a bit differently.


  1. Anonymous10:07 AM

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  2. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Great post! As a writer and homeschooling mom, I am always looking for new ways to open kids' minds to broader conversations and observations. I'll be keeping your comments in mind today while I'm writing and planning!

  3. Great discussion on the differences between interesting and important when reading non fiction. What a fun way to do it too.

  4. I love teaching nonfiction and having those conversations with kids for just the reasons you mentioned. I bought Timeless Thomas after seeing it pop up on Goodreads several times. I've had the same conversations with my kids as they've been working on creating a website about healthy living for our school. We've looked at how authors of various websites show the reader what is important and now they are making some of those decisions as they create the layout of their pages. I haven't shared Timeless Thomas yet, but am looking forward to digging deeper into reading and writing nonfiction.


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