Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Still Learning to Read: Text Sets That Deepen Conversation Around an Issue

This is one of a series of blog posts that continue the conversation around Still Learning to Read--teaching reading to students in grades 3-6.  This series will run on the blog on Tuesdays starting in August 2016 and continue through the school year.

For the next few weeks, I'll be sharing text sets I've been using to deepen conversation and to help students understand topics and issues more deeply.  One thing I notice about third graders is that they are all about facts. So starting an informational unit of study in reading is tricky as they sometimes think that reading nonfiction is about facts and restating them.  I want them to know that informational reading is far more than that. I want them to move beyond isolated facts and to discover that understanding an issue is different from knowing facts. I want them to see the power of thinking in different ways because of the conversations different texts invite. I want them to see that topics are often the small information of a bigger issue.  I want them to see that the more they read and learn about a topic, they more they will wonder and want to learn more.

So I am pulling together small text sets that help students think in a variety of ways about a "topic". The topics connect to our content requirements and I've thought a bit about the order of the way I introduce the texts. I find that I can introduce a topic or issue in 3-4 days by sharing a text a day and tracking the way our thinking changes over time. Then as the year goes on, I'll continue to bring in books that connect back to that topic in some way, building and growing our understanding of issues as we also grow as readers.

Last week, we read 3 books about water.  One of our science concepts in 3rd grade is that some of Earthy's resources are limited and the understanding of that.

I started by sharing the book Water is Water by Miranda Paul. This is a great picture book that explains the water cycle and the way water changes  in a simple and inviting way. As an added bonus, Emily Arrow has a song (with hand motions) to go along with this book. So we started there.  The conversation was fine.

The next day we moved to The Water Princess by Susan Verde, Georgie Badiel and Peter Reynolds. This story is based on the Georgie Baddiel's childhood and shares the hardship of getting clean water to a village each day. Stories-Especially stories about real people matter for our young children to make sense of topics and issues.  When I read this book aloud, something in the room shifted as kids realized that this long walk to get water was a daily occurrence for children around the world. Instead of talking about what they learned, the conversation was filled with questions and wonders and "How can this still be happening in the world?".  They wondered why it was so hard to get a well. They wondered if children could ever go to school. They wondered why we had such easy access to water. They wondered about wasting water. They wondered how this problem could be fixed.  They talked and wondered and contemplated the issue of water as something they had never considered.  They went back to the water cycle conversation and the idea that there was only so much water in the world and that meant different things to different people.  That we took water for granted and they had never really thought about it. The conversation could have continued all day.

On the third day of this conversation, we watched Ryan's Story from the Ryan's Well Foundation.  Seeing what can be done to help communities and how a well can change so much about a community started another conversation.  The kids were also interested in the fact that Ryan started this work in first grade AND that he has continued it into his adult life.  This conversation centered around the difference that the well made for the community with questions about how many communities needed a well.  

One goal for our nonfiction study was for students to see how our thinking changes and grows the more we learn.  So we tracked some of our thinking and looked back to see how thinking changed and grew the more we knew.  We realized that we had more questions after the 3 texts than we had at the beginning. I worry that often we ask kids to wonder before they know enough to have genuine questions. But after reading and thinking together, they have more questions than any other kind of thinking.

I am collecting texts of all kinds to keep in a mental file of books that can fit into this set. Some seem better suited to older kids or for kids who end up digging more deeply on their own.  Others that we might visit later in the year or that I'll keep in a mental file to build on the conversation and to connect this with other topics we read about are:

A Cool Drink of Water by Barbara Kerley 
A Drop Around the World by Barbara McKinney
All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon
How to Make Filthy Water Drinkable (TED Talk by Micael Pritchard)
Depending on where the conversation goes, there are some articles about water from NEWSELA that might connect to our conversation and learning. Current events around water issues (Flint, Michigan and  the Standing Rock protests would connect to this idea also.)

I think in the past, I found books about a topic and it was no wonder my students were interested in facts.  Now I try to find compelling books that go beyond sharing information. I want to tie in not only information but real stories that bring issues around topics to light.  As readers I want my students to see the power of reading widely and I want them to see how their thinking changes across time and texts.

(Our new edition of Still Learning to Read was released in August!  You can order it online at StenhouseYou can follow the conversation using the hashtag #SLTRead.)



  1. When we think about 21st Century Learning Environments, these are the kinds of approaches we should be discussing. This is personalized learning that doesn't depend on algorithms or AI.

  2. I am so impressed with what many students have done in response to A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. I can envision water being an ongoing study all year long. So many issues around the simple element of water.


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