I love to read. I love to read fiction. I have spent hours lost in the pages of my favorite novels and picture books, swept away to places and spaces I would otherwise never have known, but my life does not depend on how well I can understand Shakespearean themes or follow the beautiful language of a poem. It does, however, depends on how well I can decode, analyze, evaluate, and use content area information.
Think about it, when you need to understand the world around you, what do you consult? What do you read more of? In fact, what are you reading right now???
Our students are surrounded by information, and their success in school and out is dependent on their ability to read with understanding information text-on and offline. Yet, there is very little systematic instruction in how to do this important work. Ask your students or your own children the following questions:
- How do you read math differently than science?
- What are the different ways nonfiction texts are organized and how does it influence your ability to find and understand information?
- What strategies are most critical when moving from narrative, continuous text into nonfiction, content specific reading?
This is what reading instruction in the 21st Century needs to address, and we CAN NOT wait until our students are in Middle and High school, knee deep in content to address this. There are immediate and effective things we can be doing at every grade level to prepare students for this challenge:
- Increase Access – All students, especially young children need access to high quality nonfiction texts. Check your books shelves, classroom libraries, and website bookmarks-what is the percentage fiction verses nonfiction options for kids? This is so simple to change-information comes in many shapes and sizes, cereal boxes, brochures, magazines, newspapers, websites, picture books, and they all count!
- Increase Time – Minutes matter. In a study of 1st grade classrooms, students spend an average of only 3.6 minutes a day interacting with informational text-even less in low-socioeconomic status schools ( Duke, 2001). We can incorporate nonfiction titles in both our content area instruction and our reading and writing block. Stock students SSR time and reading boxes with great selections of nonfiction titles. We are fortunate that publishers have wonderful options from very emergent level readers to sophisticate, and eloquent content texts.
- Teach Nonfiction Reading Strategies – Skimming, scanning, cross checking, reading visuals, analyzing diagrams, note talking, these are not strategies we employ when reading a poem or a novel. Students need to understand what strategic, efficient reading looks like with texts of nonfiction. Squeezing this in during content area instruction takes the focus away from the important mental work of readers, so I find it more powerful and productive to share these mini lessons during reading class and then have students practice and apply this work during math, science,and social studies.
- Make the Connection between On and Offline Reading – Students no longer live in a world of microfiche and libraries. Google is their library, and when they need to find something, that is where they go. Information online requires a critical eye and a wide awake brain. Just because it is in print and there is a photo does not make it fact. Students need systematic instruction in finding big ideas, validating sources, and making wise decision about what is important and what is not when it is on the web.
- Be authentic – We do not read nonfiction to remember facts or define vocabulary words. We read to learn, connect, explore, and understand the world. Our work in nonfiction needs to be done for authentic and real life purposes.
We have the potential to change students lives with this instruction, and the good news is, students love nonfiction! We have their attention, the question is…What will we do with it?