Tag Archives: reading nonfiction

Reading Nonfiction

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A year ago, I got the kids the Horrible Geography box set from a used bookseller. These are some of the least known of the “Horrible” books and have a different author from any of them, but they’re in the same vein. Chapter books with wacky facts and silly titles that are meant to appeal to kids who like a good offbeat story.

I asked Mushroom and BalletBoy to read one for school and it was a huge bust. They hated it. They hated it because they were really struggling with reading nonfiction. I was seeing it across the board as I tried to get them to read things like The Scientist in the Field series or other longer nonfiction books. They simply couldn’t keep focused on most of them.

This came as a big surprise to me. Neither of my boys are precocious or voracious readers, but they were able to tackle meatier fiction books on their level. And we had been reading aloud piles of nonfiction for years. They always seemed to retain something from it, interrupting to discuss and ask questions that indicated they understood it. This was not to say they’re perfect listeners or anything, but I didn’t realize we’d have so many problems with nonfiction.

It was very frustrating. However, I decided to dial us back and focus on that skill. How could I help them get better at independently reading nonfiction and showing that they had grasped what they read? I ended up trying a variety of things and it meant taking them backward to simpler materials.

A few weeks ago, as we started a unit on geography, I asked the kids again to pull one of those unread Horrible Geography books off the shelf. This time, each kid took the book and flew through them in just a few assigned reading sittings then gave me a quick oral narration that showed they had understood what they read. That’s when I realized we had really come a long way on this issue and I’m pleased with what we did.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve been using to help them get better at reading nonfiction:

We backed up to much, much easier nonfiction.
While reading aloud more complex works was an exciting element of hitting the middle school years, I realized they just weren’t ready for reading the same things on their own. Thus, we went backward to reading things like the Who Was biographies, the Adler Picture Book Biography series, and other such simpler fare. I had to recognize that while these seemed too easy for them, a lot of the books I wanted them to read actually had higher reading levels, more like 7th and 8th grade. Plus, when you need to back up, it’s good to find your footing at a level where you can get really comfortable.

We focused on shorter readings.
Most of the read alouds we were up to were things we read over at least a day or two, but I realized for nonfiction practice, the shorter, the better. So while things like the Who Was books were good, they were actually too long in some ways. We needed things that were just a couple of pages. One great source for super short nonfiction pieces are some of the Cricket magazines, such as Muse and Dig.

I resorted to workbooks.
When it became clear that to BalletBoy, the “main idea” was whatever he took from the reading, however obscure the detail, I decided it was time to do some really basic work and bought a Main Ideas and Summarizing workbook during Scholastic Dollar Days. We didn’t even get halfway through with it before he had dramatically improved. Sometimes, it just takes a worksheet.

We used narration.
I started requiring more narration, both written and oral about everything they read. I also insisted that narrations contain the main ideas of what they read. Previously, I had been okay with more meandering narrations or narrations that focused more on their own reactions or on details they found interesting. I pushed them to do narrations that contained more summary and had them redo a lot of narrations for awhile.

We did more buddy reading.
While using worksheets was useful for BalletBoy, Mushroom needed a lot more of this technique. He’s not quite as strong a reader and tends to skip words when he’s flustered so making him slow down and read aloud was good, as was reading alongside him to help him when he got stuck.

We moved into articles for adults.
As they got a little better at reading, instead of moving to longer and more complex children’s books, we moved into reading news articles, typically about science or culture. While written for a general adult audience, these pieces were shorter and that was the key. They couldn’t read a long National Geographic article, but they could tackle a three or four page article from National Geographic’s History magazine, which turned out to be a good resource. Sources that have “Article of the Week” links were also good since they were specially chosen news articles for the classroom. Keeping things short meant they could read and not get lost in what they were reading about, even if the language and topic got a little more complex.

I let them pick their reading.
Practicing this skill was more important than me assigning specific readings and having some level of control can go a long way, so I usually gave them some level of choice about what to read. Even when I wanted them to read about a specific subject, such as last semester’s dinosaurs unit, I would spread out an array of different books for them to choose from. That’s one of the benefits of a decent library.

Book Roundup

I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing our periodic book roundups. However, as always, we’ve been reading. Here’s a few things from our shelves from the last few months and I’ll try to get back to doing more book blogging again.

School Read
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd
We took this book out of the library and let it inspire our final project for fifth grade: graphic design. This was such a readable book for my design loving kids that they both read it for pleasure reading first before I could assign it, which is a rare occurrence around here indeed. It’s a well designed book (as one would hope) and filled with great visual examples. The text also breaks down important elements of design in a way that’s simple for the reader. At the end there are ten projects for readers to try so they can do their own graphic design. As always, the kids has their own takes on how to do the projects, but it was a really good introduction. I highly recommend it.

Nonfiction Practice Reading
TIME: Modern Explorers
We have struggled a lot to hit the right length and difficulty level for nonfiction reading in our house. I may write more about this in a future post, but in the meantime, I found a good solution for now, which was to seek out adult magazines geared toward more casual readers by simply running through the offerings at the bookstore. This one has been the biggest hit. It’s a special issue of Time about explorers in all different fields: medicine, oceanography, outer space, climbing, and more. There’s a nice variance of lengths and both the boys have been excited by what they read. The opening article, about twin astronauts, was especially interesting to them. The writing is at a high enough level to be challenging, but not as challenging as many other publications geared toward adults and the length of the articles is just right, which has been a key element for my not so fast readers.

Required Reading
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
We do very little required reading, but I did choose a couple of shorter books to be read by all three of us at the same time then discussed at a poetry tea and this is the one that finished up our school year. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a boy named Jess, a middle child in a poor, rural family who dreams of being an artist. Leslie moves in next door and they quickly become friends. Leslie’s family is affluent, there because they’re fleeing the city for a country oasis. She’s different, smart, and well-read. She introduces Jess to a fantasy world and they play games in the woods across the creek. However, on a fateful, stormy day when Jess isn’t there, she is swept into the creek and drowns. I know this book is divisive for many. Some people feel utterly betrayed by the story and Leslie’s very unexpected death (there is some foreshadowing, but it’s limited). However, I felt like the book is one that has a strong impact on readers and generally elicits a strong response. I talked to the kids about how the book is sad and that there’s a surprise shocking thing that happens. Even with the warnings, BalletBoy cried when he read about Leslie’s death and it led to a lot of good conversations, which was exactly the goal of having a required reading book like this one.

Mushroom’s Serious Read
Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Mushroom has a book type these days, one that can best be described as “issue books.” He likes books where difficult things happen to kids or where kids have to overcome various issues. That’s why I was sure this book would be right up his alley. Willow, the main character, is profoundly gifted, but also misunderstood by everyone but her parents. Unfortunately, they die in a terrible accident, leaving Willow on her own without anyone. A bizarre cast of characters step in to help her out, but slowly, as Willow resurfaces from her grief, she’s the one who helps them out. I read this one alongside Mushroom and we both really liked it.

Mushroom’s Graphic Novel Read
El Deafo by Cece Bell
You know how I just said that Mushroom likes “issue books”? Well, here was one that brought together his two great literary loves in one volume: a book that was both an issue book and a graphic novel. What could be better? El Deafo won a much deserved Newbery Honor last year, hopefully making it the first graphic novel to be honored among many. The characters are all rabbits, but the story is based on the author’s own childhood. Cece loses her hearing and must adjust to having an awkward hearing aid, but one that soon helps her hear in places that no one else can. It’s a story that’s both serious and funny.

BalletBoy’s Serious Read
The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne
BalletBoy generally refuses to listen to any books I suggest for him so he always runs through the shelves and finds his own interesting titles, often of books I’ve never heard of. That was the case with this book, which is a sort of fanciful tale about a boy who is born floating. In a twist a bit like the classic Rudolph Christmas special, Barnaby’s parents are ashamed of his unusual state and do everything they can to hide it, that is until Barnaby floats away to have a series of adventures. BalletBoy really loved this book and immediately dove into another book by Boyne (who is probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). I only skimmed a bit of it, but I can’t say I was as enchanted as he was, still, I think the fairy tale and moral qualities of the story appealed to him as a reader.

Farrar’s YA Read
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
This Printz award winner from last year begins like a typical teenage boy book. Narrator Austin is a bit of a stoner, a bit funny, a bit confused about his sexuality, and a bit disgusting in the way that teen boys can be. However, after introducing the characters, the book slowly veers into science fiction as a virus that ends the world by turning people into giant bugs is unleashed thanks to a series of accidents. This was one of those darkly fascinating books for me. It really stayed with me for weeks afterward and I liked how the book swung from being one sort of book to being another entirely. Austin’s voice reminded me a little of the main character from Youth in Revolt – a teenage boy who is both disgusted with himself and yet unable to stop himself when it comes to poor decisions. But by the end of the book, it felt like I was in a comedic Starship Troopers. This book is definitely not for everyone, but I liked what Smith had to say in his thank yous about how he wrote it just for himself, just because. Obviously, that led to a unique, interesting book.

Farrar’s YA Graphic Novel Read
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I read this all in one sitting because I was so compelled once it got started (I know, not so hard for a graphic novel, but still). The setting is a sort of alternate universe where medieval values and trappings live alongside modern technology. At the start, the title character Nimona, a young teen with a medieval punk look, offers her services to the most famous super villain, a man who washed out of being a knight after his arm was destroyed in a jousting explosion. It quickly becomes clear that Nimona, who happens to be a shapeshifter, is dangerously unstable and bloodthirsty. The story makes you feel for her despite the high body count she racks up. But as the story continues, it becomes less clear who the good guys and bad guys even are and what Nimona is as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who likes a good graphic novel. I liked the balance it struck between humor and seriousness.