Friday, November 15, 2013

Close Reading With Informational Text - Part 1

Close Reading With Informational Text 

Learn From My Mistakes

 Some folks would call this my office but I call it heaven! Wall to wall professional books.

                I am an addict. A certifiable out-of-control nonfiction junkie.  I don't completely understand my lifelong love affair with nonfiction but I vividly remember the exact moment I  named it. I was in high school and  was unsuccessfully explaining this near religious epiphany to my Mom while she was tending pork chops on the stove. She didn't understand what all the fuss was about since after all I was a lock-myself-in-the-bedroom and don't-bother-me kind of reader. I am sharing this with you for two reasons: 1) I want you to understand my head-over-heels passion for the topic of Informational Text, and 2) You might appreciate my restraint in not having written about it sooner. My goal for today's blog is for you to learn from some of my dumb mistakes in the teaching/non-teaching of nonfiction and particularly those lessons where I was trying to scaffold students' close reading.

               Before we launch today's topic I would like to share that last week I made a huge shift in my understanding of Close Reading using narrative texts thanks to Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts, Falling in Love With Close Reading. Always self-propelled forward, I feel pressure to get a handle on teaching students the how to of close reading using information text. The challenges are overwhelming. 

What Makes Teaching Informational Text So Doggone Challenging?


               Let's take a quick peek and I promise to talk at greater length about these challenges next week.  First of all, with informational text readers can't ride the wave of story structure and meaning as we are able to do with narratives. With narratives, at an early age we intuitively understand the story mountain: the  beginning, the build-up, the problem or dilemma, the resolution, and the ending. With informational text  structures changes not only from book to book but within the same book and perhaps even within the same paragraph. 

               The vocabulary is formidable and tricky. The more background knowledge and prior knowledge we have the more we are able to understand the text and those Tier 2 & 3 words. The information is dense and then of course there are the multitude of text features--side bars, text boxes, charts, figures, etc., etc.

               Most of us could be video-taped during read alouds using narrative texts. We have transformed our read aloud to an art form. Our experience with informational text for read alouds/think alouds in most cases is limited and lacks the same effortless expertise. Most teachers do not have the amount of informational books they need and many of the informational books published prior to 2005 are impossible to use as mentor texts. Good News: Nonfiction books are stepping out and truly coming into their own.  Bad News: There are so many nonfiction duds out there. Be sure to look closely at the publication dates. Buyer Beware!!

My classroom's cozy reading every corner of the room there were bookcases.


Mistake #1    Teacher Hijacks Teachable Moments

               One afternoon during January  2011, my first year back as a classroom teacher transplanted from Higher Ed,  I suddenly realized the disproportionate amount of fiction compared to non-fiction in my library. It was an impressive classroom library with literally thousands of titles: Frank Asch, Leo Lionni, Gerald McDermott, Barbara Cooney, Marc Brown, William Steig, Patricia Polacco, Judy Blume, and the names go on for miles. There weren't many information books...a few Seymour Simon and Gail Gibbons...not a whole lot going on in this area. It was during this time I was thinking about providing students with a well balanced diet of genre and I realized information books (my favorite genre!!) were non-existent in my library. The irony was not lost on both counts.

               With a little comparative shopping off Ebay and the used books from Amazon I equalized the balance of fiction and nonfiction within a month's time. I wanted to create a complete information/research area for the students...which I immediately set to work on. Meanwhile, I promoted the heck out of this coming-to-your-classroom-library-soon addition. The students were prepped as I teased and tantalized. They were totally hyped. Finally, the unveiling. On a dreary Monday morning in February I brought the kids back to the carpet for a team meeting and as I shared the different categories of books and pulled out titles their eyes just kept getting wider and wider with anticipation.  The excitement brought sunshine to otherwise a very gray day.  Long and short... the students loved those new informational books. Everyone had cute, covered plastic ice bins as their personal book box and these boxes were literally stuffed with books. There were books hanging out every which way like arms and legs dangling from car windows. How the students loved those information books!

               I know what you are thinking. You are wondering how on earth could this be a mistake because it sounds pretty good, right.  Here's the rub. Although I certainly now had the books and I completely captured and captivated the students' genuine attention and interest, I did a lousy, horrible, very bad job of getting my kids to understand the intricacies of nonfiction. I failed to unlock the uniqueness of this genre for the kids.  The students enjoyed and read the books eagerly...particularly the boys...I taught no formal lessons on how to access the text.

                That was 3 years ago. My knowledge (and our collective knowledge) has grown by leaps and bounds. Naturally,  I long for a do over. The learning stage had  been set.  I had the book-bins labeled and piled high with gorgeous books on every fascinating subject you could imagine and nonfiction charts were hanging on the wall.  I had even done a pre-sale like they do for Lancome.  I failed to teach them how to read this distinctively unique genre in which colorful text features such as diagrams, graphs, cut-aways, and captions all are vying for and commanding the reader's attention.  It never even occurred to me to teach them access points to the genre of informational text. A completely wasted opportunity on my part. Please, learn from my mistake.

Authors: Elaine M. Weber, Barbara A. Nelson, and Cynthia Lynn Schofield (2012) Maupin House


Mistake #2   Sit and Git Will NEVER Grow Dendrites

              During the Christmas holidays last year, 2012, I read Guided Highlighted Reading. This was the first professional book I read on close reading.  It was very easy to follow with lots of examples. In the authors' words:

If students are prompted to find the salient points of a text, they will be able to write a summary. If the prompts lead them to find examples of author's craft in a text, they will be able to write an analysis of the choices that an author makes during writing. (pg 1)

                As a result, I was super psyched to get into classrooms and try this strategy out. I  used this strategy twice. Once with third graders and once with second graders. The book suggests using it for grades 4-12.  Let me share my 3rd grade lesson.  At the time I was wondering about young students' enthusiasm with textbooks so I decided to use the adopted Silver Burdett 3rd grade science text.  I retyped and numbered a small section to enable the students to have two pages of easy-to-follow text. After an introduction to the lesson, and in my most animated style I began with the prompting to have them perform perfectly to my commands. Here is a sampling from my lesson plan. 

In the Introduction find and highlight three words that explain why tobacco smoke is harmful to people.
4,000 harmful chemicals or contain harmful chemicals

Also in the introduction, find and highlight three words that explain how public buildings, like churches, schools, restaurants, keep the environment healthy. “No smoking” signs

In line #4 in the first paragraph, find and highlight the one word that explains what tobacco is. Plant

               To help keep the kids active, alert, and on task I kept the pace fairly swift. I incorporated drama, active participation techniques, think-pair-share, choral answering, and choral reading. The kids were engaged and reasonably kept up with the pace. They actually loved the lesson.

               Okay, here's the funny part. Near the end of the lesson, the students were given a comprehension worksheet comprised of 95% literal questions that their teacher had prepared. They struggled with transferring their "learning."

               As I reflected back on the lesson I realized the students were attentive because I had successfully used engagement tricks plus the class was stacked heavily in my favor with many former students from the year before. I entertained them and they gleefully complied. I would classify this Guided Highlighted Reading as an activity rather than a strategy. There was nothing strategic about this lesson.

                This lesson consisted of a solitary 50 minute time slot that I shared with a group of students. I did not have an opportunity to debrief with the students. Perhaps, I could have pulled it together. Who's to say.  Fast forward almost a year later, as I think about it now,  I did not understand the purpose of close reading and I was too focused on teaching the content. I did not see close reading as a way to teach students navigation of informational text for their ultimate independence and for them to walk away with a skill they could use on other texts. I did not move forward their understanding of informational texts as a result of this lesson. With my current understanding of close reading I want to provide students with tools that enable their success and independence on the next science or social studies section they are asked to read. Please, learn from my mistake.

Mistake #3     K.I.S. Dummy   

                As a kid I absolutely hated Weekly Reader. During my recent two years of teaching second grade all classrooms had subscriptions to a weekly news magazine published through Scholastic. Like clockwork they arrived bundled every month. If lucky, a parent volunteer sorted them out for me, but sorted or unsorted, they stacked nicely in some dark corner to be long forgotten, safe, and to gather dust. Only when stressing and writing sub plans would I remember their existence and pull a stack out to avoid the hassle of writing detailed guided reading sub plans. I have changed my mind.

               Early this past September I was itching to get in to meet my former teaching buddy's  new second graders and to try out another close reading lesson using Scholastic News. We had decided this is a perfect text for close reading....a short, manageable amount of informational text with lots of text features and everyone has a colorful copy they can annotate the heck out of. As I planned for this Scholastic News lesson I studied the website and was blown away by the bells and whistles.  If you have not seen Scholastic's new "Common Core designed lessons" for all their grade level weekly newspapers you seriously need to check it out. With so much fun, techie stuff to choose from I planned my close reading lesson carefully by first identifying the student learning targets:

·         I can identify the different nonfiction text features in Scholastic News (SN) and be able to use them to help me predict what I am going to read
·         I can identify the author’s purpose for the SN
·         I can define the word “Information Text”
·         I can define the word “feature” and provide examples

The brief lesson plan outline was:

1.       Think-Pair-Share experiences with Weekly Reader (opt)
2.       State student learning targets for the lesson
3.       Teacher model using text features to gain information
4.       Students list text features that the author used to help the reader understand the information (formative assessment)
5.       Teacher uses all the titles, headings, captions to write a prediction of what the magazine is going to say.
6.       Quickwrite  (formative assessment)

Note: I crossed out what I had to delete from the lesson

               One of the benefits I liked best about projecting the online version is being able to display the inside two pages together as a single spread sheet. They are usually linked together in some way. For this edition, I had wanted to show the students how the four boxes spanning both pages were time-order text boxes starting with King George III of England and ending with our celebrating Constitution Day, 2013 here in the United States.  Mysteriously, one of the boxes was blocked out on Dinah's computer when I clicked on the 2-page spread. Stuff happens, right.

                This lesson was really not a flop but judging from the many learning targets it is evident I had gone overboard and had to monitor and adjust frequently during the 45 min lesson. We need to allow and plan for our students' wading time during close reading.  If we truly want to create opportunities for our students to grapple with text and to work both independently and collaboratively we need to embed safe pockets of time in order for our students to do this. My learning targets were ambitious and the lesson was over planned. Less is more. Please, learn from my mistakes.

               For the next few weeks I will share some of the insights and access points I have recently learned for using and teaching Informational texts. In addition, we will have to include a piece on text complexity. So much to learn...thankfully coffee is not just available on Saturday mornings.


The Teaching Channel  has a  wonderful selection of current great teaching videos:

Selective Highlighting: Reading with a Purpose
Teaching About Textual Evidence Grades 6-8
Examining Elements of Persuasive Speeches Grade 8
Thinking Notes--annotating to make highlighting more focused  Grades 9-10 (2 min video)

                Here in the Ozarks our mornings have been in the teens. I call that cold. Make sure you see below they appear to be quality resources and links. As always I will hope you have found something of interest to spark your thinking and planning for using  informational texts. Happy Saturday.

H.O.P.S. (Hot off the Press- literally)

1.  From Achieving the Core for ELA (There is also info on Math, Science, and Social Studies)
Fixing Classroom Observations: How Common Core Will Change the Way We Look at Teaching.

This report proposes an approach to classroom observations built around two factors: 1)  Assessing what’s being taught in addition to how it’s being taught, and  2) putting observation rubrics on a diet. The reports suggests that schools put a greater emphasis on choices about lesson content and making it easy for observers to determine whether a lesson is helping students master grade-appropriate Common Core Standards are both critical for making the shift to Common Core.

Classroom Observations K-2
Classroom Observations 3-5
Classroom Observations 6-12

2. Edutopia has compiled free supports for Common Core
The team at Edutopia has compiled their most popular resources to include:
Common Core Blogs by grade level
Common Core Resources
Info on how the Common Core assessments will function
Plus lesson plans and more



  1. Wow, Cathe - I am so impressed with this Blog and the one from last week. The video you posted last week with the example of The Sun Also Rises certainly is a perfect example of text complexity and made me rethink the book since I disliked it in high school! Maybe I should revisit it! But I digress. In this week's Blog, you mention the importance of informational books. I have been a life long fiction lover but informational reading is just as important especially for young students to sink their teeth into. In this complex age, being able to navigate non-fiction books from elementary school through college and into one's career, is so important and I now wonder if I ever learned to process informational books properly since I tended to do very badly in science and math whereas I absolutely sparkled in any literary endeavor - especially when it involved fiction - although I shined in history, too - because I found it easy! Maybe I am missing some of the points here since I am not teaching and I have to admit that I had to look up a few words like "Dendrites" (told you I was bad at science!) but I still find your Blogs fascinating and I certainly can see that you were a caring and devoted teacher with huge amounts of knowledge that you are able and willing to share. Your home office and the very inviting reading corner in your classroom that you shared in pictures attest to what kind of a teacher you were and I do hope lots of beginning teachers are reading your Blog because I believe it will benefit them greatly. You were generous to share what you said was your mistake in teaching one lesson in Close Reading that did not turn out as you wished. Not only did you learn from that "mistake" (which sounds like too strong a word), but by writing about it, you have helped your readers immensely with this very complex topic entitled "Close Reading"!! Keep up the fine work which is beneficial to a wide cross-section of people of all ages!

  2. Chloe, First let me thank you for responding and taking the time to write so many wonderful comments. Wow!! (and on a Saturday, too!) I try to stay away from teaching jargon, but sometimes there is no replacement word that I can think of. Bless you for looking up words on my account. I am glad you watched the video last week. I am constantly amazed at the wonderful lessons that we can view so easily online. The bad part for teachers is that there isn't a lot of time to be able to do this. Thank you for the compliments on my office...I have run out of bookcase room already...and currently it does not look very organized and clean.
    I truly loved my classroom that I left a year ago... and wish I had more pictures. I probably was too busy to take any:) The classroom had such a fun vibe to it. I couldn't help but smile all day long and the kids loved the reading corner.

    It is my sincere hope that my blogs are helping teachers. For me, writing is how I make sense of the world. So, hopefully it is a win-win. That would be my primary goal. Thanks again for being a regular reader. Cathe