Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

‘Reading Nonfiction': An Interview With Kylene Beers & Robert Probst

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 16, 2016 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s post is the latest in my authors series (you can see previous ones here). I was lucky enough to interview Kylene Beers and Robert Probst about their new book, Reading Nonfiction.

LF: You begin your book by taking on the definition of nonfiction, something that some other books about the teaching of nonfiction skip. Can you talk more about this definition?

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst:

Perhaps the problem is that we begin by teaching kids to extract information from texts. With young students, who are just beginning to read that’s probably appropriate. We teach them to decode so that they can transform the marks on the page into sounds and words that they understand, and we teach them that those words will provide them stories to enjoy or information that they may find interesting or useful. Early in their reading life - when a responsible teacher is giving them a reliable text - they should trust those texts that offer them information. When Richard Scary tells your students that this is a dump truck, they should trust him.

Later on, however, the information the text offers may, in fact, be misinformation. What the text tells you about the world may be wrong - the author may be misinformed, biased, or deceitful. It’s important for the student to recognize that the nonfiction text “purports” to tell him about the world. There is often much that is fictitious in nonfiction. Whether or not the reader accepts what the text offers should depend not simply upon the accuracy of his decoding, but also upon his testing of the text against what he knows, and what other reliable sources offer him. He should be open to the possibility that he may wish to reject the text. And, of course, the reader should also be open to the possibility that the text will be persuasive, that he may judge it to be true or trustworthy, and that he may need to revise his own thinking about matters. It seems to us important that the student come to nonfiction open to all the possibilities that it offers.

Definitions of nonfiction that tell students that nonfiction is “true” or “real” or “not false” suggest to students that they do not have a role in reading nonfiction. We disagree with that. We think readers have a critical role in the reading of nonfiction and that role is developed by the stance we want students to adopt and the signposts we want them to consider as they read.

LF: I appreciated your points about text complexity, an issue that many of us have to deal with in the context of the Common Core Standards. I especially liked your comment, “We want texts that kids can struggle with, rather than texts they must struggle through.” Would you mind giving a short summary of your thoughts on this topic?

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst:

When kids struggle through a text, they are probably reading a text that is not at their instructional level and so much cognitive energy goes into decoding words and searching for word meanings that comprehension is set aside. We want kids to focus on what they are learning from the text; we want them thinking about big ideas, big surprises, big questions - and that’s what struggling with a text means.

In this day, too often rigor has been confused with “harder.” Handing kids a harder text doesn’t automatically make a reading more rigorous. It might simply make it harder. Rigor is about a close transaction with the text; it’s about the energy and attention we bring to a text; it’s about deep thinking about a text. Those things happen when the text we hand kids is one that they don’t have to struggle through, but rather are eager - or at least willing -- to struggle with.

LF: I also thought your distinguishing the differences between talking to “check for understanding” and talking to “create understanding” was very helpful. Kylene was kind enough to post a related chart from the book on her blog. What would be a simple way to characterize the two, and do you have any suggestions of what the “right” balance for a rough formula teachers should keep in mind?

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst:

The chart (see page 59 in Reading Nonfiction) that discusses the differences between talk that is used to check for understanding and talk that is used to create understanding is based on the research on monologic and dialogic questioning. Monologic questions - those questions for which the teacher already knows the answer to the question she or he has posed - are viewed as “inauthentic” by kids. When we ask students, “Who is the main character in “The Giver,” students don’t think to themselves, “Ah, Teacher doesn’t know! I better help!” They all know that we know the answer and are simply asking to see if they know the answer - and that’s why it’s not a “real” question. A real question is one for which we don’t know the answer.

By contrast, dialogic questions are questions viewed by kids as “authentic” because we don’t ask them with an answer in mind. We are asking because we, too, want to figure something out. And the talk that emerges as we all work to figure out an answer is the talk that creates understanding. The research is solid about the results of using such questions: engagement goes up; student-to-student interactions go up; use of complete sentences goes up; inferences are made; and scores on tests improve.

What concerns us, is that few classes are based on dialogic questions and that number goes down even more when we step into classes for students who read below grade level. Students in those classrooms often receive a steady diet of monologic questions and those questions are not the type that encourage the thinking we want all students to engage in.

When we’re talking about a balance of questions, we think it’s best to keep in mind that monologic questions are good for a fast review of a few concepts while dialogic questions are critical for developing thinking. We’d always err on the side of more dialogic questions than monologic, so if we’re looking at the questions we pose on any given day, we want to see an 75% - 25% split with 75% of the questions leading to talk that creates understanding. That’s based on some research that shows that students must spend above 60% in dialogic conversation for us to see benefit on test scores.

LF: I really liked the “3 Big Questions” you recommend that students apply when reading: “What Surprised Me?"; What Did The Author Think I Already Knew?"; and “What Challenged, Changed or Confirmed What I Already Knew?” I was particularly struck that they were questions that students were asking themselves, instead of ones that teachers were posing to them, which is often the format in close reading recommendations.

Can you talk a bit about what let you to choose those three questions and to put them in the first person?

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst:

Those three questions emerged slowly, through work with lots of students. We wanted questions that required students to turn to what they already knew or thought and simultaneously to the ideas in the text. For instance, early on in the research for writing Reading Nonfiction, we asked a fourth grader about an article she had read on the subject of dinosaurs and the questions that followed it, which she had been required to answer. She commented, “Oh, I really like it when the teacher gives you the questions or the questions are already at the end of the article. All you have to do is look at the questions and then find the part of the story that gives you the answer. It’s like you don’t even really have to read the entire thing.”

We nodded. We then gave her another article (this one about bees) and asked her to read it looking for what surprised her. “What do you mean?” she asked. We explained that we suspected something in the article would probably surprise her, perhaps several things, and we just wanted her to mark those parts. She read slowly, reread parts, underlined several things, and when finished she looked up and began to tell us about a long list of surprises When she finally took a breath, we jumped in: “Well, that’s a lot of information you already knew and questions that you now have. When you compare what you know with what the book said, did you find some information in the text that changed your understanding of something about bees?” Now the student paused, looked at us, picked up the text, began looking back through pages, reread, paused, and finally smiled and said, “Yes! This is interesting! On this page,” she said pointing to a particular page and a particular paragraph, “it says . . . And I had always thought . . .”

Now we had what we wanted: a student bringing what she knew to bear upon the information in the text. That conversation helped us think more clearly about what became the Three Big Questions. We wanted dialogic questions; we wanted questions that required that the student read the text; we wanted questions that encouraged the open-mind and skeptical eye stance we write about in Reading Nonfiction. And finally, we wanted questions that students could - with practice - adopt as a habit of mind.

You asked also about putting the questions in the first person. We did that because we want the student thinking about the text in the first person. That is to say, we want the student to be well aware of himself or herself while reading. We want readers to think of who they are, what they know, how they are reacting, and let the questions emerge from the text’s impact upon themselves. We all read in the first person. We don’t read as a disembodied “perfect reader.” We read as ourselves.

LF: “Reading Strategies” is a phrase used all over the place. I was struck by how you defined “reading strategies,” comprehension processes,” and “skills.” Could you go over how you define them and why you think it’s important for teachers to know the difference?

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst:

We included our conversation about strategies, processes, and skills in the book because we thought it was important that teachers understand our thinking. We encourage each faculty to reach its own understanding of these terms. Our definitions go back to earlier research on comprehension when predicting, visualizing, summarizing, connecting, inferring , and clarifying were referred to as “comprehension processes,” building on the emerging world of computers and the term “information processing.” We think that it’s important to recognize that we predict or visualize all day long because that’s how our brains process information. We clarify and we infer - again, that’s how our brains process information.

Strategies, on the other hand, are procedures that we (teachers) use to bring those processes out to the visible level. So, if I want to see how a student is summarizing (and improve his skill), I might use Somebody Wanted But So; if I want to see how she is visualizing (and encourage her to use that process to make sense of text), I might use Sketch to Stretch; if I want to see how someone is inferring or connecting or clarifying I might use Syntax Surgery. The strategy allows me to see that invisible process or connecting and clarifying and sharpen it.

A skill is simply something we do that gets better with time, practice, and instruction. So, decoding is a skill. Onset-rime is a strategy that can help students with decoding. As I listen to students use onset-rime as they decode, I can hear the connections they are making between letters and sounds.

LF: The signposts (which you describe in your book as “markers that alert the reader to important moments”) - for fiction and nonfiction - can affect the way students read. Do you have any concerns about how teachers share these signposts?

Kylene Beers & Robert Probst:

We offered the signposts as a way to help students read with closer attention to and greater understanding of the text. We know that when students are alert to the contrasts and contradictions, the aha moments, the numbers and stats, or the quoted words (for example) they will be reading with more engagement, more awareness, and more understanding than if they were doing what we often see students doing - reading at the surface level of a text.

Our concern is that teachers will think the awareness of signposts is more important than the journey of reading. They are not. We remind teachers that students should not be “hunting” for signposts. We want them reading with an awareness, an alertness, that lets them notice signposts. Think of taking a car trip to the Grand Canyon. No one would arrive and say, “I counted 789 stop signs on this journey. That’s not the point of the journey! But we all recognize that not noticing those stop signs could mean that the journey didn’t end well. The literary and nonfiction signposts help us read a text with greater understanding, but they are not the purpose for reading the text. We want students “alert for” not “hunting for” the signposts.

LF: Thanks, Kylene & Bob!

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.