Saturday / March 2

Diving Deep into Non-Fiction: Noticing Textual Conversations

Diving Deep into Non-Fiction

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a Phillies game in the Ernst & Young corporate suite. Ernst & Young and Temple are working together on a college access program and they wanted to host a get-together for everyone involved in the project. One of the attendees was from England. This was his first baseball game. I watched him try to take in the action on the field and the conversation that swirled around him. He was entirely lost. The food and fellowship were great. But I’d guess he left that night perplexed about why people could be fans of such a game.

It strikes me that students might feel similarly when they are asked to read in school, especially the more complex texts called for by the Common Core State Standards. Think about it: We assign complex texts, often providing little or no preparation. (Indeed some of the staunchest advocates for the CCSS strongly criticize pre-reading preparation.) We ask them to read texts in isolation. My friend Jeff Wilhelm and I think of it this way: Being assigned to read a text is like being dropped from a helicopter into unfamiliar terrain. Imagine that. Imagine how disoriented you’d feel.

Now imagine your own reading. If you’re like us, you typically read to deepen existing areas of expertise rather than to develop new ones. I spend lots and lots of my time reading about baseball. So I was comfortable in all of the baseball related conversations I was hearing. And I felt authorized to enter into them because I thought I might have something to contribute.

Our students don’t have the luxury of doing only that kind of reading. They have to read what they are given. They regularly have to read to develop knowledge in new domains. I think we need to do more than assign texts. I think we need to teach our students how to read them.

Where to start? Let’s go back to the metaphor I shared earlier. What would you do if you were dropped into unfamiliar terrain? I think I’d try to get the lay of the land. I’d ask myself, “What kind of place is this? Does it remind me of any places I’ve ever been?” I’d try to get oriented. I wouldn’t start walking until I had at least some provisional answers to those questions.

So how do we get oriented when we enter unfamiliar textual terrain? Another metaphor might help provide an answer. It seems to me that texts are always written to either initiate or join an ongoing cultural conversation. I write this the morning after the completion of the Democratic National Convention. Speech after speech at that convention was a response to a conversational turn taken at the Republican National Convention. Speech after speech invoked conversations that have been going on for much longer: What does it mean to be an American? What’s the best way to promote prosperity? What’s the best response to our enemies?

Experienced readers know that texts don’t work in isolation. Experienced readers understand that texts are conversational turns. Experienced readers recognize that to get oriented they have to notice the conversation of which the text they are reading is a part. Yet we too seldom teach our students how to do that kind of noticing. If we don’t want our students to leave the texts we ask them to read perplexed as to why we asked them to read those texts, we need to do that teaching.

Jeff and I provide a model for how you might do so in our new book, Diving Deep into Non-Fiction. We offer seven different types of lessons that will help students understand how to notice the conversation: a lesson using the visual arts, a think-aloud, a lesson featuring practice in miniature, a lesson employing a questioning scheme, a lesson that connects reading and writing, a lesson that calls for them to apply what they’ve learned to their out-of-school literate activity, and a lesson in which they put everything together to understand a complex text.

To give you a flavor of our work, here’s an item from our practice in miniature lesson: 

I really didn’t think my two fourth graders could complete their homework assignment on their own: “Prepare a five-minute-long speech from a biography, to be delivered, not read, from notes on index cards, in costume and in character and with at least one prop.”

 An impossible task for a 10-year-old, I thought, as I braced for the battle that would surely be involved in dragging them both through the project.

(From “Impossible’ Homework Assignment? Let Your Child Do It” By  Kj Dell’Antonia)

You can find the whole text here.

We ask students to think about what cultural conversation this text is part of and to articulate just how they noticed that conversation. Then we ask to complete the following sentence frame:

“Although some people believe ___________________________________, the author of this statement believes ___________________________________.”


This is just a snippet of one lesson from a group of seven, but I hope it makes clear that we want to provide explicit instruction and lots and lots of practice in doing the critical kinds of noticing that experienced readers do.



Written by

Michael W. Smith, a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools.

Michael is the author of Uncommon Core and Diving Deep into Nonfiction.

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