Quick Tip Tuesday: Making connections with nonfiction

June 9th, 2009

In Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction, K-5, author Tony Stead outlines practical approaches to ensure that all children can become confident and competent readers of nonfiction. In today’s Quick Tip, he talks about how he selects nonfiction texts that help students make connections to their own lives, thus enhancing their comprehension.

It is independent reading time in Jackie Martinez’s fourth-grade classroom, and the children are immersed in their reading. They have been making nonfiction selections as part of their daily reading, and it is reflected in the wealth of informational books scattered across the tables. There is almost a dead quiet in the room as the children hungrily devour their selections, but this is suddenly broken by Rachel’s quiet sobs at the back of the room. As I approach her, I notice she is reading a book about dogs and has the page open to a section on the Labrador retriever.

She looks up at me through tearful eyes and says, “It’s too sad. Miranda has gone, and she could do everything that these dogs can do.” I quickly realize that these tears are not from physical pain but from mental anguish. Rachel had lost her dog Miranda only three days earlier.

As sad as this event was, it confirmed that real comprehension occurs when a reader makes this type of connection with a text. Even though it is important for readers to be able to recall facts and locate new information, it is when they connect with the information they read that even deeper meaning occurs.

Readers naturally make a host of connections as they read and this is especially true of nonfiction, yet rarely do we consider informational texts an avenue for such connections. We rely on narrative as our main source of initiating discussions on connections with self, other texts, and the world. Yet connections with nonfiction are powerful, especially when children bring some kind of background knowledge to the piece being discussed. In Rachel’s case, the valuable information in the piece on dogs is not where her focus lies. Sure she is finding out valuable information about dogs that she will no doubt be able to discuss if asked, but her thinking is locked into the memories of her deceased Labrador, and the text is providing a springboard for these memories. This connection with informational reading I understand well, for nothing is more wonderful than reading a piece about a foreign place I have visited. I am absorbing the information I’m reading, but it is when my thinking meanders to past adventures in that place that I am truly connecting with the text.

This concept of making connections with nonfiction was one I had been experimenting with in Silvia Conto’s grade 1/2 split classroom in New York. I had intentionally started in a primary classroom because I believed this was a fairly new concept with young children. Although it is true that many teachers of children in early grades encourage their learners to make connections with nonfiction when an issue arises, I think it is more of an impromptu happening. For example, if the teacher happens to be reading a piece that mentions spiders, at best a handful of children will get to share past experiences with them. Children are rarely given time to make such connections and thus are never able to build on past experiences and go deeper with their thinking.

I began taking this notion of connections deeper by revisiting Harvey Daniels’s book on literature circles, specifically the revised edition, which has a notable section on nonfiction. Daniels sees making connections as an important component of nonfiction discussions: “Just as with novels, we want kids to capture their responses as they read and bring to the discussion their questions, connections, feelings, judgments, words, phrases, and doodles” (2002, p. 202).

I also revisited Aidan Chambers’s publication on book talk titled Tell Me, for I had used it many times in the past when helping my children make connections with narrative and wanted to see how I could transfer these strategies to nonfiction.

I selected the text Winter by K. Pike, from the the Go Facts series. I selected a text on seasons for a number of reasons. Primarily I wanted a book with content to which all the children could make some kind of connection. If we are to acknowledge Johnston’s insight that meaning is generated by making connections with experience, then it needed to be content with which every child had had experience. This was no easy task, because even though I had countless great pieces of nonfiction on a range of topics, I knew many of my children had little experience with the subject matter in these texts and would therefore become silent when discussions were initiated. I often hear teachers complain of children having limited background knowledge and wonder if this is accurate. I think selective background knowledge is a more accurate term.

All children come with a range of background experiences in life; it’s just that some are more selective than others. Although children who have spent extensive time sitting in front of a television or computer screen may not have the worldly experiences of those who spend time reading and going on excursions with their parents, they still have a wealth of background knowledge; it’s just highly specific to television and games.

The topic of winter also seemed a wise choice because not only were we in the midst of the season, but it was also part of a unit of study on seasons being explored in Silvia’s classroom. In this way I could marry the language process of making connections with the science content of seasons. In effect I was integrating the curriculum. That is not to say that all texts selected for making connections need to be directly linked to content studies. See Chapter 11 for information on integrating content studies with language processes.

When selecting the text, I also ensured that the vocabulary was simple. I didn’t want to spend time discussing complex vocabulary, because that was not the focus of my lesson. I made sure all the children could see the book because the illustrations were important, especially for making connections. I knew these visual sources of literacy would act as a trigger for many children when it came to discussions.

In addition to these considerations, I take other factors into account when selecting nonfiction texts for the purpose of making connections:
■ Select texts that enable all children to connect with the content.
■ Make sure the text is not loaded with complex vocabulary that will compromise comprehension.
■ Include texts that deal with the content being explored in science and social units.
■ Include texts that raise questions. This will act as a springboard for conversations.
■ Incorporate texts that have illustrations and use them to fuel discussions.
■ Select texts that allow for one or more of the following connections: text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world.

Apart from selecting a suitable text, I had also set up a structure for questioning. Many times when we engage our learners with making connections with nonfiction, there is no real framework for discussion. We rely on generic questions such as: What does this piece make you think about? or What does this book remind you of? These questions are often too broad, especially for beginning readers, to be starting points for discussion.

I wanted the children to explore three major types of connections: text to self, text to text, and text to world. My questioning would be critical in encouraging them to think specifically about each type. Trying to achieve all three in one session was pointless, so I broke the mini-lessons into four parts so that the children could have concentrated encounters with each connection, then finally put them together. Although it is true that good readers naturally interweave the three types of connections with a set text, it would take specific discussions with each to realize this goal. Having selected the text and the focus, I brought the children together and began exploring making text-to-self connections. Although the learning experiences documented below were with Silvia’s grade 1/2 split class, they are applicable to children in kindergarten as well.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

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