Friday, January 22, 2010

Do we have to read the whole thing?

We've been talking about text features in my classroom--what they are, how to use them, and why they are important. But I knew that I needed to address how we read nonfiction after a quick conversation with a student. He was returning a book about muscles.

"Did you like it?" I asked, my standard question as kids plunder the shelves for new books.

"Yeah," he said. "It showed me how muscles work, and that was what I wanted to know." He was quiet for a second, and then added, almost apologetically, "But I didn't read the whole thing. I just looked at this page, and read the caption, and that was what would help me with the project I'm doing." He looked at me as if he was worried that I might make him take back the book.

"But that's what we do in nonfiction," I told him. "You don't have to read every page. You find what you want, and read that."

"Oh," he said, as if I'd said something new and interesting.

Had I? As I thought about the conversation, I decided that I needed to address this issue. Of course this is dangerous! State testing is coming up in April. Do I want my students to think that they don't need to read everything on the test? Do I want them to skip through?

On the other hand, what will help them out in real life? An unreasonable expectation that they read every page of every book, or an understanding of how to use text features to find what they want? These kids are smart--they'll figure out sooner or later that they don't have to read every word of every text to figure out the answers. If I insist that they do so, it will cast everything that I've told them into doubt.

I decided to bring this issue out into the open and trust in the students. First, we had a silent debate. I put a queen puppet under the document camera (super cool!) and told the students: "The Queen wants to learn about the parts of a barge. She has found this book, A Guide to Boats of the Eastern Coast. Does she need to read the whole thing?" In a silent debate, students write their reasons on one sheet of paper that they pass back and forth. I assigned students to either "yes" or "no". They were upset that they couldn't choose, but I told them, "It's important to think about both sides of an issue!"

As I expected, the debate was lively. Students on the "yes" side said that information about barges might be scattered throughout the book. Students on the "no" side said that she could use the Table of Contents and index to find what she needed. After the debate, we talked about their thinking. Both sides had valid arguments. "Are you ready for the real answer?" I told students. "Do you want to know whether the queen really has to read the whole book?"


"Well...." I drew it out. "It depends."

What a cheat of an answer! But it's the truth. Whether or not you have to read the whole text depends on many factors--like your purpose for reading, your background knowledge of the topic, even the amount of time that you have. A reader needs to be flexible and ready to make an informed decision.

Over the next few days, I gave them the chance to try it out. In the computer lab, they tried several sessions on Study Island. This was great because they could see immediately if they'd gotten the question correct or not. They found that there were some kinds of questions that they could answer without reading the whole text (headings questions, especially) and other questions that they needed to read the whole text to answer.

On the next day, students had the book "Amazing Crickets" and had to answer a set of questions from it. The book was an easy read, filled with every text feature imaginable, and so many kids had no problem at all navigating through it to find the answers. "But I wanted to read the whole thing, so I did it anyway," one kid admitted. (This is probably why these are above grade-level readers!)

The next day, we looked at a piece about the Columbian Exposition. After we looked at the headings, the students' eyes grew wide. This was a very different kind of text. Could they just answer the questions? We read over them and found that there were two (a vocabulary question, and a text features question) that could be read without an understanding of the text. But a question like "Which is an effect of the Columbian Exposition?" was a different story!

"Um, yeah, I think I'm going to have to read this whole thing," one student said. And he'd been the most vocal proponent for skipping the text earlier in the week.

So far, my gamble looks like it is paying off. Kids are thinking about their purposes, and making intelligent decisions about when to read the whole text, and when to just jump in and find the answers that they seek.

And the student who started it all--the student who had read parts of the muscle book--had the very best reason of all on the silent debate. "The Queen doesn't have to read it all, because Mrs. Kissner says we don't have to read it all. Beat that!"

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