Sunday, July 25, 2010

Retelling Nonfiction

Several weeks ago, as part of an assignment for a class, I administered the QRI to my son. He breezed through the readings and answered the questions easily. When it came time for the retelling of expository text, though, he faltered.

"I was supposed to retell this?" he asked. "Why didn't you tell me that before we started?" Not surprisingly, his retelling was not the best. "If this were a story, it would be easier," he muttered as he tried to pick his way through what he remembered about immigration.

Retelling a story is always easier than retelling expository text. Stories are written to naturally fit together. Each event leads to the next, making remembering the details fairly simple. Expository texts, though, are not always written in chronological order. The details do not always fit together so simply. Like my son, many readers find retelling expository text to be quite a challenge.

This is a shame. Retelling expository text is one of the best ways to help students make sense of content area readings. As students retell, they have to think about the important details, figure out how ideas relate, and connect new ideas to existing schemas.

One of the best ways to help students retell nonfiction is to model retelling parts of texts. Show students how to use the headings and other text features as road maps for getting around in the text. Don't be afraid of sharing your own mental processes with students. I've often told students, "Wait--let me try putting that in a different way." This shows them the flexibility that is a part of retelling.

Figures and pictures are just as useful for expository text as they are for narrative texts. In fact, picture and figures can help kids to remember key ideas. One thing I have learned about fourth graders is that they always like to be playing around with something. I think it's better for them to play around with something related to the text than to play around with their erasers! The pictures can also be a powerful tool for previewing. Try giving students the pictures before they read so that they can use them to form predictions.

I've posted a packet about retelling nonfiction texts over at TeachersPayTeachers. The text, which I wrote a few years ago, explains how baby painted turtles survive the winter. Retelling figures are included. As you can see, retelling figures don't have to be fancy artwork. Simple line drawings will do. The packet also includes a generic set of directions to help students retell nonfiction.

And what about my son? Well, once he knew that he had to retell the text, his reading process changed. On the next selection, he read more slowly, and was ready to retell the text at the end. "That wasn't so bad," he said at the end. "Do you have any more tests for me? I think they're fun."

Well, I was out of tests, but I'm sure that his sixth grade teacher will have a few ready for the first day of school!

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