Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fiction, Nonfiction, Expository, Narrative...

Okay, I have to admit it. I hate it when people refer to every text as a "story".

I understand that it's second nature. After all, when I was growing up, our reading class was organized around the basal reader. Every week we read the next story. So I was conditioned to call any piece of text longer than a paragraph a "story".

But not every text is a story. In the past few years, I've tried to be more careful when talking about text with kids. The word "story" does slip out now and again, and I correct myself. It's important to me that kids associate the word "story" with the parts of a story grammar. Using this word to describe an article would send the total wrong message.

Part of the problem, of course, is the question of what else to call these texts. If you look at the literature, you'll see that there are many different ways to refer to texts, just adding to the confusion. Here's a quick rundown.

Fiction/Nonfiction: A Question of Content
The difference between fiction and nonfiction is easy. Fiction texts are not strictly true (while they may contain true events or real people), while nonfiction texts are based on facts. These distinctions are based on what is in the text. Sometimes, a reader has to read very carefully to figure out if something is fiction or nonfiction.

Expository/Narrative: A Matter of Organization
The differences between expository and narrative text are not as well-known (even to other teachers, I've discovered.) Narrative texts tell a story. It's easy to find a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, narrative texts have characters, settings, conflicts, and a theme.

Expository texts, on the other hand, are structured to explain information. Instead of using the narrative structure, authors of expository text use a host of other text structures. (Lots more on expository text structures here and here and here!)

The tricky part
In the classroom, it's sometimes easy to use "nonfiction" as a shorthand for "expository". It's true--most expository text is nonfiction, and most nonfiction text is expository. But biographical and autobiographical writing is a notable exception. A personal narrative, for example, is a true account of a story from someone's life--a nonfiction narrative.

At the same time, I've seen more and more expository fiction lately. Many students like to read encyclopedic style guides to comic book characters. These guides follow an expository structure, but convey fictional information.

This points to teaching students the words expository and narrative, of course. Some teachers don't like to do this because it adds to the overall vocabulary load of students, and I can understand their point.  I think that fourth graders can easily handle it. Teachers in younger grades, I'd love to hear your thinking on when these terms can make their way into the language of the classroom.

So what do we call it?
Instead of using the word "story", what should we call texts? Well, I usually fall back on the word "text". (Make sure that you teach this word early in the year. If you work with ELL students, show them the difference between "text" and "test".) I also throw in the words selection and passage, as these are likely to show up on standardized tests.

And, of course, there is much to be said for sending the question back to the students. What should we call this piece of text that we're looking at? What does it remind you of? How is it similar to other texts you've read? Even if they do not know the strictly correct terms, they can often give texts names that will help them to make connections across genres.

"Can I have that book that tells you what different things are?" one kid asked when he wanted a field guide. "You know, it has pictures, and tells you names." Another student, when browsing through picture books, noticed that some had people on every page, while others didn't. Were these fiction/nonfiction? Narrative/expository? It would be interesting to find out.

As I unpack my classroom this August after another classroom move, I know that I'm going to leave my classroom library slightly disorganized. Looking at these kinds of text in the first week of school--and talking about how we can put them in categories--will be a great way to start the year.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Understanding Procedural Text

Procedural text looks so easy, doesn't it? Short sentences, nice numbered seems like it shouldn't pose any comprehension problems.

But as anyone who has ever tried to follow directions written by a state department of education knows, easy looks can be deceiving. And helping students to understand procedural text isn't always easy, either.

What do we know about procedural text? Reading to perform a task often results in more developed comprehension than reading with the goal of answering questions or writing a summary (Geiger and Millis, 2004).  This isn't surprising to those who have tried to commit a set of directions to memory--when you know that you'll have to follow directions, you're much more likely to put forth the mental effort to visualize and understand each step. However, think about how this impacts students when they read on standardized tests. They know that they won't be following these directions...and reading procedural text without the goal of making or doing is really dull.

For the classroom, this means that we need to give students opportunities to read and follow directions in procedural texts. Once students have strong representations of what a reader needs to understand to follow directions, then we can slide this understanding over to reading for inauthentic purposes. Here are some things that I keep in mind to help students work with procedural texts.

Write directions for classroom activities
This is an easy classroom management tool. When I explain directions, I write them on the whiteboard or a chart. Then, as I circulate around the room, I ask students which step they are on. (This is effective for dealing with misbehavior too--"Which step are you on? Hm, you don't know? What needs to change right now?")

At first, I always used numbered lists. But now I vary the styles to mirror what kids are likely to see in other contexts. Sometimes I use bullets, and sometimes I even write the directions as a narrative. (First, you will....Then, remember to...)  Kids do critique me on my steps, and sometimes suggest that I add or change things. ("You forgot to put in where we have to find our partners") I love it when this happens!

Try out different kinds of procedural texts
One of my favorite winter activities is gathering various directions for making paper snowflakes, and then reading and trying to follow them. It's so interesting to look at how different authors have dealt with explaining a set of difficult directions. Other interesting directions to look at include making ice cream in a zip-top bag, making book covers, and sprouting avocado pits.

Share with students the procedural texts that you use every day
Students like to see behind the curtain of teaching. When I teach new games from directions or try out something new, I show students the procedural texts that I am using and talk through my frustrations. (This was especially fun when I was learning to use my new Promethean board!) Even something as simple as the directions for how to line up for class photos can be a teaching tool. And, when I've shared the directions with the students, I'm more likely to remember them myself.

Don't fall into the "explaining" trap
I once had a principal who said, "I never want to walk into a classroom and see a teacher reading directions to students." His point was simple--the kids can read the directions. We need to give them the chance. When students are reading procedural texts, it's hard for me to keep from stepping in and giving them hints and helps. But they need to be able to do this on their own. When they ask for help, I try to send questions back their way:

-What have you tried already?
-Can you find the specific word that you don't understand?
-Which step is a problem for you?
-What comes before ___?
-What do you think you should do next?

I've realized that I am more likely to become an explainer if I'm worried about materials. If I have enough materials for kids to start over if they mess up, then I can be comfortable with letting them feel their way through the directions.

Learn from mistakes
I could write down all of the times that I have failed at following procedural text...but I don't think there is enough room. We've all made mistakes, whether it's not looking at the list of directions, skipping steps, forgetting ingredients, or misinterpreting a step. I have learned so much from my mistakes with procedural texts! In the classroom, I can sometimes feel frustrated when students haven't followed directions. But I've learned to push back that frustration (not always easy!). Epic and funny mistakes become part of our classroom lore. When a student making ice cream accidentally added the salt to the milk, this became a class cautionary tale, a story that the student enjoyed telling.

Visualize following directions
Once we all have lots of experience with following procedural text to perform a task, it's time to look at some isolated texts. I pair this with the reading strategy of visualizing. Even though we won't be making or doing what is explained in the text, I tell students that they can picture themselves following the directions. This helps to keep them grounded in the text and reading each step. We also try to find the most difficult step, the easiest step, and how to mess things up. (This keeps it fun!)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Problem and Solution Text Structure

One of the problems with teaching text structure is finding the right texts. As I think about what books or articles to use with my students, I'm always thinking about levels, topics, and structure.  Which do I consider first? What's most important?

When I'm teaching text structure, of course, the structure is most important. For problem and solution, I like to use texts that are very explicit, using the words "problem" and "solution", as well as texts that are more subtle. Real world problem and solution texts often do not use these clear transition words, and I like to show students how this works.

Once I have the structure,  I have topic and level to worry about. I work in a pretty broad range of levels. After all, background knowledge has a huge impact on expository text comprehension. If I can give my readers rich background knowledge and strong pre-reading activities, they have a better chance of being able to understand the texts that I find. I like to use a pretty comfortable and easy text for whole-group reading, and then some more challenging texts for small groups.

What about topic? I hate it when we are all reading about different topics in guided reading. This just feels so fragmented! But sometimes it just can't be helped--after all, I don't have a staff of writers on demand. (Wouldn't that be wonderful?)  To help us make connections throughout the year, I try to find texts with topics that relate to science or social studies units for our grade level.

Here is a collection of texts for teaching problem and solution text structure. The cost is $3.00, and it includes 7 different texts. Five texts have before, during, and after activities, with a range of reading levels from 3-6. (Do take these reading levels with a grain of salt. When I write texts, I run them through multiple readability formulas, and then correlate those results with what I see from my students and comments from other teachers. The readability formulas vary widely, often across 2 grade levels!)

A mayfly nymph
Some of the texts may look familiar to those of you who have my former pack of Text Structure Resources--the James River Ferry, Rain Gardens, and Salamander Crossing. But each has new activities and graphic organizers to accompany them.

My very favorite text is about stream study with the biotic index--it was interesting to write about how the biotic index really does solve a scientific problem. And I got to use the cool mayfly picture that I took during stream study last week!

Looking for other books? Here are some links to problem-solution texts:

When the Wolves Returned

A Place for Butterflies

Text Structure Picture Books

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Teaching Visualizing

I love to teach visualizing. After all, there is a whole chapter about it in my book The Forest AND the Trees! It doesn't really work to tell nine-year-olds, "You need to read at the level of your situation model." But when I tell them, "Let's try to use the details to make a picture in our minds," something clicks. They understand how to make mental models. This gets them to that deeper level of reading that's so hard to describe for young readers.

But not all readers visualize in the same way. This makes teaching visualizing even more fascinating--when we talk about what we visualize, we realize how dependent we are on our background knowledge and experiences. As a teacher, I have come to a new appreciation of how the texts and stories I share become situated in students' schemas. Consider what happened last week when I asked a student to visualize "a green tractor in a birthday hat."

"I thought of the book we read yesterday," the student said. "The one with the robin."

This threw me for a loop. How would a book about a robin relate to a mental image of "a green tractor in a birthday hat"? But then the student reached behind me to get the book I Am Going! by Mo Willems. He turned to the page that had Elephant wearing a funny hat--a hat that happened to have a picture of the ubiquitous Pigeon from Don't Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus.

"See?" he said. "I pictured the tractor wearing a hat like that. It was funny."

This is the power of talking about visualizing--this student was able to trace how he used a mental image from a previous book to create a new mental image. This is also the power of sharing great books and background experiences with children on a regular basis! The experiences we share today will become the visualizations of tomorrow.

Here are some resources for teaching visualizing:
Visualizing Activities and Powerpoint
 Available from TeachersPayTeachers ($3, because it took me so long to write the three stories that are included!)

Visualizing blog post (6/25/11)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Differentiated Spelling: Revised!

Back in 2008, I posted a differentiated spelling program that I had created for my sixth grade class. I've revised some parts and added the missing "Assignment #2" for each list. Here's the link to the revised program:

Differentiated Spelling Program

It turned out to be over 75 pages long--enough to get anyone started with spelling for the 2011-2012 school year. Enjoy!