From the desk of Amanda…
Teacher: So we’ll be reading a text today called My Bones. Is this fiction or non-fiction?
As a student, I love this question because I have a 50/50 shot even if I completely guess. As an adult, I’m thinking, “Boy, I’d love to take those odds to Vegas.”
Student 1: Fiction?
Teacher: (with a funny look on her face) Are you sure?
Student 2: Nonfiction!
Teacher: Yes, it’s nonfiction. Very good. Now let’s review a few vocabulary words…
This is a scenario I’ve witnessed countless times as teachers introduce a nonfiction text to students. And if we are going for total disclosure here, I’ve done it myself—countless times.
But if we want to make our time with students count, we have to ask ourselves:
- Why did I initiate this conversation?
- What did I learn about my students through this conversation?
- What did my students learn from this conversation that prepared them for the text?
Let’s think about those questions in reverse order.
What did my students learn from this conversation that prepared them for the text?
I started with this question first because the answer is simple: NOTHING.
We teach kids the characteristics of genres NOT so we can quiz them on genre identification. We develop students’ understanding of genres so they can use that knowledge to approach the text strategically.
Think about how you read different genres. Do you use the same strategies when reading fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and editorials? NO. Often, we teach students to identify genres but fall short of having them use their knowledge of genres to apply genre-appropriate strategies. Having students identify that My Bones is a non-fiction isn’t enough. Students have to know that they will read the text differently because it is nonfiction. Here are some things they might do:
- Slow their reading rate.
- Stop more frequently to monitor comprehension and ask, “Is this making sense?”
- Reread more often to allow new information to stick.
- Be on the lookout for unfamiliar words in the text and clues to define those new words.
- Use nonfiction text features to support comprehension and visualize new information.
If you make the conversation about how they will approach the text because it’s nonfiction, then you are helping the readers prepare for the text.
If you are just having students guess at identifying the genre, it’s sort of like a game show where there isn’t even a prize for guessing right.
What did I learn about my students from this conversation?
You may be thinking, “Well, I learned something about my students. I know some of them don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction.”
Really? Did you learn that from this conversation? Are you sure? Here’s what I think we can say with confidence we learned about the students:
- Student 1 may not know the difference between fiction and nonfiction…or the student may know the difference, but has the “labels” mixed up. Without additional conversation and input from the student, we don’t really know which of these is happening.
- Student 2 knows how to read his teacher’s voice and body language, but we don’t know whether he really knows anything about the characteristics of these genres.
Conversations with students provide some of the most valuable informal assessment information a teacher can get. We just need to be certain we base the assessment information on what the students explicitly says—not what we infer from the students’ statements.
Why did I initiate this conversation?
As teachers, we hopefully have students’ best interests in mind and are always trying to support them and create opportunities for success. In the countless times I’ve seen and initiated this conversation, helping readers was the goal. But we have to think more intentionally about our instruction and make sure we’re doing something that arms them for battle with challenging non-fiction texts.
So the next time you have a conversation with your readers about genre, make sure you are helping readers approach the genre strategically so they can comprehend the text and acquire new learning.