I first read this book last October after I purchased it at the MAMLE Conference. I had been thinking about how students attack demanding reading tasks, especially after a teacher told me about the difficulty some kids in her homeroom were having with an assignment. They were given a long nonfiction text to read on their own, outside of class, with no preparation or support. The amount and density of the text paralyzed them; they had no idea what to do. Their homeroom teacher wanted to help them and was looking for strategies. This book proved to be exactly what teachers need to help students become more skillful, active readers of nonfiction.
I knew I would like this book as soon as I read the introduction where the authors made clear that this would not be a didactic screed that purports to have the one true answer for producing excellent little readers. Instead, they suggest you read it, question it, and pull from it whatever works for you and your students. It’s a book for practitioners, and while research is referenced and cited, the focus is on practice, and the authors recount their experiences as they modeled these practices in real classrooms with real students.
As the subtitle suggests, Beers and Probst offer three big questions to develop students’ questioning stance, five signposts to help them understand the author’s craft and intent, and seven strategies to help them think about the text and fix any problems they are having. They describe their experiences modeling and teaching students how to use these questions, signposts and strategies for close reading and discussion of nonfiction texts.
Although all of these seem valuable, I can see spending a whole year just teaching and practicing them with students. Having said that, I do think all teachers can at least get students started with the three big questions they should ask themselves as they read. The questions are:
- What surprised me?
- What did the author think I already knew?
- What challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already knew?
These are described in Part II of the book, and as I read this section, I realized how familiar it all sounded. I usually read nonfiction books with a pencil in my hand so I can mark them up (or use sticky notes if it’s a borrowed book). I do this because it helps me focus and make connections, and apparently I’m asking myself questions that are similar to Beers and Probst’s big three. Most of my notes are answers to one of those questions. I think teaching students to do the same would be an effective first step in helping them read and think more deeply. The authors suggest making classroom posters with these questions so students can easily refer to them, and I did just that for the teacher who wanted to help her homeroom students. I think the signposts and strategies that are described in Parts III and IV would be most effective if they were part of a comprehensive literacy initiative adopted by a whole school or district, but the three big questions are simple enough for any teacher to begin using right away.
The intended audience for this book is not just reading teachers or literacy coaches. It is a valuable resource for any teacher at any grade level or in any content area. This would be an excellent choice for a PLG book study or as a faculty-wide common reading. You can preview the book and view a video of the authors on the publisher’s website. If you’ve read this book and tried using any of the questions, signposts, or strategies, please share your experiences in the comments and let us know how your students reacted and whether it helped them with close reading of nonfiction text.