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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Reading to Know and Knowing How to Read

Learning to Read

Somehow I missed this when it first came out: when Obama announced national standards for reading and math, the Times held an online debate/discussion on the issue: The discussion is interesting enough in its own right, but the sentence that caught my eye came in a piece by Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education reform. She quoted the government’s proposal as saying, “Because the overwhelming majority of college and workplace reading is non-fiction, students need to hone their ability to acquire knowledge from informational texts…[and] …demonstrate facility with the features of texts particular to a variety of disciplines, such as history, science, and mathematics.” Dr. Stotsky was objecting that English teachers should not be required to teach the kinds of reading required in non-fiction texts. Friends, if I have ever seen a wide open door, that is it.
       The government is proposing national standards — starting with reading and math. It is also stating what we all know — that the reading students will be doing much of their life requires that they know their way around non-fiction: how to understand the way pieces are organized, how to think critically, how to evaluate information, and how to formulate their own theories and responses. This is precisely what our books model — and how they differ from databases. A database presents material with no evident or expressed point of view — a book shows how an author assimilates that kind of raw data and turns it into usable ideas and information.
      I was prompted to go over this by an experience with our 5 year old last night. Rafi is at that delicious moment where he is realizing that he can make out, he can master, the words he sees in books. At school he is getting plenty of Hop on Pop and Cat in the Hat. But last night came the first time he sat in bed with his mom determined to sound out, and thus own, as many words as he could. What was the book? It was a handbook of Bakugan creatures. For Rafi, it is not story and rhyme that leads him into reading, it is fact — being able to name creatures with their powers and their evolved forms. He wants to be able to read the catalog to invent his own stories, to relish his knowledge of each one — exactly the way his brother began his steps into reading by sounding out the name of a dinosaur. If (some) kids begin reading by gathering knowledge, and need to grow into readers skilled at evaluating knowledge — what happens in between. Where does the disconnect come between reading to know, and knowing how to read?


  1. says:

    It is my belief, Marc, that all teachers, at the elementary and secondary levels, across the disciplines, need to be aware of the ways that a variety of genres can work in their classroom. We’ve clung to the monolithic textbook for so long, that I think it’s difficult for teachers of most content areas to understand the effectiveness of literature-based instruction. It is as wrong for English teachers to say that nonfiction is not their responsibility as it is for science or history teachers. One of the courses that I am responsible for is called Content Area Literacy; it used to be a course directed at upper elementary grade teachers and up (4-12) who were “reading to learn.” But in my course revisions this past year, I’ve made it a PreK-12 course, because it rested on antiquated notions of what it means to read to learn and the ways in which reading for information is something children do as soon as they can communicate to their parents which book they want to hear read aloud, and most certainly as they are learning to read. For many, it is why they want to learn to read. And with the absence of rich social studies and science experiences in the primary grade, due to misguided interpretations of what is necessary to meet testing demands, I think we’re losing more readers than ever, because they don’t get to explore the content that interests them that will motivate them to become independent readers. There is so very much more to say on this subject.

  2. please say more — come give us a guest blog, this is very, very interesting, tell us more about your course.

  3. says:

    Marc, I would very much love to do so. What’s the next step?

  4. just email me == via my website — and we’ll work out the details