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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

NCTE — Critical Reading

The Palmer House hotel I am using in Chicago is most ungenerous with WiFi but if you sit at the bar in the lobby and nurse a drink, you have free access. I was catching up on my student’s work yesterday when I saw, sitting next to me, a woman preparing her NCTE talk — which, in a way, is the exact reverse of what I have been writing about here. She is teaching content area teachers (think Social Studies) how to teach and make use of the kind of reading strategies English teachers now. She is a big fan of Myra’s work in that regard. There is, then, this interesting convergence: we who write NF are pleased to see that the CC standards require Langiuage Arts teachers to think deeply about NF. But, as this professor (whose name, I am sorry to say, I did not catch) emphasizes, content area teachers need to be just as alert to developing the reading and thinking skills of their students. We should, of course, all meet in the middle at Critical Reading.

Critical Thinking is one of those great phrases that we all bow down to, and sometimes really mean it, but which is so overused it fades into blur. Textbooks are full of little sidebar questions and tests called “Critical Thinking” — and once an idea makes its way inot the TOC of a textbook you know it is entirely safe. Now what about Critical Reading — every English teacher who has ever taught a novel, even a picture book with subplots, has found a way to get students to see beyond the obvious words on the page — Point of View, characterization, language, on up to unreliable narrator — all of these take shape in the student’s mind as they become better critical readers. The see beyond the obvious to the joys, traps, and tricks, the author has woven into the book. And that is the same in NF — readers need to see beyond the parade of names and dates, beyond the narrative posture of calm and assured knowledge, past the apparent architecture of firm and settled authority — to similar issues — point of view, use of language to characterize one person, event, or time, flow of language, structure of the book. The NF Critical Readers learns to mine the book just as the fiction CR does.

CR — perhaps that is a flag that it will be easier for Language Arts teachers to salute than the fuzzy idea of Critical Thinking as applied to content areas in which they themselves have limited knowledge. See what the lack of wifi can do, it gets you thinking (the butternut squash soup at the bar wasn’t bad either).


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    This is my favorite topic! Of course social studies teachers need to help their students see beneath the calm veneer of books and into the more interesting yet turbulent process of crafting an account. That’s where the action is. That’s what energizes us as readers. I think this is the most exciting part of teaching–this looking underneath. So, my request to nonfiction authors is to help us do this by sharing how you write your books. What’s the underlying research process? What were the great discoveries? What were the false starts and blind alleys? How can we teachers tap into this? Marc, you are a leader here, but more needs to be done.

    By the way, I am fascinated by a recent article in Reading Research Quarterly by Gale M. Sinatra and Suzanne H. Broughton entitled “Bridging Reading Comprehension and Conceptual Change in Science Education: The Promise of Refutation Text.” While the article deals with texts that promote learning in science, the information is also relevant to social studies. It seems that texts that help readers face some of their misconceptions promote learning quite effectively. I think authors and teachers should think about the implications of this research. Anyway, I am chewing on it.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I like that idea — challenge what the reader thinks she knows, very interesting

  3. This is an interesting conversation to happen on to. As a content area teacher (social studies) as well as a reading/writer teacher, this is exactly the topic I am struggling with – critical reading strategies in non fiction. I find myself shying away from text books and searching for trade books in my teaching practices, mostly because text books are so poorly written (the exception is Joy Hakim’s history series). I am intrigued by the questions Myra poses for non-fiction writers – these are exactly among the questions I urge my students to ask themselves as they read.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    trade books have authors and thus often clear reasons for being — from the driving curiosity of the writer, to the cool experiences in his or her journey of discovery, to, of course, a point of view. This is precisely what we want young readers to recognize, evaluate, and begin to see as their own inspiration for research and writing. So they do hold great promise for content and LA teachers. The challenge right now is tht they are expensive hardcovers and not often available as digital classroom sets. So we all — authors, librarians, teachers — need to push publishers to come up with creative ways past this impasse. Teachers need what we have, we need to be in classrooms, but right now the way is blocked by format and price.