Why Blog

I’m passionate about finding ways to simplify comprehension instruction and learning. I’m concerned that we are defining comprehension too narrowly as an accumulation of five or six meta-cognitive strategies when cultivating comprehension involves so much more than that. We need to help children acquire accurate fluent reading skills and strategies; build background knowledge; develop their oral language and vocabulary; make reading-writing connections, and acquire a repertoire of meta-cognitive strategies to use as and if needed.

So I invite you to join me in blogging about this ever-so-important topic. I look forward to hearing your ideas, teaching strategies, book recommendations, classroom stories, etc., basically anything that will inspire a healthy conversation among colleagues.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ask Sharon...an Advice Column for Teachers

Here’s how this "advice column" works: Blog followers will post questions in the “comments” box throughout the week, then I’ll answer one or two early the following week. All unanswered questions will be saved and most likely inform future blog postings. And to anyone new to this blog, trust me, I don't take myself all that seriously...but hey how many opportunities does one get to play Ann Landers?

Dear Linda,

Thank you for taking the time to write. (See Linda’s question in the February 11th comment box.)

Let me address the second part of your question first: “Might a nonfiction study work best with an overarching topic?” I think it’s wise to both briefly study nonfiction for its own sake, and then move on to a content-area topic where the nonfiction text features you’ve uncovered are now used to access information students want and need to know. This offers the best of both worlds—students learn about nonfiction and then directly apply what they’ve learned.

You might introduce the unit by reading aloud some nonfiction titles on topics that interest your students and then charting your finding. After you’ve done this for a week or so, re-direct children’s attention to a content-area topic they will begin exploring. Nonfiction text features and the various nonfiction subgenres become so much more powerful when children recognize that information can be delivered in a variety of ways. And you’ll be integrating science and social studies into literacy, which is exactly what we want to happen.

About instructional strategies: 
You’re wise to frontload your nonfiction study, as you say you’re doing, by reading informational texts aloud to students. Children work best, in fact we all do, when we’re given a context for new ideas and thinking. And so sharing informational text during read aloud and shared reading is certainly a step in the right direction. As is giving children opportunities to share what they’ve read, learned, and found interesting. I used to provide a share time for students each morning after the first independent reading time of day. I would ask if anyone had something to share about a topic we were studying in science and social studies. Students would tell classmates what they’d learned from reading that morning. And because they enjoyed sharing and knew that if they wanted to share they'd have to do the work, children were more likely to select content-area books to read. “Brava” on that account as well.

Additional ideas:

Content-Area Literacy Centers—Another way to make texts (and nonfiction text features) accessible is to create content-area literacy centers for kids to work at during independent reading. First-grade teacher Millie Velazquez sets up centers that focus on topics her kids care deeply about and ones they are studying in science and social studies. She equips the center with all sorts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry about the focus topic, brings in realia, and invites kids to do the same. There are pictures, writing supplies, and games for students to use. (See pages 172 to 177 in Comprehension the Ground Up for more on these centers.)

Text Feature Notebooks—You can either make one “big book” of various text features with students or allow each student to make their own. (And Linda, since you teach first grade, I advise doing one together.) Designate a page or two for each of the more common features you’ve identified at the start of the unit, e.g., captions, labels, scale drawings. Little kids don’t need to be overwhelmed by focusing on too many features or ones they’re unlikely to meet. As you continue to read aloud books and come across these text features, place post-it notes on the page so that later you can copy the page (and probably decrease its size), trim it to fit the big book, and paste the item on the page as an example.

Nonfiction Book Talks—Structure into your schedule a brief book talk two or three times a week where you or the children share a nonfiction title. Children might share a favorite part of a book they’re reading, and you might read the opening passage from a book to get kids interested in exploring it on their own. Always call students' attention to the text features that helped them access the information. The possibilities are endless, and it’s a good way to keep kids thinking about nonfiction.

Highlight Different Purposes for Reading—As you read to students call their attention to the different purposes we have for reading nonfiction. When we want to learn some baseline information about a topic we don’t know much about, we’ll read the entire book. Other times we might be looking for specific information to answer a question or to use in a piece we're writing and so we'll likely use the table of contents and index to find what we need. It’s a good way to show kids how the text features and "purpose for reading" go hand in hand.

About mentor texts:
I don’t have much to say here except that the nonfiction books I rely on the most are topic-related and not genre specific. That said, Gail Gibbons’ books are always high on my list and are likely so show up in a variety of content-area studies. Realizing that I should have more to say on this than I do, I’ve ordered Nonfiction Author Studies in the Elementary Classroom by Carol Brennan Jenkins and Deborah White. (So you see Linda, blogging isn’t helping break my book-ordering habit either!)

A book suggestion on primary grade writing:
Ann Marie Corgill’s Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers. (And yes, she's a dear friend and we taught together at the Manhattan New School, but that's not why I'm recommending her book.) It's packed with so many sound and practical writing workshop ideas for all types of primary-grade writing genres and publishing. 


  1. Thanks for all the great suggestions. I especially like the content area literacy center idea and will try to find a topic where some of my resources and my students' interests intersect. Finding a "place" in my classroom will be a challenge. Also love the text feature big book/notebook suggestion. And...woo-hoo more professional books to buy! Thank you again for the help.