Dinner Before Dessert? (or, Should We Really Be Pushing for More Nonfiction Reading?)

I was in the staff lounge grabbing a cup of coffee recently. Next to the Keurig machine is a lending library. No one really runs it. People just put books on the shelf, assuming others might want to read what they are sharing. I think there is a decent amount of traffic in what is coming and going.


Even at a glance, this collection would not be Common Core-acceptable in any classroom. Way too much fiction, and not enough informational and explanatory text.

But before I go back to the lounge and start sneaking in nonfiction books into this library, what do we see here? First, we have a lot of avid readers on our school staff. This alone is cause for celebration. Second, the books here are fairly complex texts, having read a number of them myself. In addition, this activity is independent of any requirements. As the school’s principal, I have not mandated that every staff member bring in “x” amount of books for this exchange. It just happens. It should also be noted that we have a book-a-day calendar next to the Keurig machine, as a daily recommendation for our next potential read.

I share this because of a recent article regarding the lack of nonfiction reading that is observed in today’s students. In this report, students’ reading habits and willingness to tackle complex texts start to decline after 6th grade. The journalist suggests that U.S. students will not be college and career ready at this rate, noting that “a key cornerstone of reading comprehension is vocabulary” and that “words that need to be encountered are in literature”.

What is not focused on in the article are the possible reasons as to why students are reading less once they hit secondary school. Maybe this is too simplistic in thinking, but could it be that independent reading – the time in which students are reading what they want, and often fiction – starts to go away in favor of the more traditional, departmentalized schedule? In my experience, the subject of reading is renamed “English”, “Language Arts”, or “Disciplinary Literacy” once students hit adolescence. Sounds depressing, if you ask me. No wonder kids are reading less.

Instead of assigning fiction with the blame of lower reading scores, what if we reconsider the way we promote reading in general? As an avid reader myself, I find fiction to be the gateway to a host of possibilities for reading in other areas. The thinking required for some of the novels I choose is deep, comprehensive, and often demanding of a second perspective. These inquiries naturally lead to book clubs, where a reader can share questions and become a better reader than they were before. Deep and complex thinking, asking questions, seeking new information…these strategies are the same that we demand of learners tackling nonfiction.

So if fiction is more than fluff, in comparison to the “rigor” of nonfiction, what are the implications for literacy instruction? It is much easier to teach anyone how to do anything when they are engaged in the process of actually doing it. We are giving them a taste of what is possible. Dangling dessert in front of our kids so they will eat their supper might work at the dinner table. But for more complex activities such as lifelong reading, we should reconsider our approach.

What I am Reading Right Now: 9/27/14

  • The September 22, 2014 issue of Time

I try to stay up to date on my magazine subscriptions, but I often fall behind once the school year starts. This issue, however, I have made time to read. The cover story “Never Offline” by Lev Grossman and Matt Valla was exceptionally well written. They profile the new Apple Watch within the larger context of how technology is consistently creeping closer toward us as wearables. What’s next? The future is both bright and disturbing. The related articles are also worth reading.

  • The New York Times

I started subscribing back in July. They have an educator’s discount for digital editions Monday through Saturday, and the paper edition on Sunday. The local and state papers were fine, but I felt like I was missing out on a larger conversation, both informatively and culturally.

  • Educational Leadership, “Instruction That Sticks” (October 2014)

To be honest, I have just perused the titles of the articles when time has allowed at school. Every one looks excellent. Another principal in Wisconsin uses grant money to provide subscriptions of this educational journal for all of his staff. I can see why.

  • Teacher Rounds: A Guide to Collaborative Learning In and From Practice by Thomas Del Prete (Corwin, 2013)

This resource provided the template for visiting staff last year when they came to observe our teachers as part of a grant we received. Now I am reading through the entire text, before we move forward with our own teachers observing each other. Getting to this point has been a process, but the destination would not be attainable without building relationships and developing a culture of trust with staff first.

  • The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th Anniversary Edition by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 2007)

Our first meeting for the school year was facilitated by two Courage to Teach trainers. We didn’t look at new curriculum materials, discuss the assessment calendar, or introduce technology into our busy lives. Instead, we gathered at a shelter surrounded by woods and lake, wireless gladly absent, and reflected on why we became teachers in the first place. This led me to start reading the book this program was based on. With everything coming at us as educators, I cannot imagine a better time to remember why we do what we do.

  • Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2013)

I wish Michael Pollan cared as much about education has he does about gardening and food. He has a true passion for his subject – he lives it. When he writes about gardening, he gardens. When he writes about cooking, he cooks. Today’s educational journalists would be wise to emulate Pollan’s approach and actually teach a class or two before writing about what it is like to be a teacher.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 2012)

You may have noticed that I read too much nonfiction. With that in mind, I have decided to try this title and recently read the first chapter. My wife highly recommended it. I can see why. The opening immediately sets the tone for the entire book (I am guessing, anyway). With the movie coming out soon, I will be interested in comparing both versions.

  • Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue: An Origami Yoda Book by Tom Angleberger (Harry N. Abrams, 2014)

I read aloud the first title in this series to my son. What a great story! He has proceeded to read all the subsequent titles up until this one. We were informed by a friend that there is a chapter that has some content that I may want to preview first. My son is only a second grader and reads about grade level, so he might not be ready for this content yet. I’ll have to determine that before letting him move on.

Top Ten Signs You Might Be an Avid Reader

This post is inspired by Peter Johnston when he spoke at the Wisconsin State Reading Association conference this year. He suggested we measure student reading engagement with questions that identify what happens when someone truly is a reader. I left the last three slots open. What would you ask?

Top Ten Signs You Might Be an Avid Reader

  1. Do you get upset when a teacher or parent tells you to stop reading and go to another activity?
  2. Have you ever accidentally walked into something while reading? (Johnston)
  3. While reading, did a large amount of time pass without you realizing it? (Allington)
  4. Have you purchased both the print and digital version of the same book, just in case you need to reference it at any time?
  5. Are you reluctant to mark up the pages, for fear that the person you lend the book to will not appreciate it?
  6. Do you sometimes refrain from reading before bed, because you may stay up too late?
  7. Do you have at least two books on deck?

I Say Let Them Read

This post is actually a comment I left on Annie Murphy Paul’s blog, on her post titled “Teens Are Choosing Books That Are Too Easy For Them”.

Where I agree with the concerns of this report is that secondary students do need more guided instruction. By guided, I mean the teacher conferring with readers on a regular basis, asking them questions about the text and giving support in the form of strategy instruction. And I am not against reading the classics and being challenged as a reader from time to time. But the job of the teacher is to scaffold the students’ experiences with the text so they are successful, with strategies such as questioning and graphic organizers. It shouldn’t be left to the parents.

That said, this report fails to cite any research that would give any validity to these concerns. What research says about reading text that is “easy” for students is very clear:

– The most effective teachers provide text for students they could easily read (Allington and Johnston, 2002; Keene, 2002; Langer, 2001)
– High levels of reading accuracy produce the best reading growth (Ehri et al, 2007)
– Reading comprehension predicts reading volume and reading comprehension performance (Guthrie et al, 1999)

You can read more about this research in the excellent resource What Really Matters in Response to Intervention by Richard Allington. I also recommend his article Intervention All Day Long, found at http://goo.gl/lTWuH. In the article, Dr. Allington actually goes into a secondary school and concretely shows the fallacy of matching readers with text that is too difficult.

Where some seem to see a problem in students not selecting challenging texts, I see this issue as a success story. Students are reading! Who here reads books because they are challenging? I don’t. I choose to read text that is interesting, engaging, and meaningful to me as a reader and a person. Sounds like this is what these students are doing. For the most part, I say leave them alone and let them read.

Questions Readers Ask Other Readers

In my school, reading intervention for 4th and 5th graders very much resembles a book club. There are a) lots of books that the readers are interested in, b) not a lot of tests or assignments, and c) lots of time to read. In fact, we call it “Howe Book Club”. The word “intervention” is not in the students’ lexicon. It takes place both during the school day in the afternoon and after school twice a week. It was designed this year based on a post from the Stenhouse blog.


Now in full swing, we are tweaking things here and there to keep the kids reading. Example: Students were becoming less engaged in the paperbacks we had purchased for them. In response, we allocated some funds to purchased eReaders and allowed the students to choose the digital books to be downloaded on the devices.

Another area identified for growth is to encourage better conversations between the students about what they are reading. In her book The Reading Zone (2007), Nancie Atwell provides some excellent openers kids can respond to as well as questions they can ask each other. On page 83 in Chapter 7 (One-to-One), she suggests some of the following prompts:

I liked the way the author…

This book remind me of…

I’d say a theme of this book is…

I couldn’t understand…

Why did…?

She also shares many questions she asks her students as she “roams among readers” (92). I think many of these would be just as applicable when students talk to their peers about what they are reading:

What page are you on?

What do you think so far?

How is it so far, compared to his or her other books?

What genre is this one?

Why did you decide to read this one?

Where did you find this book?

Is this one worthy of a book talk?

What are you planning to read next?

The plan is to put some of these questions and prompts on a handy reference card and on a poster in our library where the intervention takes place. This skill will first need to be modeled by the interventionists, which consist of current and retired teachers. They could do this at the beginning of each session, where time is set aside for the adult to read aloud a favorite book to the group.

Once the students get the hang of speaking like readers, they can facilitate conversations both in person and online. There is time built in for each student to share something that resonated with them from what they are reading in their small group. We will also have them set up in a class on Edmodo. This will allow students to continue their conversations beyond the official intervention time.

These activities we are facilitating for our students are authentic and engaging. They are doing what real readers do – read books, write and share about what they read, listen to others talk about their experiences, and then find more books to read.

A Takeaway from the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention

This is part of a post I shared with my teachers this week on our staff blog. It is a summary of what I took away from the excellent WSRA Convention in Milwaukee on February 7-9, 2013.


The Wisconsin State Reading Association conference was an excellent experience. I attended very informative sessions and had great conversations with other educators. You can read all of the tweets associated with five of the keynotes and sessions on my Storify page. I plan to share more both formally and informally.

One of the common threads during the conference was the Common Core. But not in the way I expected. Instead of hearing how schools should be addressing these standards in everything we do, the presenters encouraged us to take it slow. Focus on the students. Consider what engages them. If we can continue to make school a place of joy and allow students to achieve their personal learning goals, the Common Core will take care of itself.

Not to say that the CCSS should be relegated to the sidelines. Many well known educators and researchers such as Jeff Wilhelm and Regie Routman encouraged everyone to use what is laid out in the Common Core, but as a resource instead of a focus. These standards are not what students come to school for every day. They attend to our instruction and their learning because they want to become better readers and writers, and they believe you can help them along the way. Let’s stay the course and not get too excited about what is coming. What we know to be best practices will carry us through.

Feedback After an Evernote and iPad Workshop

I recently hosted a one hour technology session for district staff. The topic: Using Evernote on the iPad to Confer With and Assess Readers.

Afterward, I emailed each participant a survey via Google Forms to gather feedback. The last question I posed was, “What is one way you see using Evernote with the iPad in your current teaching position?” Here are their responses:

“I plan to have students read and record them, then play back. I am working on fluency with a lot of kids and I would like them to hear themselves. I’m not sure on the conferencing part/note taking yet, but we’ll see as I mess with it. With things like this I don’t make plans, I just jump in and see where it takes me.”

“I plan on recording students’ one minute reading fluency assessments and then embedding a picture of the actual passage they read with miscues and self-corrections marked. I am also going to take a pic of a page in their independent reading book and record them reading as part of my ‘running records on the fly'”

“I plan to record running records and allow students to hear themselves read, both immediately after reading and later on in the year (to show growth).”

“Photograph and save student work samples using hash tags so that I can easily access them later.”

“During running records: record students’ reading of the selection in order to score/check the record at a later time. This allows for me to focus on fluency during the assessment as well as have documentation of the students’ reading at that point in time.”

“I plan to use this when I conference with my students. It is my hope to try this today!”

“I could see myself taking a picture of what a student is working on and sharing it with the classroom teacher.”

“In Reading Intervention, I could record a students’ reading of a passage and replay it for them to hear. Together we could discuss strengths and weaknesses and set goals for improvement.”

“I plan to use Evernote by making notes as I meet with students during guided reading groups. Each group is reading a different book that they were able to choose. I will use it to create a notebook for each group. – Jot down their predictions and record audio of students reading and/or our group discussions at the end of each chapter.”

“I don’t have my own iPad, so I don’t see myself continuing with this. Maybe having your own iPad should be a requirement for this course.”

“I find this to be effective for my guided reading. I can keep all of my notes together instead of having a post-it here and a post-it there. I can view my notes from home too without having to bring my notes home with me.”

“I started using Evernote the next day. I took pictures of student tradition writing and them recorded their voice reading it. Next I am going to use volunteers to display on reflection and go through the process of editing on the SMARTboard.”

I am scheduled to run this workshop again for Central Wisconsin reading teachers in January. This information is invaluable to me as I think about how I will change my instruction to better meet the needs of the participants.