Reading to Learn: Setting and Monitoring Your Purpose for Reading
It’s important for our students to understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Early in the year, especially at the primary grades, we have our students compare fiction books to nonfiction books. It’s easiest to start with the books that address the same subject. For example, Doug read his students Tacky the Penguin (Lester, 1990) and The Emperor’s Egg (Jenkins, 2002). After read-aloud, Doug began by asking his favorite question, “What did you notice?” After students recounted details from each of the texts, Tawnya observed, “They’re different. One’s true and one’s not.” Doug followed up with a question about the evidence she used to support her conclusion. Students quickly started to grasp the key differences between fiction and nonfiction. They started by listing the realistic-looking illustrations found in The Emperor’s Egg, as well as the more cartoon-like features found in Tacky the Penguin. These students needed a bit of nudge to think about content, so Doug asked, “What did you notice the book was about?” They started to articulate that nonfiction books talk about true things and provide facts, whereas fiction deals with stories and things that are pretend or make-believe. As a follow-up, Doug used their criteria to think aloud as he sorted a small stack of books into fiction and nonfiction piles. This class convinced him that he needed to have a “both” pile for books like The Magic School Bus series, which contain informational text told in a narrative form.
Doug continued to move the discussion along by asking, “Why would someone read a fiction book?” and then “Why would someone read a nonfiction book?” It’s important for students to understand that we read books for different purposes. Most will say you read informational books to “learn about stuff.” Doug asked for examples of “stuff” they’ve learned from books (when there was a lull, he started to show covers of some recent read-alouds). After filling a chart, he stood back and marveled at all the information to be learned from books. He also reminded students that they “learn” from fiction as well as nonfiction.
The fact that nonfiction books contain so much information is definitely a benefit, but it’s also one of the reasons why our students find this genre so challenging. For example, a teenager was overwhelmed by all the facts in Exploring the Titanic (Ballard, 1988). She was frustrated because she didn’t know what the author wanted her to learn. It’s hard for our young readers to determine what is important because informational texts are packed with so many facts. That’s why setting a purpose is so important, because purpose gives readers a focus and structures the reading experience.
Great readers set their purpose and monitor whether it is being met. You may remember from the beginning of this chapter that Adam picked up a copy of Time because he wanted to learn about their assessment of No Child Left Behind. He started to read with specific questions in mind, which he hoped the article would answer: Is this legislation helping schools? If so, how? How can we improve this legislation? What do experts in the field say about this legislation? We want students to approach each text with a purpose and a plan for obtaining the information they want and need to know (Purcell-Gates, Duke, Hall, & Tower, 2002).
This is how Adam taught Dahlia and the rest of his fourth-grade class to navigate through text to find the information they needed for their animal reports. Their purpose became clear once the class had determined common questions, such as:
- How does your animal communicate?
- Where does your animal live?
- What type of food does your animal eat?
- Is it a carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore?
- Is your animal nocturnal or diurnal?
- Is your animal an endangered species?
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