“jaws open and close like a pair of pliers” – Teach Students to Recognize Comparisons in Nonfiction

Authors of nonfiction frequently use comparisons to help readers understand content. When I teach students how to notice and name these comparisons, students light up with understanding. Below is a description of a lesson I gave with a group of intermediate grade students. There are three phases to the lesson and the lesson might take more than one period of time.

Phase One: Introduce, Read, Discuss

I introduced Spiders by Seymour Simon and read aloud several pages at different points in the book. (You don’t have to read the whole book.) I placed the book on the document camera so they could see the amazing photographs. After you read aloud a page or section, you might ask students to turn and talk with a partner about what they learned from the read aloud.

Phase Two: Close Read and Take Notes

  1. Introduce the concept of “nonfiction authors use comparisons to help readers understand” and the definition of “compare” or comparison. I thought I might teach “metaphor” and “simile” but found that, in this case, using “comparison” was the easiest way to help students access this concept. Below are photographs from a lesson I gave. You can see that the objective for the lesson included identifying comparisons author’s use. The second image is the definition I wrote of what it means to “compare.”                                                         
  2. Closely read and annotate excerpts of text from Spiders that include comparisons. There are LOT of comparisons in Simon’s books. (Here I’ve attached a doc with a list of examples from Spiders– Examples of Comparisons in Seymour Simon’s Spiders.) One example in Spiders is “In most spiders, the jaws open and close like a pair of pliers.” Read a few together and begin to identify and discuss the comparison. Important questions to ask students include:
    • What two things are being compared? (how a spider’s jaw opens and closes; how a pair of pliers open and close)
    • What is the characteristic of these two things being compared? (how they work or operate)
    • Why do you think the author made this comparison? Or what did you understand better because of this comparison? (This comparison in particular helps the reader visualize the way a spider opens and closes its jaws. This is good to know and understand because a few sentences later Simon contrasts “most spiders’ jaws” with that of the “tarantula” with that has “fangs like two daggers.”)
  3. Release responsibility to partners or individuals to locate the comparison and discuss the three questions; they might annotate or take notes on at least two different comparisons.

Phase Three: Plan, Rehearse, Write

  1. Ask the students to choose a few comparisons to write about in a response. They might jot   notes on a sticky note.
  2. Engage the students in orally rehearsing how they will describe these comparisons. They may need sentence stems like “The two things the author compares are…”    or “The author is comparing…”
  3. You may need to engage in shared writing about one comparison as well. Below is a photo of shared writing I did with the students using the document camera. 
  4. Ask the students to write about an additional comparison or two on their own.  The rehearsing and writing was tricky for the students. They did not have the language for talking or writing about comparisons they’d read in a text and needed a LOT of prompting!

Beyond the Lesson: Independent Practice

Provide opportunities for students to enjoy reading and hunting for more comparisons. Authors of nonfiction use a lot of comparisons to describe all sorts of topics – animals, simple machines, weather, etc. You might provide an opportunity for students to read other of Simon’s books or other authors like Nic Bishop and to keep an eye out for comparisons they can share with each other.

BTW – I’m playing around with these “three phases” and a lesson plan template. Hope to post soon.

Hope this helps.




Do your students make informed predictions? Quick Assessment Tip.

The start of the school year is a great time to informally assess whether our students are making informed predictions about the informational texts they are reading–predictions that will move them forward in understanding the author’s big ideas.

What do I mean by “informed”? Check out this Scholastic News article – Invasion of the Drones.

If you handed this to a student and asked them to make a prediction about what the text will be about, how many of your students would say the following:

It’s about drones.

It’s about the invasion of drones. 

It’s about some army guys flying a drone.

Or how many of your students would say something like the following:

Well, when I read the title it made me think there are going to be more and more drones. And when I read the deck underneath the title, I realized that there might be some cool things you could do with drones like deliver pizzas, but there might also be some problems. Then I also noticed that one of the subheadings is the word “safety.” So I think that the author is going to talk about all of the things we are doing with drones and then some of the problems with drones.

The latter response is a prediction that is informed by information the student gleaned by looking at the features and thinking about what she will be learning about. This prediction is going to carry this students forward to better understanding of the text. 

Need a quick way to assess? 

  1. Hand out an article (like the one about drones) or ask the students to access one online and then ask them to preview the article and jot down their predictions on a small piece of paper.
  2. After they are done, ask them to add a sentence or two about how they figured this prediction out. What makes them think the text will be about this?
  3. Gather and analyze. What does the student’s prediction reveal about their skill in making informed predictions? You might consider the following:
  • Does the student just restate the title of the article?
  • Does the student write a prediction that is not based on evidence in the text?
  • Does the student only rely on photos to make a prediction versus using infographics, subheadings, captions and so forth?
  • Does the student use the photo and even the title, but clearly misunderstands what the article is going to be about?

If the answers to the above questions are mostly “yes,” you may need to lead a few lessons focused on helping students preview the text to make informed predictions. If you know me, you know what I’m going to suggest next–use the THIEVES, HIP, or TELL mnemonics to help students get started.

The following blog entries (that I’ve written in the past) explain introducing THIEVES.

Start the Year with HIP, THIEVES, or TELL…

Start the Year with THIEVES and a Clear Purpose for Reading

Rethinking the use of THIEVES

I’ve also attached here a bookmark my colleague created. Thank you, Meghan!!!!


Hope this helps.


“I can do this” – Suggestions for Interactive Read Aloud

Miss Colfax’s Lighby Aimée Bissonette.


Read this aloud to your students and they will be struck by the strength of an unsung hero. A recipient of the ILA Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for Nonfiction, this compelling narrative tells the story of Harriet Colfax who was the lighthouse keeper for the Michigan City Lighthouse for forty-three years beginning in 1861. The work was back breaking and intense, but Harriet persevered until she retired at the age of 80. The author uses a repetitive phrase stated by Colfax, “I can do this” to reveal how determined this woman was even when the city asked her to also tend to a beacon light located at the end of a catwalk which reached 1500 feet out into Lake Michigan.

Suggestions for an Interactive Read Aloud in Grades 2-4:

  • Before reading aloud the book, take a few minutes to build background knowledge. You might do one or more of the following:
    • Locate Michigan City, Indiana and Lake Michigan on a map
    • Identify the years 1861 and 1904 on a timeline so children can think about how long ago this story took place
    • Look at images located on the Internet of lighthouses from this period. Several similar images come up when you search “lighthouses Michigan City Indiana.” Many of these images include a “catwalk” which is described in the book.
    • Add to the discussion by sharing an image of the lighthouse in a storm and ask, “What would it be like to walk on a catwalk out to this lighthouse during a storm?” (You can locate images by searching “lighthouse Michigan City Indiana storm” on the Internet).
    • Discuss the definition and purpose of a lighthouse. A kid-friendly definition might be: a tower or building with a very bright light to help ships avoid dangerous areas.
  • Read aloud the book a first time, mostly without stopping so students can enjoy the book and begin to get the gist.
  • As part of a second read aloud, ask the students to turn and talk with a partner or in small groups at particular points. Examples of stopping points and prompts for discussion include:
Page Questions for Small-Group Discussions
“Night after night, Harriet climbed…” What does the author describe on this page? Why do you think the author told us that Harriet said, “I can do this”?
“Over the years, Harriet’s lighthouse duties grew…” If we look closely at the illustrations on these two pages, what do we learn about Harriet and her job?
“All that night Harriet paced the lighthouse floors…” What do you think the author means when she writes, “Harriet would not let them down?”
  • Engage the students in writing in response to a part of the book that reveals how Harriet persevered. A student-friendly definition for “to do continue doing something even if it’s hard.”
  • Ask small groups to write and perform a short script for one scene in the book or to imagine a scene that is not in the book but is based on what they learned from the book.
  • Provide an opportunity for more advanced readers to compare the information on Colfax at http://www.oldlighthousemuseum.org/colfax_hartwell.html with the book.
  • Leave the book on display in your classroom library for students to read again on their own.

Congrats to the new author Aimée Bissonette. Looking forward to her next book!


End of the Year – Immerse Students in Fun Nonfiction

Figuring out how to keep students engaged in learning until the last minute on the last day of school? I know you have lots of tricks in your back pocket. Just want to put in a good word for immersing your students in “free reading” of high-interest nonfiction. Below I’ve shared some tips and a few favorite authors & titles.

A Few Tips

  1. Make a grand display with dozens of books. The photo above is from a third grade classroom (thanks, Cate), but you could do this in any classroom grades k-8, huh?
  2. Book talk titles and read aloud a few pages.
  3. Stand in a circle and do a book pass. Ask students to stand in pairs in a large circle. Give every pair a book. Set your timer. They browse and chat for thirty seconds and then pass the book to their left (or right). After their done, they choose a favorite to keep reading (with a partner or independently.)
  4. Help students find books they’d be interested in.
  5. Encourage students to engage in quick, informal conversations with their peers about what they liked about or learned from a book.
  6. Find books at the public library. I know a lot of librarians are taking inventory. If you need books, raid the public library shelves. You don’t have to look for specific authors. Find the shelf with frog books and take them all!
  7. Most importantly – encourage the students to have fun–talking, sharing, reading, learning.

A Few Authors/Titles


BOOKS ABOUT FAMOUS PEOPLE including Barb Rosenstock’s playful versions of historical figures like Ben Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt


Hope this helps.

BTW – Sorry I’ve been absent for awhile. I am finishing a manuscript for Heinemann. Hopefully the book will be out next winter. 🙂





Orally rehearsing with key words can boost writing

Do your students struggle to compose sentences about nonfiction topics that make sense or sound right? Do they lack structure at the sentence and paragraph level? Here’s a few tricks I’ve been trying with small groups of late-early and transitional stage readers.

As part of a conversation generate key words they will use to orally rehearse and then write. I’ve started including a key word for the introductory sentence and the closing sentence as well. The “conversation” aspect of this is important. I position the students as writers with a clear audience. With late-early stage readers and the book Beetles by Edona Eckart, the students and I generated the words many kinds, glow, wings, colorful, interesting. I started the conversation by saying, “If we were going to write about what we learned, how would we start? Then what would we say?” (I don’t say, “Let’s list five words we will use.”) When a student shares a sentence aloud (after I coach or scaffold as needed), then I say, “What’s a key word from that sentence that we can write down to help us remember what we want to write?”

The photo below is from the lesson with the book Beetles. Each of these words would be used in a sentence to compose a response to the prompt What did you learn about beetles in this book?

With a transitional stage group reading The Future of Flight by Anna Harris (part of McGraw-Hill’s Wonders), the students had done a close reading of the two pages about the myCopters (small flying vehicles). The prompt for writing was “In a letter, convince someone in your family to buy a myCopter instead of a new car.” Our key words – included believe for an introductory sentence and please for a closing sentence. I started the conversation by saying, “If you are going to convince someone to buy a myCopter instead of a car, what do you want to say first?”

Then model for the students how you might use each key word to compose as sentence and draw them into orally rehearsing. So I said to the students, “Listen to me as I use these words to help me practice what I will write. I’m going to use the first word…There are many kinds of beetles. Who can compose a sentence with our second key word?”

As students practice using the key words, gently push them to use correct syntax or sentence structure. You might say, “That was tricky. Did that sound right? Let’s think about how we can make that sound right.” I had a student write “The weedy sea dragon has features that help it survive from predators.” I talked with him about how the sea dragon’s features help it avoid or escape predators and then together we revised his sentence aloud until he had the hang of it.

Ask them to practice with a partner. Students can alternate – composing sentences with every other word.

Encourage them to elaborate further (aloud) if they are ready. One student reading Beetles wanted to add details in the sentence with the key word “colorful” about the different colors of beetles. I told her “Go for it!” The key words are just triggers for remembering what they learned so if they can compose a more complex sentence or add additional sentences – yes! This also encourages students to make the writing their own and not just copy what other students are saying or writing.

With some students, after we rehearse, I ask for a thumbs up when they know what they are going to write for their first sentence. I ask each student to rehearse aloud and then I give them the “go” to start writing. Sometimes they will simply say what the student said before them – that’s okay. The writing becomes more their own the further they get in to it and the more frequently we engage them in doing this kind of guided writing, the risks they will take.

This works best in small groups. The lessons here were done as part of guided writing – which takes place after 1-2 guided reading lessons (20 minutes each) focused on reading and learning from the book.

If I’m working with a whole class, I use this approach to writing during individual conferences. I ask the student to tell me what they are going to write next. If they need me to, I jot down a few key words on a sticky note–from what they said.  Then, if I feel like they need additional kind of support,  I say, “How can we put this in a sentence? Let’s try this aloud.”

Hope this helps.



Discourage students from taking notes like this. Here’s why.

If students are reading multiple texts on a topic and taking notes on each of those sources, I require that (or strongly suggest) they write notes in phrases–just enough words to help them remember what they learned or what the author was saying or the student’s response to information. In most cases, I strongly encourage them to NOT write their notes in sentences.

Here’s why –

  1. If they write notes in sentences, the student may be easily tempted to just copy the sentences they are reading in a source and not do a lot of thinking. (How many of your students do this??????) Instead, we want them to think about what the author is trying to say or what they are learning from the source and then determine what is really important to remember. Then they can jot down a few of the author’s words or their own paraphrasing of the text.
  2. If they’ve already written sentences in their notes, they frequently just want to lift those sentences and insert them into their writing or presentation or whatever. Then they have missed an opportunity to combine details from multiple sources. When students are done taking notes from multiple sources, we want them to look across their notes and combine ideas from multiple sources. They have to be able to look at their notes and categorize details. Oh, all of these details are about what the raccoon eats! Or Yes! I see several details on how the Cherokee used their environment to create art. They may want to draw arrows between notes or circle details they want to combine with the same color of pencil. Conceptually, this is harder to do if they are looking across “sentences” versus words and phrases.

Here’s an example of what I mean by notes written in phrases (versus complete sentences)–

OKAY…I’M LEAVING OUT A LOT HERE like the fact that taking notes is a complex task. The students need to know their purpose for researching, reading, taking notes. They need clear questions they are trying to answer or grapple with as they read and take notes like How did this Native American tribe use resources in their environment to survive? or How did the members of the Jewish resistance exhibit courage during the Holocaust? or How can we be prepared for severe weather? They need a way to organize their notes like using an inquiry chart (Hoffman, 1992). See example below. (If you need more info on teaching with inquiry charts, see Chapter 8 in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts). AND they need examples of good texts to use as sources or access to a vetted set of sources before they go off to find their own. And, and, and…

Example of an inquiry chart…

Below is an example of a student’s inquiry chart. This fifth grade student was researching the Apache. Notice the questions across the top that drive her decisions about what to write in her notes. Her sources are listed on the left hand side. She’s circled details she wants to combine with a colored pencil.

Many, many students will struggle when they go to synthesize and write or plan for presenting if they  have to look across a bunch of “sentences.” Many, many students will be tempted to just copy the sentences from their sources! Encourage your students to take bulleted notes, short phrases or just enough information that they can look at it and remember what they learned.

For more information on how I use inquiry charts, read an article I wrote for ASCD’s EL entitled The Case for Multiple Texts.

My new book with Heinemann Nurturing Informed Thinking also has a chapter focused on inquiry charts.

Hope this helps.





Do they really get what the main idea means?

Can your students explain what their main idea statement means? Is a superficial understanding or misunderstanding of the main idea impacting their ability to identify or explain supporting details?

We need to give students time to unpack the main idea. It’s worth it and pays off when they begin to identify key details and explain how those details support the main idea.

A few other suggestions:

  1. Help students unpack a main idea by asking them to define a particular vocabulary word or phrase in the main idea statement. This may mean they have to look the word up!!!!! For example, if the student is writing about how tornadoes are powerful, do they understand that powerful, in this case, means having or producing a lot of physical strength or having an impact on something? Or if they are explaining the achievements of a historical figure, do they understand that achievement means something done successfully with effort, courage or skill?  And if they are explaining how skyscrapers have changed over time to become safer, do they understand ideas like change over time (how something becomes or is made different during a period of time) and safer (free from harm or risk) mean?
  1. Ask students to underline and annotate key words and phrases in the main idea statement. Below is a photo from a shared “unpacking the main idea” experience with a small group of 3rd/4th grade students in response to a NewsELA article about a blind student named Amare. The annotations might include:
  • definitions,
  • synonyms,
  • “this makes me think…” statements
  • connections to background knowledge or details in other texts
  • etc.

  1. Provide time for students to used their annotated main ideas to discuss what they are thinking or understanding–during think-pair-share. I find it helpful to model thinking through the annotated statement and how I would explain the main idea using the annotations.
  2. If the students are writing an essay that begins with a main idea statement, ask them to explain the main idea (in a few sentences) before identifying and elaborating on supporting details. The photo below is from the shared writing experience with third/fourth grade students. The second sentence is one that I wrote – but student “H” composed orally first.

An instructional thought—engage students in a shared experience unpacking the main idea. Together define key words, underline and annotate, write. This might be for the first article in a text set. As the students read and respond to additional texts, they begin to take charge of unpacking the main idea.

Hope this helps.




Explode to Explain

Are your students citing “text evidence” without really having control of the meaning of the quote they choose? Do they state “in the text it says” and then fill in the next blank with a quote they may not really understand? Do they forget to explain further or elaborate?

Here’s an idea a group of teachers and I tried last week. After a lesson that provides time for the students to read and discuss the article, give them the luxury of time to contemplate what one quote from the text means – to explode the meaning of this quote in order to explain it further. One sentence in an informational text can be loaded with a lot of meaning – it’s worth the time for students to slow down and really think about what the author is talking about and the implications of what the author is saying.

For the first small group lesson (20 minutes), I introduced a NEWSELA article about the eco-boats that were hired to clean garbage from the Rio Bay in preparation for the Olympics. My introduction included defining and discussing the difference between garbage and sewage (important to understanding the article), previewing and making informed predictions about the content of the article, and then the students reading while I conferred with individuals.


For the second lesson, we talked about one of the main ideas – “Water pollution is a problem in the Rio Bay” – written in purple ink in image below.  (Remember – this is just one of the main ideas in this article.) I shared a supporting quote from the article with them – written in blue ink on chart- and we worked our way through the details in that particular quote. In the image below, notice how I jotted what the students were thinking in red ink.

I modeled talking about what this quote means using the notes in red to help me explain my thinking. Then I asked a student to do the same. THEN I asked partners to turn and talk to do the same. My goal was for them to speak fluently about what they understand this quote to mean–and then be able to write about it.


I closed this lesson by asking the students to explode an additional quote from the text that supports the main idea – “Tons of garbage and raw waste flow down rivers each day.” They wrote this quote in their response journals and attempted to explode.  I conferred heavily. They will continue to need support doing this for awhile.

For a day 3 lesson, we reviewed the notes on the quote we’d exploded together and engaged in a shared writing to explain that quote. See the image below. Then they returned to the quote they’d exploded, orally rehearsed with a partner what they planned to write and then wrote.


Notes – I determined the main idea we’d use. I chose the two quotes. This is more about saving time and cognitive energy to get to the heart of what we needed to do–thinking through and explaining “text evidence.” Later the students can take on more of this. During these three lessons, this small group of students just began to get what we were talking about as far as explaining. They need to do this a LOT to get a grip on explaining the text evidence they are citing.

In the end, there’s a lot of power in this exercise–increased comprehension, increased content knowledge, and being able to speak and write more fluently (and knowledgeably) about what they’ve read.

A big thanks to the 3-5th grade teachers in the NKC School District who went on this day long journey with me and to RENEE for being my think partner!!!

Hope this helps.


Yup Part 2 – Teaching Suggestions


How do we help students have back-and-forth conversations about nonfiction that build understanding? Conversations that include continually returning to their notes and the text to think about what to say next?

I help students start to do this by demonstrating a conversation with a student-partner…

  1. I start by asking a student-volunteer to be my conversation partner.
  2. I ask the student volunteer to come to the front of the room WITH her notes and/or the text.
  3. I project my notes about the text or the annotated text for all students to view. For example, if we have completed or started taking notes on an inquiry chart – I will post my inquiry chart for all students to view.
  4. I pose a clear question for my partner and I to discuss like “What are critical components of an ecosystem?” or “How did members of the Jewish resistance reveal their courage?”
  5. I encourage her to look at her notes and think about what she wants to say before she responds. I might say, “What do you see in your notes that you want to talk about when we think about answering this question?”
  6. After she responds, I demonstrate how I listened to my partner and how I use what I heard her say and my notes (I point to specific details in my notes) to think about what to say next. For example, I might say, “I heard you say…and I have that in my notes right here. I’m thinking about what I can add to that. Let me look at my notes. (Pause to visibly skim in front of students.) Oh, yes. I want to add this to what you said…”
  7. Then I prompt the student to be strategic in contributing to our conversation. I might say, “Now what can you contribute to what we’ve both just said. Look back at your notes.”
  8. The student and I continue moving back and forth, continually thinking about what was said and looking at our notes to think about how to build meaning.

Other moves I make with my conversation partner…

  • “I wrote a note about this, but I didn’t understand when the author of this text wrote that…what did you think about that?”
  • “I never realized that…until I read in the text that…”
  • “I think I heard you say…what did you mean by that?”
  • “When I read…I started wondering about…but I never figured that out…”

And so forth.

The critical moves during this demonstration include –

  • Modeling looking at my notes to decide what to say
  • Prompting the student to look back at her notes before responding
  • During the demonstration, taking several turns between partners, turns that build on what was already said
  • During the demonstration, being explicit with students about what’s happening like saying, “Look at how I used my notes to think about what to say…” or “I just heard my partner say and I don’t understand that so I’m going to ask her to clarify…”
  • Modeling asking for clarification or sharing what you didn’t understand or didn’t remember, etc.

But this is not all…when students turn to think pair share after this demonstration–I lean in to listen and coach with prompts like

  • What did your partner just say that you can build on?
  • Look back at your notes. What did your partner already say? What do you see in your notes that will help you add on to that?
  • Did you understand what your partner said? Is there a part of what she said that you need to hear again? Or ask for clarification about?

Hope this helps.