Tag Archives: teaching nonfiction

Got Striving Readers? Recommend Series Nonfiction

Snakes. Dinosaurs. Rocks. I remember tutoring a young striving reader who would not come into the room until I showed him the book I wanted him to read that day. He had one condition. It had to be nonfiction! I’m pretty sure this student’s reading would have been on-track the previous year if he’d had more choice about what he was reading–and if some of those choices had been nonfiction.

I know a lot of us start the year by coaching students to self-select books for independent reading. A friendly reminder to “plug” choosing nonfiction titles, too and for younger readers you might recommend SERIES NONFICTION because if you can get them to fall in love with reading one title, then there’s another they can pick up right away. 

Below are some of my NEWer high-interest favorite series with suggestions for “book talking” as a way to get students to pick up these books.

These books are not leveled. I’d say for the most part they are geared towards transitional stage readers reading independently at Fountas & Pinnell levels J+ & DRA levels 18+.

If you don’t have access to these titles, check them out from a library or book talk them while students are “checking out” books from the school library. AND think about how my recommendations for “book talking/showing/plugging” can be used with titles you do have. I’ve included two tips at the end of this blog entry.

10 Reasons to Love… written by Catherine Barr and illustrated by Hanako Clulow

I was sold when I turned to the first two-page layout and saw the labeled illustrations of ALL 18 species of penguins. Immediately, Barr challenges some readers’ preconceived notions about penguins – not all penguins are the same. Each of the following two-page layouts  list one reason why a reader might fall in love with a penguin – 1) They take flying leaps 2) They can see underwater 3) They go tobogganing…etc. The illustrations are vivid with a few helpful labels (including the species of penguins).

FOR BOOK TALKING – I’d project or hold up the first two-page layout and ask students, “What do you notice?” and “What do you think you’ll learn about in this book?” They can turn and talk about what they notice. This may be enough to get students interested. Leave in your classroom library to be snatched up!

For more suggestions – see my review of 10 Reasons to Love a Penguin at Goodreads.

National Geographic Readers Levels 1, 2, 3 

This series is consistently well written. NG has been smart by inviting well known writers of nonfiction for children like Melissa Stewart to write these titles. CAUTION – these are not “leveled” similarly to Fountas and Pinnell. The level 1 titles are pretty rigorous as far as decoding –I might recommend to students reading at a late early stage (levels H & I). Some of these titles are available in Spanish; I need to check in with a colleague about the quality of the translation.

FOR BOOK TALKING – Share some interesting facts – posed as questions – to draw students’ interest. With Animal Architects, I might say – Did you know the sociable weavers’ nest can house up to 400 birds? That mason bees live by themselves and design-build a nest for just one egg at a time? That the spittlebug creates its own nest out of foamy spit it generates?

For more suggestions, see my review of Animal Architects at Goodreads.

Slime-Inators & Other Slippery Tricksters by Ellen Lawrence

Ellen Lawrence is a “go to” author for me. She really understands her audience developmentally.  The power of Lawrence’s writing is revealed once again in this book. Here’s a quick excerpt/example –

A parrotfish has many tiny teeth that are joined together.
The teeth form a hard, beaklike mouth.
When a parrotfish is hungry, it scrapes algae from the rocky coral with its hard teeth.
As a parrotfish gobbles up algae, it also swallows lots of rocky coral. (p. 8)

Bearport Publishing’s layout and design for this series is exceptional – very kid-friendly. Lots to learn from the photographs as well as the writing. NOTE: These books only come in hard back (which means they’ll last ;). You might have to hunt down a stack in the school library or public library or book talk before kids “check out” books in the library.

FOR BOOK TALKING – Share some of the photos and ask students for a “thumbs up” when they see a page they want you to read aloud. Then read it aloud. Do this for a few pages and then say, “If you want to know more, you’ll have to read to find out!”

For more suggestions, see my review of Slime Sleepers at Goodreads.

How Did…? Where Did…? Exploring the Everyday

written by Chris Butterworth & illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti

With simple diagrams, illustrations and straightforward language the author tackles describing to a young audience these high-interest topics. Sometimes books that take on topics like these get mired in explanations of how things work, but these are well written and tightly focused. Butterworth doesn’t try to answer every question; instead there is just enough information for students to say, “Oh, wow! I get it!” or “I have a questions about this…maybe I’ll do some research.”

FOR BOOK TALKING – Project or hold up a two page layout with a DIAGRAM for students to view. Then ask, “What do you think the illustrator is trying to teach you in this diagram?” and “Have you ever wondered about that?”

For more suggestions, see my review of How Does My Home Work at Goodreads.

NOT ALL NONFICTION SERIES are worthy of your students’ time. I’m picky about what I’d recommend to students. (You knew I’d say this.) Some series are badly written.

Tips for choosing series books to recommend to independent readers –

  1. Read the first page for yourself – Is the content too steep or just right to draw a young reader in? Does the first page have a load of words that would be difficult to decode?
  2. Look at the layout and design – Are the photographs and graphics student-friendly? Do they support the content in the running text?

Hope this helps.

I’m thinking about you all as you start a new school year. Hope it’s smooth.


Mnemonics for Making Predictions with Info Texts – HIP, TELL, THIEVES

A student glancing at a text and predicting “It is about dolphins” is just not good enough. This surface level prediction will not help them as much as an informed prediction. This is what I would want students to say in a prediction: “I think this book is going to be about the dolphins that live in Shark Bay which is off the coast of Australia. I know that because I thought about the title and the map that was on one of the first pages. I also think it’s going to tell me about families of dolphins and different types of dolphins because the captions and photographs I previewed included details about…” This is the kind of prediction that will move students forward in comprehending the text.

How do we help students do this?

Model using a mnemonic like HIP, TELL, or THIEVES and “think aloud” about what your predictions are because of what you learned while previewing. As I do this, I post the text I’m previewing – using a document camera or a Smart board. As I think aloud, I point to the features I’m examining as a visual scaffold for students. I’ve also modeled taking notes about what I’m learning during the preview – just to reinforce thinking carefully about what I’m learning during the preview.

Below are sample anchor charts.




For more information about THIEVES (Manz, 2002) see two previous blog entries I’ve written. Links are below. The information in these blog entries is relevant to what you might do with HIP and TELL as well.

Hope this helps.


Original source for THIEVES –  Manz, S. L. (2002). A strategy for previewing textbooks: Teacher readers to become THIEVES. The Reading Teacher, 55(4), 434.

Critical Thinking Across Multiple Texts – Choosing Texts Part 2

I’m hooked on the art of locating and layering texts for students to read and think across. In my last entry, I described a series of lessons where middle school students used an evolving definition of “honorable” to think critically about the role of medieval age warriors and modern warriors. We chose text excerpts and video clips from multiple sources, but in a very purposeful way.

Honorable anchor chart

When I choose multiple texts for close reading, I like to select texts that build on each other. I want students–when they go to read a second or third text–to say, “Oh, I recognize some of the information in this text from the last text I read…” or “Wait, this is new information…this expands my understanding.”

Below are the excerpts I selected on “knights” from a few library books I found and from sources on the Internet. Notice how in Text 1, the author provides some basic information about the young nobleman’s being a page, a squire and then a knight. In Text 2, the author provides more detail than the first. Thus the student can take what they learned from Text 1 and add to their learning with Text 2. This is an easy exercise to engage students in and reveal the power of reading across texts. I chose Text 3 (an excerpt from a longer book) because there is detailed content on particular aspects of the squire’s training – serious training and bodybuilding. The content in Text 3 expands the reader’s understanding of the squire’s training. Text 4 (a short video) extends the student’s understanding about the skill required to be a knight even further. By engaging in close reading and thinking across these four texts, the student can develop some depth in their understanding of an ability or an achievement of the knight that might be considered honorable. (FYI – The knights were not always honorable. I also located texts that described the Code of Chivalry and how the knights sometimes did not follow this Code.)



100 Things you should know about knights and castles (Walker, 2001, p. 16)

It took about 14 years of training to become a knight. The son of a noble joined a lord’s household at age seven. He learned how to ride, to shoot a bow and arrow, and how to behave in front of nobles. He then became a squire, where he learned how to fight with a sword, and he looked after his master’s armor and weapons. If he was successful, he became a knight at 21.

Text 2


Knights: Fearsome Fighters (Hanel, 2008, p. 20-21)

A knight’s training started when he was young and lasted several years. Around the age of seven, a boy born of a knight or other high-class parents was sent away to live with his father’s master or a powerful relative. The young knight-in-training was considered a page. He ran errands, served food, and performed other duties for the nobleman and the woman of the manor. In exchange for his services, the page received a good education. He learned to read and write, play music, and observe good manners. His preparations for later fighting also started, as he was taught how to care for the horses and learned a little about weaponry and fighting techniques by watching others or practicing with supervision.

Around the age of 13, the page became a squire. Squires studied directly with a knight and received more rigorous training for knighthood. They learned how to use weapons and participated in mock battles. At the same time, they continued their servitude, helping the knight in various tasks, including cleaning weapons and taking care of the horses. Sometimes a squire rode into battle to attend and observe his knight.

Text 3


Excerpt from Medieval Lives: Knight (Butterfield, 2009, p. 14-15)

Note: This book is written about a fictional English knight and in the present tense.

Becoming a Squire

When he is 14, the page’s parents watch their son receive a simple sword in a ceremony confirming him as a squire. He swears an oath of fealty, or loyalty, to the knight in whose household he lives. He is now expected to be that knight’s personal servant in battle.

Serious Training

The young knight-to-be now begins his training in earnest. He learns to aim his lance at the quintain, a wooden arm with a shield on one side and a heavy sack on the other. If he fails to hit the shield full-on, the sack will swing around and knock him on the back of the head! He also practices aiming his lance through metal rings hanging in trees.

He learns to ride superbly, controlling the horse with his knees and feet so that his hands are free to hold weapons. His saddle is shaped high in the front and back to help him stay on. He trains with two other squires and sometimes they have mock sword fights using wooden swords.


The squire works at building up his strength so he will be strong enough to wear heavy chain-mail armor and mount a horse while wearing it. He tries to make himself stronger using a well-known squire’s trick. He sews dirt into the pockets and hems of his clothing to make it heavier. He becomes good at vaulting over his horse while wearing chain mail, and he rides hard while hunting and leaping over ditches and hedges. He and the other squires are competitive and try to outdo each other in their knightly skills.

Text 4

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Short video at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/chivalry/ entitled “A Passion for Swords, Daggers and Medieval Manuscripts” about a manuscript called “The Flower of Battle” (written around 1410) that describes battle techniques of knights. There are images from the book (so primary source) as well as a trained Medieval martial arts master as the narrator. Students can learn the following:

  • There were specific techniques for combat
  • These techniques required skill and quick thinking
  • If you could not harm your opponent in three moves or less, you are probably equally matched and should back off.

Students can draw the following conclusions from the video clip:

  • Knights were skillful
  • Training to be a knight required critical thinking and a lot of practice
  • Training required a strong body and a strong mind

Yes. It takes time to build a text set like this, but it’s worth the reward when students begin to make clear connections between and across texts. Because I do this frequently, the process has become much faster and this is a text set I can use again and again. I believe that later when students go to do research on their own, having experiences with teacher-developed text sets will help them in determining which texts to use and in thinking across texts as well. A few tips for locating and layering texts:

  • have a clear focus for the texts (like the “stages of knighthood”)
  • collect a stack of library or other resource books, skim and scan for excerpts
  • google topics (but make sure whatever you choose is a credible source)
  • integrate video clips (museum sites are a good source for this) & primary sources
  • as you choose texts, think about how they build or expand content in the previous text
  • select SHORT texts…students have trouble retaining information and thinking about multiple texts when they are too long…maybe build towards longer excerpts later on…
  • be flexible – you may not find the “perfect” (in your mind) set, but students will surprise you in what they notice as they begin to think across texts that have been chosen with at least some thought.

Hope this helps.


Critical thinking across multiple texts – Part I

In a 7th grade social studies class I visited a few weeks ago, the students used an evolving definition of “honorable” as a lens for reading multiple texts on warriors – ancient and modern. In the image below, the blue text was our original definition. As the students engaged in discussions about what it means for ancient and modern day warriors to be honorable, we added to the definition. Our ultimate goal was to get at the complexity of what it means to be honorable. What are abilities, qualities, achievements that demand honor? What training or life experiences are necessary? What is the role of codes of conduct? Is it possible to be perfectly honorable 100% of the time? What is tricky about this? What are sacrifices involved in pursuing being honorable?

Honorable anchor chart

Here’s an outline of the lessons we gave:

  1. One day interviewing a veteran – The class interviewed a modern day warrior, a veteran who works at their school. The students were asked to fill out an anticipatory set in advance. This was a very powerful experience that would launch their thinking as we moved forward.
  2. Two days on knights – The teacher and I modeled and then encouraged individual and partner close reading of multiple passages on knights in the medieval period – training and code of ethics. modeled annotations knightsDuring this close reading, the students underlined and annotated information in response to the question, “What are you learning that might help you think about how this warrior is honorable?” We provided lots of opportunities for 2-3 minute student-led conversations around what students were thinking regarding “honorable” and the content they’d just read and regarding how they were adding to their thinking as they read each additional passage. I quickly modeled having a conversation with a student as my partner (referring to our notes & thinking about what a partner had said before responding). Below is one student’s annotated texts.Student 1 annotated notes
  3. Two days on the samurai – A similar routine. Knight and Samurai texts
  4. Two days on modern day warriors – the marines. Students visited http://www.marines.com/operating-forces/strategic-warrior – a website that describes marines as strategic warriors and then they also visited a site that discusses posttraumatic stress disorder and includes videos (primary sources) of veterans talking about their PTSD.Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.44.55 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.58.11 AM
  5. Time to write in response to what they’d learned – Students were given a menu of options for responding – poetry, illustrating/creating art, writing a letter of appreciation to a veteran. In the future, we’re planning to encourage students to submit to http://www.teenink.com for publication.

Throughout all of these lessons, we continued to refer to the definition of “honorable” as a way to help students articulate what they were learning.

I LEARNED SO MUCH FROM THESE STUDENTS. In my next few blog entries, I’m going to write about what the students revealed in their annotations as well as how we determined which texts to use.

And a BIG THANK YOU to CHRIS, the classroom teacher who co-planned and taught with me!

Hope this helps.



“Building” analogy to teach “text structure”

How many of us hunt for the perfect texts to teach “text structure” and end up just banging our heads against the wall? It’s because texts are more complex than five simple structures. I’ve been thinking about this and tried out a new analogy with a group of students today – text structures are like buildings.

A building has a purpose (to be a home or place to live for a family, to serve as a temporary structure as in a portable at a construction site, to be a grocery store where we can be food and other items, to be a place of worship where people of a particular religion can come together, etc.).

An author has a purpose (to tell the story of…, to instruct, to describe, to persuade, to explain).

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The building’s purpose drives how it is structured–how it’s put together, how its parts are arranged, how the parts connect. For example, a grocery story where we shop for food and other necessities is primarily one large room organized into sections for different types of foods. There is certain flow to the store so customers can get from one section to the next.  A home or a place to live is organized into bedrooms or spaces for sleeping, a kitchen for eating, a den for watching television. There are hallways that connect the rooms. These structures share some features consistently – but are also different. While most grocery stores share particular features, they are different from each other as well.

An author’s purpose drives how she structures the text (e.g., enumerative/description, sequence/chronology/narrative, comparison, causal relationships, problem-solution). If the author wants to teach you about drones, she may use an enumerative or description text structure–introducing the topic of drones and then talking about different aspects of drones — military use, modern drones, rules being drafted by the FAA for drone use, possible future effects of drones. If the author wants to instruct you in how to make a birdhouse, she may use a sequence text structure, listing the steps in numerical order. If the author wants to persuade you that girls around the world should have access to schools, she might use a problem-solution text structure or a cause-effect text structure. Depending on which structure she chose, the texts would be organized differently. These structures share some features consistently – but can look different (i.e., the content can be different and different types of details can be used).

Stay with me here–this sounds easy, but there’s a nuance to this analogy I want to tease out.

What if the building has more than one purpose and therefore is organized for multiple purposes? What if the building has an art gallery and a pizza joint open to the public on the first floor and private apartments for living on the second floor?

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PERFECT because many complex texts have more than one structure. The author has decided that more than one structure can meet his or her purpose or the author has multiple purposes within a text. Have your students ever read an article about a particular animal like the elephant that discusses different aspects of the elephant’s life and at the end there’s a section on how elephants are endangered and how one group is trying to save the animal????? The overarching or larger or macro-structure is enumerative/description, but, in that one section, there’s a micro-structure of problem and solution.

The point is we need to teach students to think flexibly about a text’s structure. My goal is for students to use the language of author’s purpose and a text’s structure fluently. I want to hear a student say the following:

Well, this article is mostly structured as a description of drones–how they operate, what companies are already using drones and so forth, but then there was a sidebar! And the structure of the sidebar was a little bit different in that the author discussed the effects drones cause like a lack of privacy.

Okay…just thinking. I used this analogy and some of the pics above to introduce two text structures to a group of students today. More on that soon.

Hope this helps.


4 Types of Context Clues in Info Texts: Bookmark & Lesson

Ugh! Unfamiliar vocabulary in informational texts can be a huge stumbling block for our students. The image below is a bookmark a colleague and I developed for a lesson. I’ve also attached a word document with the bookmarks for easy copying. We based this on the work of Baumann and colleagues (2009).

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4 Types of Context Clues Bookmarks IN COLOR

The lesson was with a group of fourth grade students reading an article from one of my favorite websites – Science News for Students. The article was about research studies that are revealing how females and males respond differently to sports-related concussion. This was a complex text – I actually cut one section of the article (the first part under the subtitle “Probing the Chemistry”) that I thought was too difficult for the students. The article was about a page and a half total. I’ve inserted the word doc below. You could definitely use this through 6th grade or higher even.

Context Clues Science News for Students article

I’ve attached lesson procedures here if you want to try this out.

Context Clue Type Lesson Procedures

Here’s what the lesson looked like for me:

  1. Introduced the article (posted on the doc camera) with previewing and predicting. We previewed the title and deck and made relevant predictions – I modeled some and I asked the students to turn and talk with a partner as well.
  2. Asked the students to determine the author’s main idea as they read individual copies of the article a first time. Conferred with individuals as they read. The first question for each conference was: What did you just learn from the text? This helped me determine where to go next.
  3. Regrouped and wrote key words from the text on a sticky note on the doc camera–females, males, concussion, depression, sensitivity. I modeled – with a student partner – using these key words to discuss the main idea. As the students summarized and discussed the main idea with a partner, I conferred and continued to add words to the sticky note as needed: reacted, response, differences, investigate.Context clue lesson 4th grade
  4. Introduced the 4 types of context clues with bookmark posted on the doc camera. Modeled thinking through the meaning of “concussion” and modeled boxing the word, underlining helpful clues, consulting the bookmark to determine what type of clue and then annotating the type of clue on the article.
  5. Guided students in following a similar routine with a second word — prone.
  6. Asked the students to identify a third word of their own and attempt to box, underlined, consult bookmark, and annotate. Conferred with individuals. Regrouped once and shared what one student had done as far as thinking and annotating on his copy of the article (placed his copy on the doc camera). Asked students to continue identifying and thinking through additional vocabulary. Below is a scan of my annotated article that I had on the doc camera–these are my notes by the end of the lesson. So I modeled, guided, and then stepped back in at particular points to highlight what students were doing with other words.  Context clues lesson 4th grade my notes
  7. Regrouped and asked the students to write a reflection on the process they engaged in to think about unfamiliar vocabulary. I provided a sentence stem – see image below.

Context clue lesson 4th grade 2

Context Clues lesson 4th grade reflections

This was a major workout. Many of the students flew–some used the bookmark and some didn’t. Of course, there were some students who did not progress and had little to show when I finally got to them. I really think this is the kind of lesson that should be done in a small group!!!! Either way – the students need more experiences discussing how they figured out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary and the types of clues the author used.

My objective for this lesson was not for students to say “I used context clues to figure out the meaning of the word.” Instead, I want to hear students say something like:

Well, I identified some words in the text that helped me understand this particular word. I knew the words might explain or identify the meaning of the word or the words might be synonymous or the words might just give me examples of this word. When I underlined the words and thought about the types of context clues, I realized I sort of knew the meaning from general details the author gave.

In the end, it’s not about whether the student identifies the “right clue.” Instead my goal is for the students to use the language of the context clues to explain how they made meaning.

Okay…I’ve also attached a chart with an explanation of the four context clue types and examples–as a reference.

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Four Context Clue Types Taught in Word Study Lessons

Hope this helps.



The Coding Strategy – Helping Students Self-Monitor while Reading Info Text

Do you have students who read a text and are clueless about what they read? Or when you prompt them to share what they learned from a text, they frantically look back at the last sentence they read and then spit it out verbatim?

Before we get into conversations about main ideas, author’s point of view, summarizing content and so forth, we may want to provide time for students to grapple with questions like:

  • What did I understand or learn in this text (or section of text or even just this sentence)?
  • What did I not understand?
  • I didn’t understand this, so what can I do to figure it out?

I use the Coding Strategy (Hoyt, 2008) to introduce or reinforce self-monitoring with students. After each sentence or paragraph or section of text, students stop, think, and code the text with one of the following:

*I already knew this information.

+ This is new information.

? I don’t understand this part or I’m wondering about…

! Wow this is interesting and this is why I think so…

This is an image of the bookmark I give students. I’ve attached a PDF here.  CODING BOOKMARK 11_12_15

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Here’s an easy lesson procedure:

  1. Explain the skill and strategy. Self-monitoring means to keep track of what we are and are not understanding and then to use fix-up strategies to repair meaning. Then explain the strategy. When we code our thinking, this means we read, stop, think & jot a code and write a few notes.
  2. Model using the Coding Strategy to self-monitor. Read aloud from a text projected for all students to view and write aloud codes with notes about your thinking. When I introduce this strategy to students, I read aloud, think aloud, and write codes and notes – before the students did this on their own. See image below for a lesson I did with 5th grade students.  Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.45.20 AM
  3. Direct students to read a chunk of text and stop to write a code with a few notes on a sticky note.
  4. Ask students to talk with a partner about what they learned from the text as well as their codes and notes.
  5. Proceed in a similar fashion with additional chunks of the text, coaching students during individual conferences, and providing time to stop and talk with a partner. Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 6.53.29 AM
  6.  CLOSE – Students can end up with very fragmented thinking if they just code like crazy and don’t also think about how all of the details they are reading are related. During conferences and at the end, I pose questions that require synthesis like “So looking at all of your coded notes, what do you think the author’s purpose was for writing this text?” or “So what did you learn from reading the whole text that was important?” Ask the students to think across their coded notes. At the end, ask the students to place their notes in the middle of a sheet of paper and draw a frame around. Then ask them to write the main idea in the frame. For more information on the frame analogy for teaching main idea, see a recent blog entry I wrote.

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Caution!  Beware. Students will use all of your sticky notes, putting just a code on each, and then not be able to recall what they were thinking when they wrote that code. Make sure they jot a few words to help them remember what they were thinking at that point.

ALSO, when you model or confer with individuals, think aloud about parts of the text you did not understand (with a ? code) or that you might not understand if you were their age. Most students do not code for what they don’t understand – and need prompting to do that. I haven’t elaborated on this here – but you need to help them articulate what they can do to repair their meaning making. Have a list of strategies in your mental pocket for this.

If you want to read more about this including looking at sample lessons and a rubric for assessing students’ coding, check out Chapter 6 “Self-Monitoring While Reading” in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts or send your questions to me by email at sunday@sunday-cummins.com.


Hope this helps.


Book review & text-dependent questions for War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus (Selbert, 2013) has a lot of potential for teaching in grades 4-5 with students studying World War II.  While this book is listed for grades 2-5, I think it would be hard for 2nd and even 3rd grade students to understand the main ideas. For all readers, the author assumes some background knowledge about WWII–the conflict, the players, and the geography.

For 4th-5th grade students, this would be a good opportunity for partner reading or for a teacher read aloud with a focus on text-dependent questions like, “How does the author develop the idea that Churchill and Rufus are ‘war dogs’?” (CCSS RI 8 & L5). Selbert, the author, positions Churchill as “dog-like” at many points in the book–some more explicitly than others. For example, there’s a page that describes Churchill speaking to Parliament – “Winston, his shoulders set like a tenacious bulldog’s, wades to the front of the hall and begins to speak.” On another page, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, visits him and Rufus in a war bunker where Churchill’s office was during the war; the text states that she holds her husband’s hand and then kisses his cheek and, on the same page, she holds Rufus and “rubs behind his ears until he falls asleep.” Clementine is showing affection for both war dogs in a sense – Churchill and Rufus.

Selbert also includes quotes from Churchill that are critical in understanding the brevity of the war and even the ideas in the text. (FYI-Most of the quotes would be conceptually difficult for 2nd or early 3rd grade students.) The quotes are separate from the running text–see image below–and could be read carefully and discussed further after reading the whole book. A question for students to consider might be, “Why is this particular quote relevant in this part of the book?” (CCSS RI 4 & 5, L5)


Students should have the opportunity to read and reread additional features the author includes at the end of the book–a timeline of WWII, a short essay about Churchill and his beloved pets, and another short essay about Churchill himself. In the intermediate grades, a teacher might read aloud the book and then engage the students in close reading of one of the two essays for the author’s main idea or in response to prompts like, “How would you describe Churchill based on your reading of this essay? Why? What parts of the text made you think so?” or “Churchill was an important figure in WWII. Identify and explain evidence in the text that supports this idea.” (CCSS RI 1 & 2).

A strong book introduction should emphasize the meaning of the title or a short discussion predicting the meaning behind the title. I didn’t pay much attention to the title, assumed I knew what I was going to read about – Churchill’s dog—and then as I read, felt like I wasn’t learning much about Rufus. When I rethought the title – War Dogs (plural), the book made more sense to me. My point is that students shouldn’t assume the book will be mostly about Rufus–actually it’s more about Churchill and his role in WWII. Rufus, a dog, is an access point for more important content.

This book was awarded the International Literacy Association Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for primary nonfiction 2014 which is awarded to new authors. I am going to be on this committee this next year – looking forward to it!

Teach “example” as a type of detail info text authors use


Explicitly teach the academic vocabulary word “EXAMPLE” as a way to discuss what an author is doing to explain or describe a concept. Take a moment to read the following. What do you notice the author doing as far as using examples?

Look closely and you will see. Magnets can be found on a can opener. The magnet attracts, or pulls, a lid off of a soup can. A push or a pull is called a force.

There is also a magnet in a refrigerator. It pulls the metal in the door to make a tight seal.Do you know how?

Now this is not a great text, but what is the author at least doing to try to help the student understand the force of a magnet? The author has provided two examples of household objects that have magnets and described what the magnet does (attracts, pulls). The examples serve to create a concrete picture of magnets in our every day life as well as what magnets do.

In the rest of this text, Magnets Work! (from McGraw-Hill Wonders, 2nd grade curriculum) the author uses an abundance of examples. As noted earlier, the author gives two “examples” of household objects that have magnets that “pull”– a can opener (the electric kind) and a refrigerator door. On the next page of this text, the author lists examples of objects magnets will attract and will not attract. On the following page, she gives an example of a toy that has magnets in it (a train) and in the last section of the article, an example of a new type of transportation (another train) that employs the use of magnets. Not once does the author state, “This is an example,” though. Instead the reader has to recognize this.

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Why teach this explicitly?

When we are asking students to identify main ideas versus supporting details and the difference between the two, teaching phrases like “the author is giving an example” liberates students from simply repeating what they read and helps them see the difference between a main idea and one type of supporting detail (i.e., an example). Instead, the reader can say, “The author is teaching me that magnets are a force that push or pull and the author used two examples of magnets in my house to show me that…”

Understanding the role of examples in describing and explaining while writing informational texts and persuasive/argument texts is helpful to students. An “example” is a “go to” way of elaborating on or explaining a topic or idea.

How do we do this?

Try your best to define “example” for students.  Here’s the definition from http://www.merriam-webster.comsomething or someone chosen from a group in order to show what the whole group is like. I think this could be modified into a kid-friendly definition.

Practice listing examples of examples. In November, I was teaching a small group of second grade students with this text about magnets. When I asked them to identify examples of places or household appliances in which they can find magnets, they hesitated. When I asked them what I meant by the word “example,” they shrugged. I was caught off guard, but knew right away we had to stop briefly to discuss this before we could go on —because the rest of the text is filled with examples! I was at a loss for how to “define” this word on the spot, but pulled out a dry erase board and for less than two minutes, we listed examples of things –like examples of pets and examples of clothing. They caught on–but still struggled with examples of household objects identified by the author back in the text. They’d need more exposure to this concept.


Make an anchor chart with the word “example,” it’s definition and examples of examples :). Author’s examples pop up everywhere. Students will begin to notice and become “example alert.”

Lately (well the last few years) I’ve been thinking about how we can name the types of details that authors use in non-narrative text as a way to help students understand what they are reading and this came up when I was teaching one day. Just wanted to share.


Taking shared reading text to small group instruction

A few weeks ago, I visited several second and third grade classrooms to give a shared reading lesson and then take a small group into a guided reading lesson with the same text. Loved this!!! It makes complete sense that if I build knowledge around magnets or echolocation during a 20-30 minutes shared reading lesson with the whole class, that students in a small group should reap the benefits of the knowledge generated during the whole class lesson, right? (In a previous post, I wrote about the shared reading lesson with 2nd grade students on magnets.)

Of course, there’s no way during the whole group shared reading lesson, the students had enough time to really grapple with the complex text in a way that deepened their understanding of the content as well as their understanding of how to tackle this kind of text. I’d want to engage the whole class in another few 20-minute lessons with the concept of magnetism as a force using that particular text and then also, as appropriate, work with this text again during small group instruction.

“As appropriate” is key. If 2nd grade students are still at the emergent or early levels of reading, I would pick a different text. If they are at a transitional and even early-fluent level, they might benefit from working with a text that has been used with the whole group.

With the 2nd grade students reading about magnets, I started the small group lesson by letting them play with magnets. These magnets had the north and south poles identified and the students quickly realized this. I set my timer for five minutes and while they were playing with the magnets, I challenged them to orally use the language of magnets. I placed two cards with the key words “repel” and “attract” in front of them and coached them to use this language as they tried to “attract” objects and as they experimented with how same poles “repel” each other and opposite poles “attract” each other. I asked individual students to challenge their peers by making statements like “Make your magnet attract a paper clip” and so forth. When my timer went off, we stopped and moved into reading the text.

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Prior to my visit, the classroom teachers and literacy coaches sent me running records and comprehension checks for the students in the small group. I examined these as part of my planning. Many of the students were still struggling with cross-checking – some were reading nonsense words, many were making words fit based on the beginning and ending sounds. Some of these words were content words that might not be a part of their oral vocabulary. So I wanted to keep an eye on this as they read. As far as comprehension – the data varied. Some students completely understood what they had read; others were grasping at details towards the end of the reading and did not seem to understand “concepts” in the texts.

I set the purpose for reading–similar to with the shared reading lesson–“How do magnets affect objects?” (Looking back – I wish I had shared this question when they were playing with the magnets, too.) Again – the question was written on a sentence strip as a visual reminder.

how do magnets strip

Here’s an excerpt of what they were reading –

Look closely and you will see. Magnets can be found on a can opener. The magnet attracts, or pulls the lid off of a soup can. A push or pull is called a force.

There is also a magnet in a refrigerator. It pulls the metal in the door to make a tight seal. Do you know how?

(Wonders, 2nd Grade Reading/Writing Workshop, article Magnets Work)

Magnets work

As the students read and then reread this excerpt – I met with a couple to listen in and coach for self-monitoring and cross-checking. We regrouped and discussed tricky words like “opener” – breaking the words into parts, blending and then rereading the text for meaning. BTW – when they identified the word “refrigerator” as tricky – oh, my! There are no clues in the excerpt to help students and chunking this word is ridiculous at this stage of reading especially with no context clues to cross-check the result – this is one you just give to them.

Then I asked them to reread the text and identify a tricky part – parts of the text they did not understand. I placed “question marks” on a piece of card stock in the middle of the table and when they located their “tricky part” or question, they were to pick up a card. As we discussed – I reinforced how the content of the text and our discussions helped us think about how magnets affect objects.

question marks

UGH!!! It took me a lesson or two to realize that the can opener is referring to an electric an opener (remember those?) that many students may not have seen. SO I started bringing in a picture of this can opener (just a screen shot on my laptop) for other groups engaged in the same lesson so that when we thought through the text, we could use the visual to support our thinking about how the “magnet attracts or pulls of the lid of the can.”


20 minute lesson – we worked on oral language with content vocabulary and we read closely two paragraphs. Critical work. Is this okay? I think students need guided reading lessons with texts they can spend the majority of the lesson reading with a teacher present to coach at the point of need. With informational texts, though, there’s a place for spending 20 minutes on less text. There is generative value in what we did–slowing down, thinking through the content carefully, identifying tricky words and tricky parts.

Okay…more soon.