Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

10.10.13Self-Critique: Non-Fiction and the Knowledge Deficit

antI’ve been wrestling for a while with a series of knowledge deficit questions.  I am a big fan of E.D. Hirsch’s book by the same title and by Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education which if you haven’t read you have to.  Both make the case that while the big gap for low SES students in often an lack of knowledge, we keep hammering away at teaching in a way that focuses on skills at the expense of knowledge and so doesn’t solve the problem.  And while our reading instruction in our schools has come a long way lately and we’ve done a decent job of eschewing the cult of vacuous reading strategies like predicting and picturing and inferencing, we’re still not there and I’ve been noticing lately how much of our reading is what I’d call “formalistic” in focus- especially with non-fiction. We read an article as an example of non-fiction- to lift the veil on the genre and lay its conventions  clear.  We get “meta” on non-fiction instead of indulging in the content of it.

I thought of that recently when I young watched a teacher–a very good one–pause her reading of a short piece about ants to do a Call and Response: “Informational text!” she said it’s [kids Call and Responding here]… “It’s how we get our knowledge!!”  I suppose that’s pretty useless; if it’s really how we get our knowledge, let’s demonstrate that.  And it’s what it doesn’t do that matters. It doesn’t use our follow up to informational text to make the long term investment in student knowledge. Typically we might read a non-fiction text and then ask students to look at and analyze the caption or the sub-headings or to ask how the text was organized.  Ok.  But what we don’t do is reinforce the content in the passage enough.  We do a little of it: “Ants can carry what, class? [“100 times their weight!!]” or “We know that ants are insects because of their legs. What about their legs tells us that they’re insects, Tyshon?!” But we don’t spend enough time stressing the content itself in a systematic way by asking things like:  “Let’s make a summary of five important things we learned about ants.”  “Let’s try to make an outline of the article.” “Let’s write some discussion questions we could ask our little sisters and brothers to answer if they read this…”

If I was going to take immediate action on this I would basically ask teachers to do this:

Every time we read non-fiction we’re going to say/ask one of these four things:

1)      “Let’s make an outline/concept map of what we just read.”  This underscores the knowledge and also helps kids think about organization etc.

2)      “Let’s try to summarize this article/decide the three most interesting or useful facts.”  This would help kids prioritize information and also underscore the knowledge

3)      “Let’s write some discussion questions for the other reading group to answer.” This would help kids reflect on the information, restate it and think about going beyond the text.

4)      “The other group is reading this too. Let’s write them a mini-quiz.”

This is all off the top of my head–I’m using my blog to reflect more than promulgate–but I think that what i like about this is that it makes the pursuit of a wide ranging knowledge base for students more actionable to individual teachers. One of the challenges of Hirsch or Christodoulou if you’re a teacher is that many of the requisite actions–a curriculum that prizes and emphasizes knowledge development in a systematic way, are beyond the purview of the individual teacher.  Those tend to be school- or district-level decisions.  So how do I take individual action.  This seems doable.

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear if others also think this is an issue and if so how other teachers approach knowledge deficit issues in their daily reading.


3 Responses to “Self-Critique: Non-Fiction and the Knowledge Deficit”

  1. April 13, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Isn’t it also a challenge to think harder about the non-fiction texts we select for study? The readers used by millions of Americans in the past, such as McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, were very explicit in selecting texts that would inform and form character. There is so much more knowledge we could transfer if we were more organised about text choice with everything we use in the classroom. This is a tall order for individual teachers to figure out. That’s why the readers were so widely used, I suppose.

  2. November 11, 2016 at 1:54 am

    Another great approach is to focus on deeper-level, textually-relevant questions that build content knowledge. “How do ants compare to other insects that we’ve studied previously?” “Why do you think ants so often represent hard workers?” We need to show students that we read to learn new things and think deeper about the world around us.

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