Yesterday I was giving a demo lesson closely reading a science text when I realized the students did not understand the terms–definition and example. Many nonfiction authors use definitions and examples and other types of details like cause and effect when they describe concepts like forces, magnets, weather and so forth. Readers need to recognize these types of details to understand these concepts.
The 4th grade students and I were engaged in carefully reading an excerpt from Using Force and Motion (National Geographic Reading Expeditions, Phelan, 2003)–an easy introduction to the concepts of force, gravity, friction, etc.
Notice in the excerpt below that the author introduces the topic in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph, towards the end, he introduces the topic of force and defines it – “a force can be a push or it can be a pull.” Then he gives an example of a force – “The paddle gets a big pull from the person’s arms to push the kayak through the water” and a second example – “The kayak also gets a push from the water that is rushing behind it.” In the last paragraph, he offers details about the effect of forces like the wind – “make all objects move” and “make objects slow down, speed up, change direction, or stop.”
After students read this text, we want them to be able to say, “Oh! The author just defined what a force is when he wrote, ‘A force can be a push or it can be a pull’ and then he gave me an example of that which is when a person kayaks and they pull on the paddle, it pushes the kayak through the water. That’s like when I…”
During the lesson, I started an anchor chart entitled “What types of details does the author use to teach us?” and listed details like definition, example, effect. When I began to ask students to determine whether a new detail (after I’d modeled) was a definition or an example, they couldn’t do it. I realized that the students were not clear about what I meant by “definition” and “example.” I added definitions of the details to the chart, but there was still some confusion.
So I stopped and led a short discussion with an easier concept. We defined “fruit” and listed examples. (When I asked for examples of fruits, one of the students said, “Squishy!” so I knew I was right in his ZPD 😉 This seemed to help as we moved to carefully reading the last paragraph of the excerpt!!!!!
The more I do this, the more I’ve learned not to take for granted what students understand in grades 2-8. Even for words like definition and example, they (even middle school students 😉 may have a superficial understanding.
Below are common types of details used by nonfiction authors use. BTW – I WOULD NOT COPY THIS LIST AND HAND TO STUDENTS. Instead – I’d introduce a few at a time during close reading of excerpts of text.
- Name of topic
- Name of subtopic
- Function, purpose, or behavior
- Duration, or when something takes place
- Physical attributes (movement or action, color, size, shape, number, texture, composition, etc.)
- Construction or organization
- Explanation of how something works (may include causal relationships, sequence of details, and variables)
- Real-life examples (see additional blog entry on teaching “examples”)
- Comparisons (including similes and metaphors)
- Other types of figurative language (alliteration, onomatopoeia, and personification)
- Quotes from experts (for the purpose of sharing relevant knowledge or just sharing an opinion)
- Attempts by author to connect with reader
Imagine if our students can understand and identify and explain these types of details while reading to learn.
Hope this helps.