Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction and Point of View (Part I)

I’ve had ‘organize the file cabinet on my household to-do list for about two years now. And I’m proud to say, I now have the satisfaction of crossing that off the list

I noticed some trends as I came face-to-face with these files:

  1. Early on in my teaching, I had a quick obsession with graphic organizers that looked like food.
  2. I have a knack for keeping multiple copies of the exact same thing.
  3. Transparencies were a thing – I mean, they were THE thing.

I came across my Nonfiction Reading folder, began organizing it, and was struck by a huge trend. Upwards of 80% of what was in that file had to do with determining the main idea. I had prompts to coach kids on figuring out the main idea, strategies to teach main idea, proficient examples of student writing illustrating the main idea, nonfiction articles that were main idea-friendly with supportive sub-headings.

And there is good reason for all of this main idea support. Determining the main idea is one of those reading skills that’s tricky, takes a lot of practice to get really good at it, and requires synthesis work across swaths of text with a hearty dash of interpretative thinking: What IS this text mostly about? The overall message of idea of this piece is…? What is the author teaching me about this topic? We also find ourselves continuously teaching into this skill because as nonfiction texts get harder and more complicated, one could argue figuring out the main idea is, then, harder. Just imagine reading this article on string theory and then being asked to talk about the main idea (no pressure:).

But here’s the thing. When we study the Common Core Standards, when we tap into the conversations of all that kids can talk and think about when reading nonfiction, when we study the questions on high-stakes exams, kids need to be able to think about way more than just the main idea. And, they should! There is a whole wide world of great things to think and talk about when reading nonfiction:

What’s the point of view of this text? Why did the author choose these words or use this language here? What’s the shape and structure of this text and how does that impact how I receive the information? Is there bias here? What information is left out?

We can also  put this conversation in the context of the Common Core Standards. Specifically, when studying the reading anchor standards, you’ll notice how the craft and structure reading standards guide students to engage in work beyond the main idea: interpreting words to figure out their connotative meaning; analyzing word choice and how it creates tone; analyzing text structure and how specific sentences or paragraphs relate to each other; assessing the point of view and how it shapes the content of a text.

So. This blog post is part 1 of a 3-part series on additional ways to support the reading of nonfiction beyond teaching into the main idea. We’ll give air time to lesser-explored nonfiction reading skills – well, they were were lesser-explored for me and some educators I worked with over the summer in an advanced course at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Annual Summer Institute. We spent a week pushing ourselves to develop curriculum, charts and examples of other important areas of nonfiction work:

  • Part One: Nonfiction and Point of View
  • Part Two: Nonfiction and Author’s Intent
  • Part Three: Nonfiction and Critical Reading

Nonfiction and Point of View

Many argue that all texts, nonfiction & fiction, carry a point of view and perspective. Stephanie Jones, in her book, Girls, Social Class, and Literacy, argues

All texts (i.e., spoken, written, performed and multimodal) are constructed by people who are informed by particular ideologies – they are entrenched with perspective.

Exploring point of view and perspective inside nonfiction is a layered journey, where some texts carry a more obvious POV, whereas other texts are more subtle. The Common Core Standards devote one anchor reading standard to this work:

Reading Standard #6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

We can wrap additional words around this standard, exploring and teaching point of view of nonfiction as a viewpoint, a stance the author takes on the topic, or a perspective.

Strategies for Teaching Determining the Point of View of Nonfiction

Here are some starter strategies to use when exploring point of view of nonfiction:

  • Readers notice the words the author uses to help determine how the author might feel about the topic and then use that feeling to determine a possible point of view.
  • Readers determine the author’s point of view by imagining which side the author would take in a debate on the topic.
  • Readers read more than one text on the same topic in order to be able to recognize different viewpoints about the topic.
  • Readers determine what information is missing from a text. Then readers can wonder why the information may have been left out. That reason for omission can help determine the author’s point of view.
  • Readers pay attention to numbers, facts or statistics that are used in a text.  By analyzing what the numbers, facts or statistics are showing, a reader can help determine the author’s point of view.

Language Prompts for Determining the Point of View of Nonfiction

Here are some language prompts to use when exploring point of view of nonfiction:

  • When the author says ___ it makes me think he/she may believe…
  • The author seems to be making the point that … The sentence or words giving evidence of that point is ___
  • The author doesn’t say anything about ___, so I wonder if he/she thinks…
  • If the author was debating this topic, his or her side might be ___.  I think this because…
  • The visual images in the article (photographs, illustrations, diagrams) are included to maybe make the reader think or feel ___. Therefore, the point of view might be…
  • When the author uses words like ___, ___, and ___, this tells me he/she might feel ___ about the subject.
  • If the central idea of the text is ____, then the author’s point of view might be ___ because….

A Possible Teaching Chart that Supports Nonfiction and Point of View 

NF Reading and POV

A helpful instructional chart detailing a strategy to determine an author’s point of view. This chart provides hints & steps for students to follow, as well as a demonstration & a guided practice section.

Teachers trying this work with colleagues and their students found an instant boost in student engagement, as it sets up an investigative stance when reading nonfiction (versus a passive, hands-off stance that sometimes infects students when reading nonfiction). Teachers also found a jump in students’ overall meaning making and critical thinking practices. We’d love to hear how this goes for your and your students!

-Kate and Maggie

Big Idea = Nonfiction Reading         Tiny Detail = Practical Strategies for Exploring Point of View of Nonfiction

25 thoughts on “Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction and Point of View (Part I)

  1. I love this idea of the reader deciding on what side of the debate the author would be. Thankful for this article as I am getting to write a science unit about rain forests. The point of view standard will be the driving force behind the unit. Kathleen has presented some excellent workshops on how this can look at the elementary level as well. You all are my go to girls! Will be sharing this with my grade level!

  2. I had to laugh out loud when I read about the overheads. I just recently cleaned out files and was sad to see the Thanksgiving, mashed potato graphic organizer go, too!
    As always, thanks for the well, written thought forcing post. With a gentle push toward NF, this work is a sure to support deeper discussion and thinking about Texts!
    Thanks!!

  3. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I love the way you break down the thinking process for determining POV, and that you start with the language. It’s so much easier for kids to start there, then work toward bigger understandings, rather than start with a big question like “What’s the main idea of this text?” (By the way, I’m pretty sure I have overheads hidden in files, too! I wonder if there’s a way to recycle them?)

  4. Great ideas — love the prompts to get kids thinking about how point of view is connected to main idea. They will love the debate angle. This post is packed with great information –looking forward to the next ones in the series! Thanks
    Clare and Tammy

  5. BLESS YOU! So excited to see this three part series and ditto to all the comments above! I appreciate the context, the quotes, the strategies and the sentence stems. <3 (P.S. You are lucky that you had no purple ditto sheets in your file!)

  6. Pingback: Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction and Point of View (Part I) | indent | So. Consider

  7. Great to have an indent post in my inbox!
    I love the entrypoints you give to lead kids into this tricky skill. You make this work feel accessible for a range of levels. I’m looking forward to trying this in social studies and (unabashedly stealing your chart).

  8. What a gold mine this post is! I feel like this could be a natural outgrowth of debate. We have been working with simple articles that set up the pro and con for debate. Finding those words that show an author’s point of view would be an easy tuck. So often nonfiction articles don’t show these biases as clearly. Thank you for the accessible strategies and prompts. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

  9. Thank you for this! This was just what I needed it at the moment I needed it. I’m thankful I went looking for your help today. Serendipity (your great work, not the movie).

  10. Teaching in Vancouver Washington, the ideas that you are exploring have been weighing heavily on my mind. I feel cluttered, but having read your thinking I feel I have some clarity on how to precede, this is my first stop in my research. The importance of “point of view” not just as a common core issue but as a life & critical thinker issue is becoming evident as I work with my students. Aside from that – I am thinking that a point of view discussion is going to be a much richer, interesting conversation in class.

    If I can help or collaborate in any way feel free to contact me.
    6th, 7th, and 8th grade Excel / TAG Humanities.

    • Thank you for your thoughts and your offer! We have been stretched thin as of late, but love knowing you are there to work with when we have a little more breathing room! How has it been going lately?

  11. The CCSS Coach in my building created lessons for the first three teaching points. I taught the lessons to my 5th graders and it was a huge hit! Thanks for this. Although, I am anxiously waiting for the second post :) Can’t wait to try it out!

  12. Pingback: Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction and Author’s Intent | indent

  13. Pingback: Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction Reading and Critical Reading (Part III) | indent

  14. I REALLY love this post and the following two. I plan to use these with my fifth graders. Do you have any suggestions of amazing texts that you’ve used for demonstration/active engagement parts of the lesson?? Any advice would be helpful! Thank you!

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