By middle school, students who cannot read fluently and with comprehension need urgent help and attention. Students who cannot read historical nonfiction with fluency and comprehension — most students, when they first encounter it — urgently need the help of their Social Studies teachers. When they first encounter informational text about history and society, beginning readers typically get overwhelmed by the welter of names, dates, and events. It’s hard to keep track of all the information.
In our 4QM workshops, we show teachers how to coach students in disciplinary literacy skills. Our method is simple and straightforward. Story first! We know that historical nonfiction typically includes an account of something new and notable in the world. Students of 4QM teachers learn quickly how to identify those new and notable outcomes. They also learn to identify settings that precede those outcomes in accounts they hear and read. And they learn how true stories take shape through events, as protagonists act and interact. When you read historical nonfiction, first track the story.
Once you’ve got the story (and taken good, hierarchical notes), then look for interpretation. How does the author account for protagonists’ actions and decisions in the story? Are the interpretations — the answers to Question Two: What were they thinking? — plausible, compelling, and supported by evidence? Then explanation: does the author make claims about how context informed and structured the shape and outcome of the narrative? How plausible and well supported are those claims? Finally, what judgment does the author appear to make about the protagonists in the narrative, their motives, and the story itself? What exactly does the author think about the story she’s just told?
Proficient readers of historical nonfiction do all this as they read, mostly automatically. Great readers (and writers) do it with awareness, skill, and versatility. Nobody makes progress in reading informational text without building memory, stamina, and strategies for understanding what questions the author is trying to answer and how the author is answering them. Those strategies can be named and taught to students. That’s the job of Social Studies teachers.
Reading As A Teacher
Social Studies teachers have the same problem their students do. They have standards documents, containing lists of content, historical thinking skills, literacy skills, and sometimes civic and technology skills. They have textbooks and ancillary materials provided by publishers. They have curriculum materials shared by local colleagues and tons more on the internet. They have handouts, worksheets, documents, activities, and advice galore. Like beginning readers of historical nonfiction, they have to learn to sort through an overload of information.
Social Studies teachers need a framework for reading curriculum intelligently. Jon and I are in the business of teaching teachers to make decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. Think of that as a reading exercise. What do you do with all the stuff available to you? Our claim, substantiated many times over, is that all curriculum materials in Social Studies ultimately address one or several of the Four Questions. (If not, that’s almost always an indication of a problem in the source.) We teach teachers to read and interpret that curriculum intelligently using the Four Question Method.
The technique is the same as the one we use with students. The beauty of the simple conceptual framework of the 4QM is that it functions as a lens, or better, as a sorting mechanism. There’s tons of stuff in front of me. Story first! Let’s see what I can use for that. (Get your storyboards ready.) Then interpretation: there are meaningful documents and artifacts here. Let’s round up some that fit our story. Information about changes in context and conditions will help us to frame an engaging, tractable explanatory puzzle for our students. Last, we’ll round up some judgments on the protagonists and their decision making in order to provoke some Question Four thinking in our students.
It’s a notorious fact that people can’t shop effectively when they face too many choices. It’s obvious to us that students can’t read when there’s too much on the page that’s mysterious or opaque to them. Content knowledge and familiarity with the topic open many, many doors for our students — that’s part of why, if their education goes well, they get so much more capable over time. The other part is having a filtering and sorting strategy. We like to tell students to read for purpose. The 4QM names those the constituent parts of that purpose and sequences and scaffolds them. That simplifies the reading task, and so addresses the too-many-choices problem.
If you’re trapped in your textbook, baffled by your state standards, or out crawling the web the night before a lesson, chances are you don’t yet have a coherent framework to guide your choices. We can help. We’ve been there and have figured out a better way. Drop us a line.