Posting on embedding non-fiction earlier today made me realize I ought to post something defining the idea more clearly. Here’s a very early draft of (part of) how Colleen, Erica and I discuss it in Reading Reconsidered.
Embedding non-fiction is the process of pairing secondary non-fiction texts (usually non-narrative non-fiction) alongside a primary text in an intentional and strategic way to maximize synergy and harness the Matthew Effect– the idea that more you know about a topic at the outset, the more rapidly you learn from additional study. If you know a little at the start, you pick up the signs and symbols and hints in a book faster than if you know nothing. If you know a bit about who the Nazis were—especially the difference between a Nazi and an enemy soldier–you read the scene in the first chapter of Number the Stars where Annemarie and Ellen encounter two occupying Nazi soldiers very differently than a student who does not. By the time that student has been told how malevolent the soldiers are, much of the richness and tension of the scene has already passed him by. And a student who is never told this—whose knowledge of Nazis is left to chance—misses the power of the scene almost entirely. When you start from a base of knowledge, your inferences reap more depth from the text. You’re more attentive to both the emotions of the characters and the factual information presented in the fictional text. You connect the dots. This causes students to learn about what they read as efficiently as possible.
Reading secondary non-fiction texts in combination with a primary text is likely to increase the absorption rate of reading that text. As many teachers have recognized, it can be immensely valuable to start Number the Stars with an article that tells students what Nazi soldiers were like. But the interesting thing is that the effect works both ways. The secondary text is also framed by the primary text. When texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up, and that’s the best part. One of us (Colleen) discovered this during a unit on Lily’s Crossing, a novel set in New York during World War II which examines both “European” issues of the war (Nazi-ism, appeasement and persecution) and “domestic” issues in the war (rationing, shortages, migration and immigration).
When she read Lily’s Crossing, Colleen decided to use a secondary non-fiction text as background to contextualize the novel. She took sections of articles the History teacher had read earlier in the year with students and adapted them to correspond to key issues in the book. But instead of reading all the non-fiction first, as she’d originally planned, Colleen decided to read the novel for several days before pausing to read the the non-fiction. After four class periods and 23 pages of Lily’s Crossing, Colleen interrupted the novel to read the secondary non-fiction she’d prepared. The result was both powerful and revealing. The non-fiction text helped her students understand and absorb more of the novel, especially its historical content. She was able to embed Stop and Jot questions (see Writing for Reading for more on Stop and Jots) in the article that asked about both the historical concepts (“What does rationing mean?”) and their application to the novel (“How did rationing affect the characters in our novels?”). This helped her students connect the background material to the story and the primary text started to come alive and make sense. Knowing enough to answer the question, “Why would Lily listen nervously for the Nazis? What was she afraid of?” helped them use the ideas more and put them far more in-tune with the novel. The inferences the novel required of them were still there but the leaps were more achievable. Because of their non-fiction reading, students could infer independently without Colleen’s support in to fill in the knowledge gaps. The fact that the students had started the novel and knew something about the setting in which they would be applying what they learned from the secondary text made it stick more. They already knew Lily so what she was living through seemed more real to her students. It mattered to them.
Synergy Runs Both Ways
But something else happened that surprised Colleen even more. She realized that while the background article was helping her students to read the novel, their having started the novel was in turn, helping her students absorb more of the secondary non-fiction passage. “I knew that my students would need to understand a lot about World War II to understand and process the key issues in the novel,” she said, “but they were more engaged with and better able to absorb the information that they obtained through the non-fiction text when they could apply it to people (in this case characters) that they were interested in and felt a connection to.” Students realized that these events really affected the lives of people in WWII—they weren’t just dry isolated facts in an article. They were parts of real people’s experience. Reading the fiction first then reading non-fiction greatly increased their absorption rate of the non-fiction article as well. “I’d read quite a bit of non-fiction with students in the past they never remembered as much detail afterwards as they did with the article I used for Lily’s Crossing,” Colleen noted. Reading the texts in synergy increased the absorption rate for both texts.
Colleen’s insight provides a road map that shows more systematically how to get to the other side of the Matthew Effect. Texts can work in synergy to increase their mutual absorption rates. Reading multiple texts on a given topic is a worthwhile investment. If you paired two articles on frogs say, or the American Revolution, students’ absorption rate would increase on both texts by virtue of the additional knowledge and context it gave them. They would, on net, know more about the world than if you read one article about frogs and one about the American Revolution. This is an interesting and relevant realization because when we teach non-fiction as a unit we often choose articles and texts with the specific goal of covering different genres and styles and formats or of introducing certain text features.
We often select texts without regard to topic-we choose because they represent genres. If we do consider topics, we typically choose based on the assumption that we are helping our students fill in knowledge gaps by covering as many things as we can- we may be predisposed to think of synergies as a bad thing and risk falling prey to a disincentive for using overlapping texts. In some classes, non-fiction other than biography and memoir rarely appear outside such a dedicated unit. Thus it’s possible to leave much of its value untapped. This is not an argument against reading widely—we definitely encourage that. It’s a cautionary note that if students read too thinly, they are less likely to remember what they’ve read.
The recognition that overlapping texts can be synergistic may also apply to non-reading classes. Science classes and History classes too could increase absorption rate by reading two or three articles on a single topic which again is ironic. In many of our classes we shoot for the broadest possible survey of knowledge- whereas it might actually be more productive to read multiple texts on a slightly more limited range of “topics.”
It’s also worth noting that one of Colleen’s observations from her Lily’s Crossing unit was not just that two texts on World War II (the novel and the article) were mutually beneficial but that there was synergy specifically in the difference of the genres. The connection to characters from the novel made the facts in the secondary text real; the facts from the non-fiction helped students understand the situations the characters encountered in the primary text. Reading across genres on the same topic created additional value.