Analyzing Fiction and Nonfiction Strategies

With the adoption of the Common Core Standards, and other states that have implemented parallel standards of their own, the English department has been given the task of supporting students’ growth in understanding texts, fiction and nonfiction, in a deeper and more analytical manner.  An inch-deep, mile-wide approach to reading analysis is no longer acceptable.  Teachers must wrap their minds around teaching skills as opposed to texts.  This means that we must change the way in which we teach students to approach reading.

1.  Close Reading

Essential Aspects of Close Reading:

  • A close reading is a careful and purposeful reading AND rereading.
  • Students really focus on what
    • the author had to say
    • the author’s purpose was
    • the words mean
    • structure of the text tells us
  • A transaction between the reader and the text
  • Getting what the author had to say and bringing some of your own ideas to bear on that text.

“Close Reading and the CCSS, Part 1.” – Common Core State Standards TOOLBOX. Web. 29 July 2015.

Some Close Reading strategies:


It seems as though there are a thousand-and-one resources available for reading and analyzing literature.  You can purchase entire unit plans complete with daily assignments, guided reading questions, collaborative activities, assessments, and powerpoint presentations!  They are a new teacher’s savior and an experienced teacher’s rejuvenation.  When I started teaching AP Language and Composition, I searched for nonfiction text analysis resources, and while I found some wonderful lessons, I felt empty-handed.  I was given just enough information and guidance to be able to meander through my first year, but I knew that it would become my objective to really customize those materials to best support both my students and myself.

2.  SOAPSTone

Any AP English teacher can tell you that the go-to strategy for analyzing any nonfiction text is the SOAPSTone method:

After reading a nonfiction text, a student would analyze the piece to identify each of the SOAPSTone elements.  This allows them to gain a greater understanding of the text, make connections, and therefore use a more critical eye while evaluating the efficacy of the piece.  For example, if a student was unaware of the political background or historical impact of a piece, they may view its argument in a much different way than what was intended.  Additionally, the tone plays a major role in how a piece is interpreted.  A sarcastic, humorous tone will lead the reader in a much different direction than a didactic one.


Thanks to the wonderful resource, and foundational element of my Pre-AP English course last year, The AP Vertical Teams Guide for English, I was able to identify another text analysis method: SIFT

  • Symbol: Examine the title and text for symbols
  • Images: Identify images and sensory details
  • Figures of Speech: analyze figurative language and other devices
  • Tone and Theme: Discuss how all devices reveal tone and theme


4.  Fourfold Method

analysis of drama, fiction, poetry, and nonfiction

  1. Literal or historical level: the things that are happening in the story are literally happening on a surface level
  2. Political level: the level on which human beings relate to others in a community and in the world
  3. Moral or psychological level: the way in which the self relates to the realm of ethics
  4. Spiritual level: the universal level on which a persona relates to the cosmos, the way of the pilgrim soul

5.  Aristotelian Theory




  • Cornerstone of critical theory
  • Poetics laid out the basis for traditional analysis of drama (dramatic fiction)
  • “the imitation of an action; a writer’s attempt to represent reality or truth in artistic form”
  • Structure and purpose of tragedy is:
    • Unity of Action:
      • tragic plots must have a clear beginning, middle, and end
      • action should be ordered and continuous
      • cause and effect process
    • Catharsis:
      • events should inspire pity and terror
      • vicarious experience to attain emotional purgation, moral purification, or clarity of intellectual viewpoint
    • Tragedy
      • reversal of fortune/fall from greatness brought on by error or frailty
      • hamartia inner weakness or inherent error
        • usually through excessive pride or hubris
        • reversal of fortune is characterized by “reversal of situation” and “recognition”
      • “Scene of Suffering”     

The AP Vertical Teams Guide for English. 2nd ed. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 2002. Print.

The Storm Before the Storm

I don’t know what is worse: pain or the anticipation of pain.  Our fears can exaggerate an unpleasant situation into an ever-growing, always looming, all-consuming Dread Monster.  And it can completely take over your every thought.

tumblr_mz5889ukRr1t9nrrho1_500I have such an occasion to deal with today.  I am confident in my decisions and subsequent actions, yet I know that today I will be called to the carpet, most likely I will be scolded, definitely judged, and the anxiety that has been building since learning about today’s meeting has been palpable.

tumblr_mxvrfb1cKz1rxi9lno1_500If I didn’t learn how to cope, how to manage, how to deal I could literally let this apprehension consume me.  I don’t profess to know all the answers, nor have I conquered the Dread Monster, but I do know how to put it all into perspective.

Helping to Maintain Before a Stressful Situation

1.  That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.

Cliche?  Yes.  True enough.  Definitely.

2.  You’ve got Right on your side.

You may have to endure harsh words and uncomfortable feelings, but when you know that you did everything that should or could have been done, then you have the greatest tag team partner in the Royal Rumble that may be going down.

3.  Accentuate the Positive

I’ve been running down a list, reviewing it several times Santa-style, of all the wonderful things that are cycloning  around this one speck of a nothing.  Just yesterday I had enough joy to suffocate the minuteness of today’s meeting.

4.  You’re most likely not the only one who sees the whole picture.

Friends, family, coworkers, supervisors, etc all know who you are.  They know your reputation.    Sometimes protocol must be followed in order to get beyond the negativity.  In order to satisfy the squeaky wheel, you have to give it a little bit of oil, but that doesn’t mean that the whole car should be overhauled.  (That’s a terrible analogy, but it’s what I have on one cup of coffee)  The bottom line is that you’re not going alone, your reputation and good name proceed you.

5.  Nothing lasts forever

Today you may have to endure some uncomfortable moments, some harsh words, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to get back up, dust yourself off, and go forward, continuing to do your damnedest to kick ass and be the superstar that everyone  knows you to be.

It cannot be left unsaid that I also rely heavily on the power of prayer.  It may not be for everyone, but truly it is the most effective strategy that I have in overcoming things that I know I cannot endure alone.  I don’t pray for God to make the situation go away; I don’t pray for God to make me come out on top.  I pray that God will give me the strength to endure, the wisdom to choose the right words, the tenderheartedness to be able to connect and overcome this situation with the people I am in conflict with, and the humility to accept my role in resolving our issue.

Project CRISS Training

Real World Teaching Jeopardy – Speed Round

Answer: Project CRISS

Question: What is the single-best teaching seminar I have attended, EVER, that gave me over 20 ready-to-implement strategies that are Common Core-friendly, student-centered, applicable to ALL content areas, and encourages student engagement?


Only eleven days after tearfully saying goodbye to my students, my classroom, and the 2012-13 school year, I entered what may be perhaps that most important training of my teaching career.  Let me not get booed off the stage for being superfluous because I don’t want to have the meaning lost in my verbal tomfoolery.  Any teacher will tell you that the one thing that we want to be able to walk away from any training or conference is tangible, ready-to-implement strategies that we can utilize in our classrooms.

Things You Hear Leaving a Professional Development Training

“That wouldn’t work for my content area”

“When was the last time that lady was in a classroom???”

“We don’t have the resources for that”

“I teach Science/Math/Health/Spanish; the English teacher should be doing that”

“Maybe if I had 10 students, but you can’t do that with 25 or 30 kids in a classroom”

“Do you think they’ll let us leave early today??”

For full disclosure, I have said or been part of conversations that have included all of these comments.  I consider myself to be someone who has a pretty open mind when it comes to most things, but I am highly protective of my students and their rights to learn.  I have seen speakers come into my school SELLING a program, not because they’re interested in student achievement, but in the all mighty dollar.  I knew that this CRISS training would be different because it was being presented to district teachers for free and only days before the facilities would be shutting down due to budget cuts; the administrators did not have to provide this.  You know you’re with like-minded folks when you share the philosophy of do for others even if you won’t get recognized for it.


Strategies/Ideas I’m Geeking Out Most About from Project CRISS

(In no particular order)

1.  Smarty-Up Venn Diagrams.  For years, well my whole life really, I’ve simplified the Venn diagram by only having students fill in the two ovals with differences and the cross section with commonalities.  Who knew there was an epilogue to the strategy?  Add two sections to all Venn diagrams: Categories and Conclusions.


2.  Concept of Definition Map – An additional vocabulary strategy to incorporate into my classroom.  I’ve been utilizing the powerful strategy of the Frayer Model ever since I learned about it in college.  This strategy forces students to learn, not just memorize the term or concept.

Concept of Definition Map


Frayer Model


3.  Power Thinking – a new way of viewing note-taking.  I asked what was the difference between this and creating an outline, and essentially not much.  By removing the Roman Numerals and requirements of having a certain number of subsequent levels, Power Thinking is a powerful tool for helping students categorize their details.  You can use this technique when organizing writing assignments, breaking down nonfiction articles, and seeing relationships between topics and their details.

Power Thinking

4.  Note-Taking Techniques with the “Why” Emphasized – Educators know that evidence-based conclusions are highlighted in the new Common Core standards.  With the following formats for note-taking, students will have a way to defend and support their conclusions to posed questions.


Conclusion Support Notes


Proposition Support


Problem Solution Cause Effect

Conclusion Support

The Nuts and Bolts of the Program

Project CRISS Principles & Philosophies

The CRISS Principles and Philosophy are designed to develop thoughtful and independent readers and learners. Fortunately, during the last 20 years, there has been explosive growth in understanding the processes which lead to successful readers. The following key principles drawn from this cognitive and social learning research provide students with a Framework for Learning.

    1. The concept of metacognition is the foundation of Project CRISS. Students who achieve well in school have heightened metacognition and a repertoire of self-regulatory behaviors. They know when they have understood, and they know how to employ a variety of strategies to attain meaning (Paris, Wasik, and Turner, 1991; Meichenbaum and Biemiller, 1998).
    2. Background knowledge is a powerful determinant of reading comprehension. Readers interpret text based on their own background or prior knowledge. Researchers tell us that integrating new information with prior knowledge is at the heart of comprehension. The richer our background, the richer is our comprehension. The more we bring to a reading situation, the more we can take away (Pearson and Fielding, 1991; Pressley, 2000).
    3. Reading for specific purposes positively influences comprehension (Narvaez, 2002). Also, orienting students to read or listen for specific information in a text influences what they recall (Pichert and Anderson, 1977; Anderson and Pichert, 1978). To be strategic, metacognitive readers, students must set their reading goals before reading. In this way, they can easily bring out appropriate background knowledge and monitor their learning to assure they have reached their comprehension goals.
    4. Good readers are actively involved in making sense of their reading. Learning happens when students actively process information through writing, talking, and transforming by using a variety of organizing strategies (Duke and Pearson, 2002; Keene and Zimmerman, 1997). Whenever we teach, we think about ways to actively involve our students. Moreover, thinking about active involvement has led to changes in our own conceptions about teaching. We aren’t on stage very much, giving our lectures or asking hundreds of questions. Instead, our students are engaged in their learning and, in the process, they learn content more effectively.
    5. Students need many opportunities to discuss with one another. Learning is an active, constructive process and a social, interpersonal process. Work in brain research highlights the importance of students interacting with one another. Students create meaning by transforming information and by building their own connections. Discussion is essential to these constructive processes (Muth and Alvermann, 1999). We live in a social world and learn by interacting with others (Goldenberg, 1993; Wilkinson and Silliman, 2000). By pooling our understanding and talking about what we think we know, we develop deeper understandings.
  1. Students need many opportunities to write about what they are learning. Writing is integral to all learning (Santa and Alvermann, 1991; Blachowicz and Ogle, 2001). Each of us writes to understand. It is a way of knowing. If we can explain things to ourselves and others, we can claim knowledge as our own. Writing forces organization. It helps us to see clusters of information and hierarchies of ideas. It also helps us become metacognitive. Because it is such a powerful vehicle for learning and thinking, it is integrated into practically every component of Project CRISS.
  2. Good readers know a variety of ways to organize information for learning. The past thirty years of research in cognitive psychology, as well as more recent research about brain physiology, have demonstrated that learning and memory depend upon transforming information (Jensen, 1998). The more organized, the better remembered. Through Project CRISS, students learn flexible ways for processing information, including strategies such as Power Thinking, selective underlining, two-column notes, and concept mapping. They learn multiple ways to be strategic, metacognitive readers and learners.
  3. Good readers and writers have an intuitive understanding of the author’s craft. They know how text structure aids comprehension. Strong research supports this idea that knowledge of expository and narrative text structures plays an important role in comprehension (Goldman and Rakestraw, 2000).
  4. Students learn to become strategic when teachers teach these processes directly through explanation and modeling. Most students do not know how to learn. We have to show them how. When introducing a new strategy, we need to take the stage. We show, tell, model, demonstrate, and explain not only the content, but the process of active learning. Duffy and his colleagues learned from their research that the process of teacher modeling and guided practice leads to pronounced effects in the improvement of comprehension (2002).
  5. Students come to understand by attacking a topic in a variety of ways. Our conception of understanding goes beyond knowing the specific information in a piece. It is a matter of being able to do a variety of “thinking” activities with a topic, such as explaining, finding examples, producing evidence, generalizing, and representing the topic in a new way (Perkins and Blythe, 1994). CRISS strategies are designed to help students build understanding. We want our students to carry out a variety of learning activities that not only show understanding of a topic, but aid students in advancing a topic beyond what they already know.
  6. Given that all the pieces of the Principles and Philosophy need to be in place for learning to happen for students, CRISS developed a Framework for Teachingthe CRISS Strategic Learning Plan—to help teachers organize their lessons. The plan guides teachers to pick significant content, set clear goals and objectives, assess student learning, plan for instruction through the effective use of strategies, and reflect (both teachers and students) on the learning process.

Project CReating Independence through Student-owned Strategies (CRISS) promises to give you a “grocery store” of ideas which “operationalize” the above principles and philosophy. Choose those that make the most sense for you. You aren’t going to put everything in the cart. As you walk down the aisles, think about how these ideas can be adapted to your own situation. Add your own ingredients. Change strategies to fit your various domains, whether it is a science lab, a hands-on activity in mathematics, a field trip, or a short story. Take what we offer. Shape it. Mold it. Give students control, so they leave your classroom with knowledge and power over their own learning.