My students have an easier time writing about fiction texts than they do non-fiction texts. The initial thought was that, at least in English class, students read more fiction. But in their day-to-day reading throughout the school day, they read more non-fiction. So why were my students struggling to write about non-fiction texts when most of their day was spent reading it?
Looking at the curriculum, students read poetry, short stories, novels, novellas, and a lot of choice books. The hole was staring at me in the face. There was very little devoted to reading non-fiction.
That was when my teaching partner and I spent some time figuring out how to help our students respond to non-fiction texts and settled on the acronym RACER. The idea of this is not new. You can conduct an internet search for RACE or RACER and see lots of ideas out there. In my school, when students write about fictional texts, they use the CER format. Acronyms help in memorization, and I wanted students to think CER = fiction; RACER = non-fiction. It just helps students figure out the purpose and audience of the writing piece as well as a general template to follow when responding and answering the prompt.
When I introduced this concept to my 8th graders in September, many of them struggled. The RACER format requires students to restate a question the article brings up and then answer the question the author provides. But the number one question students had was, How do I answer a question that the author didn’t state? I can’t find the question! It’s not stated in the article!
For the most part, the question lies in the purpose of the article. Did the author want to inform the reader about a topic? Did s/he want to persuade the reader to think about an idea through a different lens? Most of the time, the questions aren’t directly stated. Many times they are implied. Reading carefully and annotating helps figure this out, and once students understood this, they were able to write thorough and accurate responses.
If your students are struggling writing to non-fiction texts, I encourage you to try this strategy. While the acronym is a bit formulaic, it does help students figure out the structure of a non-fiction response. Once they have mastered the structure, they can deviate from it. (Similar to the structure of the 5 paragraph essay. When students have it mastered, they can start to move away from the format.) Most of my students need 3-4 times of practice before they get the hang of it, and usually by that time, the end of the school year approaches, and off to high school they go. This strategy is for a long, analytical paragraph. I have not used it to write a full non-fiction essay, but once students have the RACER structure down, I then require students to add to it, by writing a lead and brief background (as it fits) before continuing with the paragraph.
What is also great about this strategy is that non-fiction articles abound, and you can find almost any piece to fit a fictional text you are reading in class. For my 8th graders, I stick to an article that is 1-2 pages, otherwise they begin to feel overwhelmed with the reading and struggle to figure out what is important and what is not. (And a side note, I do teach annotation when teaching the RACER strategy, as good readers do need to figure out what is just information to help see the bigger picture, and what information is vital to support and back up thinking.)
If you’d like to try what I do with my students, you can find it here. What are strategies you have used to help your students respond to non-fiction texts? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Happy teaching!