Core Content: Help Students Connect with Nonfiction Texts


Tips for selecting nonfiction for the classroom
By Alyson Beecher, program support specialist at Pasadena Unified School District in Pasadena, Calif.

With the coming of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), educators are abuzz with talk about nonfiction or informational text. How much nonfiction? What kinds of nonfiction? How to teach nonfiction? Yet I worry about the decisions over selection of materials that will be made by many teachers and principals as well as the interpretations of the guidelines. When I listen in on conversations of teachers and administrators about the selection of appropriate nonfiction for children, I admit I have some doubts.

My friends who are booksellers have shared stories of upper elementary-age children (and their parents) who have come in asking for biographies that must be 150 pages long as set by their classroom teacher. When booksellers present to them wonderfully written and researched biographies of 86 to 94 pages that are appropriate for the childís grade and reading level, these books are rejected for their lack of pages to meet an arbitrarily selected page requirement. Other stories that concern me center around principals and teachers who reject the use of nonfiction picture books that are specifically created, developed and written for the student in upper elementary school.

Where does this lack of understanding of appropriate nonfiction come from? For many adults, teachers and administrators included, the bulk of our nonfiction or informational text comes from our college and adult reading experiences. Additionally, we assume that if a fictional text for a fourth- to a sixth-grader is approximately 150 pages, then surely an informational book must be the same number of pages. I am so glad I donít personally select nonfiction books by this guideline. Though I may settle in to enjoy that novel of 500 or 600 pages, most of the nonfiction I have read for fun varies but would be significantly shorter. Actually, much of it is in the format of journal articles or textbooks from which I may actually choose to read specific chapters.

Over the past several years, I have purposefully sought out nonfiction picture books and middle-grade nonfiction books to read and consider for use in the classroom. I honestly have to say that my eyes were opened. Many books are well-written, well-researched, and presented in a format that engages young developing readers and can easily be used either to pre-teach or provide targeted information to enhance a more complicated text or concept. Additionally, some amazing works provide in-depth research in an easy-to-grasp format (sometimes even with a splash of humor) to draw in readers and to expand their knowledge base.

So, where should a principal begin in the quest for integrating nonfiction more smartly into the curriculum and into the development of a schoolís reading community? †Here are a few tips:

• Begin reading a variety of the nonfiction books for children that are available today. If you donít know where to begin, you may want to look at winners of ALAís Sibert Award or NCTEís the Orbis Pictus Award.

• Identify ways to include a nonfiction book as part of an introduction to a fictional novel. (Try pairing Monica Brownís Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People as an introduction to Pamela Munoz Ryanís The Dreamer.) You can also use a nonfiction text to support and clarify a concept mentioned in a story. I will use a picture book biography to give a child quick background information (Doreen Rappaportís Eleanor Quiet No More to explain to children who Eleanor Roosevelt is when reading Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko).

• Remember not to judge nonfiction by the length. Most nonfiction will have a significant amount of new vocabulary and many more challenging concepts than a novel. The addition of photographs, textbox inserts, endnotes, and additional resources will often challenge readers either to look at the text multiple times or to pursue further resources.

• Donít forget that nonfiction or informational texts can be enjoyable to read and donít need to be dry and boring. If I am seeking material about something I want to learn more about, I am more likely to stick with books that hold my attention than ones that are more likely to make me yawn.

As principals or administrators, the message that we send to teachers about nonfiction or informational text will trickle down to students. Letís send a positive message that will support curiosity and learning. ††††††††

Donalyn and Alysonís Top Nonfiction Picks:
The Moon Book by Gail Gibbons
Picture Book Biographies by David Adler
Every Day on Earth by Steve Murrie
100 Most Awesome Things on the Planet by Anna Claybourne
Big Wig: A Little History of Hair by Kathleen Krull
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Natureís Survivors by Joyce Sidman
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown
The Dreamer by Pamela Munoz Ryan
Eleanor Quiet No More by Doreen Rappaport
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

For Your Information
By Donalyn Miller, fourth-grade teacher at O.A. Peterson Elementary, Fort Worth, Texas

Nonfiction includes both biographical texts and informational texts such as books about social studies and science topics. Although young readers prefer nonfiction texts to fiction texts and respond well to teachersí nonfiction offerings, others avoid reading nonfiction texts. I believe that students who claim a distaste for nonfiction lack positive reading experiences in this genre. In addition to teaching students how to preview, locate, and identify key information in nonfiction texts, teachers should expose students to a variety of engaging nonfiction.

Through wide nonfiction reading, students build background content knowledge, increase confidence, and discover authors, topics, and text types for future reading. Common Core State Standards stress the importance of nonfiction reading across the school day, and teachers need effective, easy-to-implement ways to increase studentsí nonfiction reading skills, access, and motivation.

Consider these activities for using nonfiction texts in your classroom:

• Booktalk nonfiction. According to Linda Gambrell, ďChildren read what we bless.Ē Adding nonfiction books and magazines to our daily booktalks introduces students to books they might read and increases their title awareness for types of books available. Personally recommending nonfiction books communicates to students that we value nonfiction and find it interesting to read.

• Read-aloud nonfiction texts. In primary grades, teachers regularly read nonfiction books such as Gail Gibbonsí The Moon Book and David Adlerís Picture Book Biographies when introducing or exploring curriculum content. As children grow older and classrooms departmentalize into science, social studies, math, and language arts courses, students experience less trade book nonfiction throughout the day. Regularly reading nonfiction picture books, poetry, articles, excerpts, and websites such as Wonderopolis increase studentsí background knowledge and provide engaging opportunities to explore content. My students enjoy fact and trivia books such as Every Day on Earth by Steve Murrie and 100 Most Awesome Things on the Planet by Anna Claybourne. Itís easy to read a few facts each day while they are waiting in line or during transitions.

• Ask your school librarian for nonfiction materials that align with upcoming curriculum content, or work with grade-level or department colleagues to locate nonfiction materials you can read aloud with students. Alyson provides several sources for award-winning nonfiction titles if you need a place to start.

• Use nonfiction as mentor texts. Although nonfiction texts provide students with authentic models for organizing and presenting information, well-written nonfiction texts such as Kathleen Krullís Big Wig: A Little History of Hair and Joyce Sidmanís Ubiquitous: Celebrating Natureís Survivors provide rich examples of descriptive writing, figurative language, and imageryóconcepts historically taught using fiction models. When designing lesson plans or units of study, include nonfiction texts in the mix.

• Pair fiction texts with nonfiction on related topics. Offering nonfiction materials that supplement fiction works encourages students to explore real-world connections and enhances their understanding of historical and technical references they encounter while reading fiction.

• Provide students frequent opportunities to preview, read, and share nonfiction. Collect nonfiction texts that relate to curriculum content, and invite students to skim and scan these materials every day as warm-up or introductory activities in science and social studies classes. Encourage students to locate text features such as maps, charts, photographs and glossaries. Ask students to share interesting facts and visuals that they discover during these daily previews. I often notice students returning to the same book day after day during these short scanning sessions, eventually reading nonfiction books they might not have self-selected to read.

• Validate studentsí personal interests and hobbies through show-and-tell style presentations, and require students to create text sets and lists of websites that provide additional information about their passionate interests such as fossils, dance, soccer, and origami. These nonfiction resources provide additional reading and research options for other students and support studentsí continual learning about topics that interest them.

With just a few brief, mindful activities, you can increase studentsí interest and experience reading nonfiction texts and promote more nonfiction reading in your classroom.


A voracious reader, Donalyn Miller spent 10 years teaching middle school language arts and is embarking this year on a new adventure: teaching fourth grade self-contained. Donalyn is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (2009) and the upcoming Readers in the Wild, which describes her methods for inspiring and motivating her students to read. She writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher (http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/book_whisperer/).

Alyson Beecher has worked in early childhood, elementary, and special education at the site and district level, including six years as an elementary principal. Alyson is passionate about helping teachers and students understand the value of reading for learning as well as for pleasure. She serves on the Scholastic Book Fairs Principal Advisory Board and the Schneider Family Book Award jury. Alyson shares her insights on reading and favorite childrenís titles on her blog, kidlitfrenzy.com.
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