Including Nonfiction in Your Independent Reading Time

By Michele Knott, guest blogger

We know the importance of allowing uninterrupted time for students to read. Teachers are always looking into ways to have students ask questions, think deeper, and respond in meaningful ways. Giving students choice in what they read has been a critical step in engagement. Teachers have been building classroom libraries that allow for a wide range of reading. While we cultivate a love of fiction material, what about nonfiction? When I think back to the nonfiction reading I did as a student, I think about my classroom textbooks, encyclopedias, and the dry, dry, dry nonfiction picture books. How times have changed! The nonfiction being published today is interesting and invites wondering and a natural curiosity in young readers.
We all have students who lean toward nonfiction reading. However, we have many readers who prefer any genre but nonfiction! How do we encourage those readers to try nonfiction? A perfect way to start is by including nonfiction books in your read-alouds. Find engaging read-alouds that go with your content studies. Use picture book biographies when teaching character traits and themes. Use nonfiction as mentor texts for reading and writing. As you read, teach important skills students need when reading nonfiction material —how to use text features, adding to your learning, changing what you thought you knew, and asking questions. When students know how to approach nonfiction, they are more likely to try it on their own. Once you’ve set the groundwork for readers, it’s time to reel them in with books!
Think about what makes fiction popular for readers and turn that into nonfiction. Do students like the narrative format of fiction stories? Try narrative nonfiction, like Bethany Barton’s I’m Trying to Love Spiders or Nicola Davies’ I (Don’t) Like Snakes. Some students thrive when reading series. Introduce readers to Laura Lyn Disiena and Hannah Eliot’s Did You Know? series or the highly engaging and informational Scientists in the Field series. Graphic novel readers? Steer them in the direction of Don Brown or Nathan Hale. You know how sometimes there are characters who just grab hold of you and don’t let go? Picture book biographies have those characters, too! Some kids love getting lost in a story. Show them some longer nonfiction books by Steve Sheinkin and Deborah Hopkinson. Do you have historical fiction readers? Point them in the direction to nonfiction books on the same topic.
Think about classroom organization. We want students to be purposeful readers. How do you organize your bins? Do students know where to go in your classroom to find nonfiction materials? Too often I see one bin labeled NONFICTION. With today’s wide variety of books and topics, it is no wonder students do not want to flip through a single bin. How can you organize your books to inspire curiosity? First, grow your collection (ideas listed below). How can you organize your books so it makes it easy for readers to find books? Instead of putting all your animal books together, can you separate them by habitat? Just like you have a historical fiction bin, have a historical nonfiction bin. Divide your picture book biographies up by categories—sports biographies, strong American women, people who shaped the history of our country. In your nonfiction bins, have a variety of formats for your readers —picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels. By having organized bins, students will have a direction when making their nonfiction choices.
Do I have you thinking about your nonfiction collection? Time to get some books! I have a few tried and true places where I find my nonfiction reading. You’re probably familiar with the Caldecott and Newbery Awards. There is also a wonderful nonfiction award—the Sibert Medal. I use the list of past and present winners and know I have a great list of nonfiction books to use. Visit this site to find a list of great nonfiction books. Every November, NCTE awards the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children. Not only is there an award winner, there are Honor Books and a Recommended List. Find a great list of nonfiction books here. The National Science Teachers Association always puts together a list of “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12.” It is an expansive list that goes from picture books to longer chapter books. The website has links that include books from the past two decades. And when I think nonfiction, I always think of Alyson Beecher’s weekly roundup of Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, Alyson’s blog has a link up where bloggers share their weekly nonfiction reading. Visit Kid Lit Frenzy every Wednesday to find great nonfiction titles.
Now where to find these books? As I go through these websites, I almost always have my library browser open. Libraries are a wonderful option to getting books for your classroom when budgets are tight. I use our school library, my public library, and the public library located in my school district. Many public libraries issue a teacher card, which gives you additional perks. I can check books out for a longer period of time and check out more titles at a time with my teacher card. Of course, another favorite way to get titles is through Scholastic Book Fairs and Reading Clubs! I have found many favorite series through Scholastic and my nonfiction collection has grown as a result! 
Digital literacy is another way to get students into nonfiction reading. I am just starting to dabble into this reading format, and I know many others have more experience. I really enjoy Wonderopolis as a way to have kids ask questions and find answers. Some students love seeing what the daily wonder is, while others have specific questions they want answered. Thinking about the natural world? National Geographic for Kids is a great place for students to visit and read about the world around them. Both websites offer stories, videos, and interactive features.
Nonfiction reading inspires readers to wonder. Kids who wonder are kids who think. It sparks curiosity and curious kids want answers. By allowing students to have choice in their reading, and making sure nonfiction reading is part of that choice, we will continue to have thinkers and wonderers in our schools!

About Michele:

Michele Knott is a K-4 literacy specialist working in the suburbs of Chicago. Her current favorite nonfiction picture book is Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson. Michele blogs at and tweets frequently @knott­_michele.