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Readers Workshop: Taking a Closer Look at Nonfiction

By Angela Bunyi on September 30, 2009
  • Grades: 3–5





Nonfiction reading material can be a powerful tool in grabbing the attention and interest of otherwise reluctant readers. However, it seems resources that provide reading lessons often focus primarily on fiction features (plot, character development, etc.). With this in mind, I thought it might be useful to share some of the resources and materials I have used in my classroom to help readers learn to read, interpret, and eventually write nonfiction texts independently.

Photo: You can download four printables in this post, including the nonfiction conventions posters shown above.


Nonfiction Supplies: Avoid the Literary Desert!

I've used the analogy of teaching in a literary desert before. As elementary teachers we know that we need to have a plethora of classroom books for our students. According to Richard Allington, an elementary classroom should have 1,500 books as a base. For me, the hardest part of creating a classroom library is keeping a balance of fiction, nonfiction, and informational texts. According to the research I have looked at, two-thirds of the library collection should be nonfiction and informational texts. That can be a real challenge, but it is so important when our students are reading to learn.

Are you feeling low in this department? One easy solution would be to purchase used magazines. Most of my collection has been donated or purchased from garage sales. Magazines are great because you don't feel too bad when you take out the scissors and cut out elements that you want to discuss with your class.


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Photo: Ripped-out magazine pages on display.


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Photo: Red bins in our classroom indicate nonfiction. We currently house 2,500+ books and use a system very similar to Beth's.

Learn how we organize our classroom library.

View part of our classroom collection online, utilizing IntelliScanner.



Mini-Lesson Suggestions




You can call it craft study, look at fantastic authors such as Katie Wood Ray (Study Driven is an excellent read/resource), and purchase a book that has detailed step-by-step instructions on this. However, it does not have to be that complicated. Let me save you some time researching and reading what the professional authors are going to suggest to you for teaching nonfiction. Are you ready? It's really very simple. Study it, talk about it, try it out:


1. Talk about how nonfiction and fiction are organized differently and have different conventions. This is where you would want to pull out a variety of nonfiction material to show to your class. Better yet, use a nonfiction big book to demonstrate to the whole group. Here are some anchor charts we created this year and the year prior.


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2. Copy and pass out various examples of nonfiction passages, and ask your students to record what conventions are being used and why. This might include using different types of print, making comparisons, or labeling drawings. Download this guide on the purposes of the conventions.



3. I find that nonfiction comparisons can be a little harder to find examples of. An excellent book, totally dedicated to this nonfiction convention, is Steve Jenkins's Biggest, Strongest, Fastest. Each page takes those numbers and compares them to something familiar (e.g., the Empire State Building). I usually read this book as a separate mini-lesson.




4. Help your readers create nonfiction convention notebooks or flip-books. This idea comes straight from Debbie Miller, except we used a Dinah Zike flip booklet instead of Miller's notebooks. Under each convention, the student adds an example of the convention. They also add the purpose for the convention as well. If you have a lot of magazines around, you can pass these around the room and have students go on a scavenger hunt for these features.





5. Apply it through writing. I usually find that writers can only write as well as they read. I believe this applies for nonfiction writing, too. The more we talk and look at nonfiction pieces, the better prepared students are to try the conventions out in their own writing. When you see a student trying some of these conventions out in their writing, make sure to show it to the class. Other students will begin to try it out on their own as well.


6. On a final note, just give your students the time and opportunity to look at, read, and discuss books in your classroom this year. Fiction and nonfiction. The more they read, the better equipped they will become across the curriculum. I am blessed to be working in a school that doesn't advocate basal-prescribed reading instruction or extrinsically motivated reading programs. It makes a world of difference, and I know we are creating lifelong readers and writers using the workshop approach in our room.


More Anchor Charts/Bulletin Board Ideas

Last year I wrote a post that included several of the anchor charts and bulletin boards in our room. This included a nonfiction convention bulletin board, made by students. It has now been turned into an article, "Reading Strategy Charts and Bulletin Boards."







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Photo: We use Scholastic's Navigating Nonfiction to discuss various ways that nonfiction articles are organized (compare/contrast, problem/solution, etc.). You can find a link on the main page, if you are interested in ordering it for your class.


Teaching Matters Resource Center


Soon, you will be able to find all the materials Beth and I discuss and use in the classroom in one easy location. I uploaded quite a bit of materials and photos yesterday, and those will be featured there in the future. For now, here are some of the resources that were mentioned in this post.


To learn how we organize our classroom library,click here:


To view part of our classroom collection online, utilizing IntelliScanner, click here:



Nonfiction Convention Definitions/Purpose

Download Convention_definitions 

Posters Shown in Main Photo/Bulletin Board

Download Nf+conventions_board

Nonfiction Conventions Banner

Download Nf_banner

Nonfiction Layout/Format Posters

Download Nf_format_board




I created an introductory video on Readers Workshop and plan to add a series of videos to address the various activities that it describes (e.g., reading conferences, guided reading, mini-lessons, etc.). You can also find this video on the main page of our Teaching Matters Resource Center.

Readers Workshop Overview


Reading Strategy Charts and Bulletin Boards-  http://blogs.scholastic.com/3_5/2008/11/reading-strateg.html#more

Creating an Organized, Balanced Classroom Library- http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3752283







Comments (10)


Great questions...here you go:

1. I purchased all of my books. I have not used any school money because I want it to go where I go. Currently, I am on a strict financial budget so we now rely on the library literally a few yards away from us for new titles.

For starting off, I would recommend looking at either Beth's or my book labels. What kind of books are you low on? Most are short on nonfiction topics. Based on that, hit your local discount book store. We have McKays which is lovely! 95% of my books came from this bookstore.

2. Yes, I taught 5th grade with the same time limit but was in charge of Writer's Workshop. 10-15 minutes for a mini-lesson 35-40 minutes- independent reading while you conference or complete guided reading groups (could alternate every other week) 5-10 minutes- share time

3. Look at my latest podcast blog. I highly recommend this route for students that need a little more time. I do feel like using the workshop approach helps tutor students one-on-one because you are addressing their specific needs and strengths.

I hope this helps!!!


Hello Angela,

Thanks for being so willing to share your ideas. They have helped me tremendously!

I have 3 questions for you:

1. I know that I need to expand my class library. I am very excited about that, but the task seems overwhelming. Where do I start? How do I select books and where do I get them from? Do you use your own money to buy your books?

2. I teach 5th grade reading all day to four classes. I have 55 minutes for each class. Any advice on how to use the time that I have to do a reader's workshop? Is is still possible to do every day? I really want to implement this, but I am not sure how.

3. Lastly, I would really like to maximize my tutoring time. What do you suggest for tutoring? Would you do reader's workshop, or do you suggest other activites?

Looking forward to hearing from you!


You're welcome! I'm glad I was able to help you in your classroom.



Dear Angela, I was browsing and found this wonderful information for Non-Fiction,and I am currently teaching Non-Fiction in my classroom, WOW!! This is fabulous!


Great questions Josh! And I know you are excited about trying this approach out in your classroom.

Anchor charts- It all depends on the lesson. I like to follow the gradual release of responsibility model, so it might go like this.

Step 1: Watch me. I begin with a blank anchor chart and begin charting my thoughts while I read on the chart. This works for reading and writing. Today's lesson, we looked at Byrd Baylor's writing and how she uses certain conventions to make us read it differently (dashes, sentence fragments, italics, etc.)

Step 2: Let's try it together. New day, different lesson. I might have one partially filled out, but the pattern continues and students turn to a partner. We complete a chart together.

Step 3: Now try it on your own. I may hand students a graphic organizer that is like the one we used in class. They would apply this information to their own reading and writing. It is usually assessed at this point.

On the other hand, sometimes I do make the charts before hand. It all depends. I don't want my lesson to last more than 15 minutes.

Keeping up with the charts- I JUST received/got approved for my anchor line chart. I was dying without it. I hang them up and they stay there UNLESS two things aren't happening:

1. If I don't refer to them, how do I expect my student's to refer to them? It goes off the wall.

2. If my student's aren't applying it/it's not needed anymore, it goes down. This includes bulletin boards.

Hope that helps!


Hi, Angela!

I cannot thank you enough for your (and Beth's) posts on Scholastic. My views and practices on teaching reading have been challenged (it's a good thing!) since I started teaching 3 years ago. This is invaluable information and I am working to incorporate the workshop beginning in the second quarter (nothing like starting all over again).

I am particularly interested in the anchor charts. Is this something you do during a mini-lesson? Do you leave anchor charts up all year? I'd love more information about this.



Hey Victoria,

I'm excited you wrote here. All of your questions are concerns I have encountered personally as well, so I am just going to tell you what seems to have worked in our classroom.

1) For the flip-through casual reader concern. Conference time is where you hit this head on through math. I've even pulled out the calculator before. So, without looking/asking how many pages they have read for the week, I might start like this, "Well, Bob, last time we conferenced you were on page X. So, let's see. You are reading about a page a minute and 30 minutes at home...30 minutes at school, I am guessing you are on about page X right?" If they are not, you simply tell them that's what you expect in class and you know they are capable. You'd rather be reading in class vs. filling out worksheets, right? That's what you have to push. The boring alternatives and the math. You could also look at the Sisters reading stamina chart for motivation of reading. I used this two years ago to get RW started and motivate kids to read for longer periods of time.

2) Slow readers. Either the book is just too hard (Allington states that there is not a fluency problem in kids, the book is usually just too hard) OR you might recommend they listen to a book on CD. Confidence went up for my self-proclaimed slow reader. A few even have their own personal CD player and check the book/CDs out at the library.

3) Multi-book readers. I have had two that come to mind that were EXCELLENT multi-book readers. Just excellent. But for most I recommend one at school and one at home, if multi-book reading is an interest. I push the concept of reading stamina and being able to dig deeper with one book at a time. This also helps with reading reflection letters and conference talks.

4) Conferences. RW takes about 4-5 minutes and WR takes about the same. I usually combine them together which makes it much easier (usually 8 minutes/student). I start my conferences during RW for both reading and writing and complete my 5th conference by the end of WW. I complete small guided reading groups and reading partnerships during a 3rd literacy block. Talk about a real-challenge getting it all in, right?

And Victoria, it's usually challenging in the beginning so hang in there. It sounds/looks like you are doing a fantastic job!!!! I have enjoyed reading your posts. :)



Angela, You are a Godsend. (And no, it's NOT because you were blessed by the Pope... err, maybe? :-D)

I am in my fourth year of doing Reader's Workshop, and there are still gaps. No other teachers at my school use this method, and because of that, I am not entirely comfortable. Last year in the second half was where it went EXTREMELY well- but the first month of this year has been very, very challenging. Maybe you can help me with a few questions I have.

-I noticed that one boy just flips through his books, though I know he reads at home because his parents have him complete it daily. He reads Just Right books at home because mom cares about him being challenged. What would you do in the classroom with him? Thankfully, most of the others are reading Just Right books daily now. -I have noticed a few kids take a VERY long time to complete Just Right books. One girl is on page 20 or so, and she started about a week ago. She likes the book, yet I am very concerned! -One mom has noted her girl likes to read several books at once. I suggested her having a book bin/ wish list at home as well as school. What advice have you given there? -How long is a conference, normally? 10 minutes or so? I am wondering when I can meet with small groups/partnerships as well- I don't want anyone ever left out in my weekly plan.

The rest, really, are doing so much better realizing that they know what I expect. I think their understanding will deepen even more next week when we have our parent/student/teacher conferences.

I know I am an advisor, too, but these questions challenge my thinking a bit.

Hey Amanda!

You are too funny. I think your idea sounds fantastic...I love the idea of blending two genres together. Katie Wood Ray writes about publishing and studying texts like that in Study Driven, so what a great idea!

And I can't wait until Teaching Matters opens up the option to allow teachers to add materials and ideas here. I think teachers/readers like you will have AWESOME things to contribute and take from. I am really looking forward to it. :)



Angela, This is great stuff. Ironically, once again, your post is very timely. We just launched our nonfiction study on Monday! I also have my students make nonfiction feature books. It's amazing how the process of searching through nonfiction books to find particular features completely cements the concept for most kids, and it's fun! I love the posters you made for each feature! I do something pretty similar. (I'm looking to get it on my website sometime today or tomorrow, but I'm a little slow!) I put the name of the feature on a bright sheet of construction paper, then glued on an example from a book or magazine. In addition, I also attached a stellar example from past nonfiction feature books to provide more examples as students make their own books.

I absolutely love studying nonfiction, and I'm always trying to find ways to extend it further. We've been writing personal narratives, and next week, the students will be choosing a piece to publish. Do you think it would be a logical, appropriate extension if the students chose, say, two to three features to include in their final published story? I keep thinking of Ruby Bridges' autobiography,and how each page had pictures, captions, etc. Imagine, a personal narrative about a neighbor's scary dog, and a close-up of the dog's snarling mouth and enormous fangs! Please let me know what you think! I don't want to be too out there! I just thought that would take the concept one step further!

Keep up the fabulous work! I feel like such a groupie! :)

Thanks, Amanda

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