I'm convinced that it was a teacher who coined the phrase, "So much to do, so little time." No matter how hard we try to keep up, there's always more to do. So when I began thinking about ways to expose my students to more nonfiction, the last thing I wanted was to add to my already-full day. Instead, I decided to weave nonfiction into a part of my reading program that was already firmly in place: read aloud. As it turned out, my read alouds, like so many primary teachers', were dominated by fiction. It was definitely time for a change.

Why Nonfiction Is So Important

Children love learning about real things. It gives them an understanding of our world and the way things work. And considering all the newspapers, brochures, guides, maps, Internet sites, and how-to manuals we navigate as adults, it's safe to say that nonfiction is the genre children will read most often when they grow up. Not only that, reading and writing nonfiction in the primary grades will help prepare them for content-area studies in later grades and for informational passages on standardized tests.

Therefore, children must become skilled at reading it, and learning must begin at an early age. Reading paired texts aloud gives them a leg up.

Teaching Children How Nonfiction Works

Some strategies and skills required for reading informational texts are genre specific and, therefore, don't transfer over from fiction. For example, the ability to access data, to read critically for information, and to use supporting visual features (such as charts, captions, and scale diagrams) can only be acquired by reading and writing informational texts.

One way that I demonstrate these strategies and skills, among others, is by reading aloud paired fiction and nonfiction text sets. This gives children opportunities to acquire information about a range of topics and compare the two genres-how they're similar and how they're different.

Carrying Out a Paired Text Read-Aloud

1. Collect paired sets of fiction and nonfiction books.

I gather five paired sets, one for each day of the week. Each set includes a fiction and nonfiction book on a common topic. Sometimes I select books that compliment a class study, for example mammals, and at other times, I select books simply because I know the children will love them. I alternate these weeklong stints with several weeks of more traditional read clouds that include fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

If you're like most teachers, you have on hand lots of fictional picture books, but you may need to research good informational books. To familiarize yourself with the range and qualities of nonfiction, I recommend Rosemary Bamford and Janice Kristo's Checking Out Nonfiction K-8: Good Choices for Best Learning (Christopher-Gordon, 1999). Knowing what's available — photographic essays, survey books, concept books, life-cycle books, experiment and activity books, diaries and journals, informational picture storybooks, and field guides — will help you identify and introduce a broader range of books to children.

2. Read aloud a paired set of books each day.

By reading both a fiction and nonfiction book on a common topic, children can draw comparisons between the genres and learn the different purposes for which they're written: fiction, primarily, to entertain and transport; and nonfiction, to explain and inform.

I read one book aloud in the morning and one in the afternoon. At the start of each day, I set both books on the easel and let children discuss what they notice about the titles and covers, as well as the text and organizational features that might lead them to decide whether a book is fiction or nonfiction. Over the course of the year, the children become quite good at this. They begin to work out even subtle differences.

While fictional texts should be read from cover to cover in one sitting, informational texts don't need to be. It really depends on the book's length and the children's inquiries. Shorter books can be read from beginning to end, whereas only portions of longer texts need be read, such as sections that answer children's questions or pinpoint information that would be useful in a classroom investigation or a thematic unit.

3. Discuss the books.

After reading each book, the children respond in authentic ways. I ask them questions such as, Do you like it? What did you learn? What surprised you? How does it remind you of other books you've read? Does it relate to experiences in your lives, and how?

Then our discussion moves to genre-specific topics such as ways in which fiction and nonfiction texts are organized; access features such as tables of contents, glossaries, and indexes; and visual representation of information through charts, maps, scale diagrams, photographs, and illustrations.

4. List what fiction and nonfiction writers do.

Children who understand an author's process are better able to comprehend what they read and to emulate authors' techniques as they write. As a class, we list some of the things that writers of fiction and nonfiction do on separate pieces of chart paper. We display these charts for reference, adding to them throughout the year.

Things Fiction Writers Do Things Nonfiction Writers Do
  • Write stories
  • Draw pictures
  • Say "once upon a time"
  • Write funny stories
  • Tell a story in order
  • Get ideas from their own lives
  • Do some research
  • Make up the story
  • Make it sound true
  • Make a table of contents
  • Use cutaways
  • Make captions
  • Do a lot of research
  • Use close-ups
  • Write about real things
  • Use maps
  • Use photographs
  • Make glossaries
  • Make borders
  • Make a table of contents


5. Store paired books in plastic bags.

I keep each set of paired books in a plastic bag. As we locate other fiction and nonfiction books on the same topic, we add them to bags so that we're always building our collection.

We can find evidence of how reading paired texts helps children become more skilled readers and writers of nonfiction by observing them in other parts of reading/writing workshop.

In conferences and during independent reading, I note how children refer to tables of contents, use glossaries, study charts and diagrams, and ask questions. For example, Nicole, after examining the picture captions in the big book Wheels, Wings, and Other Things (Rigby), wondered why there was no picture to accompany the opening paragraph. Her question gave me the opportunity to explain that this type of text (i.e. an opening paragraph) refers to the entire selection, not to any individual picture.

In her written report "All About Wolves," Caroline included a drawing of a dog and wolf side by side. I was happy to see her labeling her pictures. However, Caroline had done even more, which wasn't immediately clear to me. She had actually done a scale diagram: "I know that if people see a wolf and dog together, they'll understand how big a wolf really is." She included this visual information, in part, because of my demonstrations during read aloud.

Reading paired fiction and nonfiction books aloud helps familiarize children with text features they'll later be asked to use as they read, and offers them possibilities for communicating their ideas in writing. But it's only the beginning. There are many other ways to weave nonfiction into our reading and writing programs. I encourage you to extend and explore.