Educators, including the team that drew up the Common Core Standards, are realizing that a focus solely on fiction doesn’t serve children well. Stories are wonderful, of course, and serve an important purpose. But most upper-level reading material is expository, and students often struggle when they haven’t had much experience with informational text.
There is evidence that hearing non-fiction texts in the early grades helps prepare children for the time when they will switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Expository texts also build kids’ background knowledge, helping them to make more sense of both texts they read themselves and the world around them. In short, kids need more exposure to non-fiction texts, and many teachers are beginning to add them to the read-aloud repertoire.
Knowing what one should do and knowing how to do it are not the same thing, however. Where do teachers, whose expertise often lies in fictional storybooks, begin when looking for non-fiction texts to read to classes? And how can parents find engaging, factual texts to read at home? Here are some ideas for teachers; parents should look for *s that indicate which ideas will work at home, too:
*Ask the librarian where to begin. They’re experts on texts of all kinds and will be overflowing with ideas.
*Look for a hook. Non-fiction texts are often fascinating and enjoyable, but there are some dry ones out there. Look for texts that begin with an exciting proposition or describe a situation to which your students can relate (or one that is exciting to imagine).
*Go beyond books. Magazines and websites are great sources for articles about all sorts of topics and the only good sources for current events. We like Time for Kids (3rd grade+), National Geographic for Kids (2nd+), Muse (4th+), and Ranger Rick (2nd+). (Note: grade levels correspond to the age at which kids can comprehend orally presented text, not the age at which they can read from these sources independently.) Additionally, educators can choose a level of complexity for news articles from Newsela so that content is available at just the right reading level for nearly any age.
Read non-fiction during your usual literature block. Ask students to treat these texts the way they would novels or stories: They should make predictions, visualize what they are hearing, and pay attention to the way the author uses language.
Keep a log of what you read aloud. List the name of the book or article, the source, and your students’ response. This will be a great personal resource to turn to year after year, and may help other teachers come up with ideas for their own classrooms, too.
Make listening less passive by getting kids thinking before you begin reading. Quiz students about their prior knowledge first or list facts they “know” about the topic. After reading, ask the class whether the text confirmed those facts.
Non-fiction texts are wonderful models for writing because students are assigned more and more expository pieces as they move through the grades. Exposure to explanatory language, which students use to display their understanding of what they learn, will make it easier for them to generate similar sentences themselves. Teachers might try using promotional texts, like destination campaign pieces from a travel agency, as models for writing persuasive essays.
*Remember that it is fine to read only parts of nonfiction texts. Since there’s no need to see a story to its conclusion, teachers should feel free to pick and choose sections of longer texts that seem most appropriate. You may want to have a few extra copies of a text on hand, though; curious students may want to learn more on their own!
This post contains our own ideas, with inspiration from veteran teacher Tony Snead.