Implementing Common Core means a much greater emphasis on teaching nonfiction texts than many of us have been used to in the past. Although the vast majority of adult reading is nonfiction, humans are naturally drawn toward fictional stories and accounts. Therefore, it can be hard to get into the mindset of promoting nonfiction as a fundamentally enjoyable type of reading.
This can be especially true in the lowest grades when we are appealing to children who up to this point in their lives have been comforted by books like “Goodnight Moon” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.”
I often find that while some kids naturally engage with and love reading non-fiction texts, there will be others who are turned-off by it. How can a teacher turn a bored and disengaged kid into one who just eats up those fascinating facts?
Books are the foundation
Well, no kidding, right?
But I’ve seen many classroom libraries that could use a thorough review of their nonfiction selections. In real estate they say it’s all about “location, location, location.” Well when it comes to nonfiction books, it’s all about “engagement, engagement, engagement.”
Here are the ground rules.
Extremely focused on topics of interest
The books must be about subjects that children of that age are naturally interested in: straightforward and informative on narrow topics that they really care about.
Sure, there’s room for stretching their interests in new directions, but when you’re trying to draw them into reading, subjects in which they are interested and want to know more about form the magic gateway.
Extremely bright and colorful
Humans are visual learners and when you’re trying to transition a child from learning by watching to learning by reading, the hook is awesome illustrations.
Focused on your curriculum
As you’ll see below, a great strategy for introducing nonfiction is to tie it into the other things you are studying in your classroom. Know what you’ll be teaching for the coming year so you can review your classroom library with a critical eye to ensure that the appropriate topics are present.
Kids may not naturally be interested in some of these books, but you will create interest as you teach.
Video tips: engaging kids in nonfiction
Generating student interest in nonfiction texts
Once you are well-stocked with nonfiction books, use these ideas to hook your students into reading them eagerly. Learning facts can be a lot of fun, particularly if you reinforce a fact-focused pursuit of knowledge.
What’s the question?
Here’s a technique I use when I am teaching nonfiction. It’s very simple but really gets those little brains working. I teach my kids that any time we're reading nonfiction we're answering a question, and their first job is to figure out what question a text might be answering.
I’ll model this in read-alouds to begin with. I read the title and maybe the first paragraph of our nonfiction text and then I ask students:
“What question is this book answering?”
This really gets them thinking about the text and often generates some interesting answers. Over time they get really good at figuring out that answer.
Encourage inquisitive independent reading
When my students read nonfiction independently they have to note the following in their reading journals:
- The title
- A summary of the first paragraph
- What question they think the text is answering
They write down the answer to their question after they’ve read just a small portion of the text and then review it again when they finish the whole text.
Often it turns out that a text may be answering a different question than one originally thought, which can be pretty thought provoking to kids.
… with a nonfiction slant. The classic teacher read-aloud is the perfect place to start, and the video above will provide tips for you.
Encourage nonfiction reading that is aligned with fiction reading
If you are reading the book “Little Bear Goes to the Moon,” then pull out those nonfiction books on space travel to satisfy the natural curiosity that will develop in your classroom.
Look for nonfiction disguised as fiction
Certain genres such as “biography” read almost like a story. All too often adults have the mental image of nonfiction as being an encyclopedic collection of factoids. In reality, most modern nonfiction is quite engaging, and this is true even down in the first, second and third grades.
You can also start with historical fiction and follow it up with a factual account. This works particularly well with social studies curriculum.
Reinforce with writing
Speaking of biographies, every student has a perfect nonfiction topic about which they can write: themselves! Getting your kids to start writing nonfiction early is another great reinforcement activity for engagement.
Nonfiction classroom decorations
There are tons of it of interesting charts available on factual topics. Don’t hesitate to put up a few of these, rotated throughout the year to keep them fresh, to build interest in a particular area of the curriculum.
Once kids show interest in the visual display of the posters, they can easily be guided to the aligned books.
Placing a row of books under a poster is a natural way to encourage them to make that jump from reading a poster to reading a more in-depth treatment.