How Does Reading Nonfiction Differ from Fiction?

The good news is that kids are reading. The average child reads for about 25 minutes a day outside of school. The question is: what are they reading? It turns out they are mainly reading fiction. The imbalance favoring fiction is also mirrored in the classroom. Only about 10% of texts in classroom libraries is nonfiction. On average, even in the classroom, in 2012, students were spending under four minutes a day reading nonfiction.

It is easy to understand why kids prefer reading fiction. It is the ultimate escapist pastime. They can leave their mundane, sometimes stressful, world behind and take a journey to the center of the earth, to a school for wizards, or experience a time and place that is different from their own.

However, the truth is that nonfiction reading skills are needed to be successful in this time and place, in everyday lives and careers. According to a 2012 ACT study, there are three essential skills required in 98% of jobs paying a sufficient wage to support a family. Those skills are applied mathematics, locating information, and reading for information. Notably, two of the three skills are nonfiction reading skills. So, while reading fiction is fun and builds valuable social-emotional qualities such as empathy, it doesn’t fully provide the reading skills needed to obtain gainful employment in the real world.

Accordingly, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) and Literacy in History or Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects require an increase in nonfiction reading. The CCSS requires a fifty-fifty balance between informational and literary reading in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The standards strongly suggest that these texts are selected to provide students with a well-rounded knowledge base across subject areas. That means that teachers are encouraged to choose texts addressing historical, social, scientific, and technical subjects at every grade level. In sixth through 12th grade, that balance shifts in favor of nonfiction with a seventy-thirty split. Bear in mind that this is a split across a child’s school day. English and language arts teachers may find themselves using more fictional texts than their counterparts in other subjects.

Nonfiction Reading Strategies for Older Students

There are two broad approaches to teaching nonfiction reading strategies to older students, such as high school students and beyond. One of them is a content-area literacy approach, and the other is a disciplinary literacy approach.

Content-Area Literacy Approach

The content-area literacy approach advocates for teaching reading and writing processes that are common across disciplines. It teaches students to interpret texts using broad skills such as making predictions, summarizing, and using word-analysis strategies. These skills are implemented across all subjects.

Content-area literacy also teaches older students to compose and revise texts using standard processes such as brainstorming, organizing ideas, revising, and editing. Again, these are not discipline-specific. They can be used for any composition task, from a narrative to a lab report.

Disciplinary Literacy Approach

The disciplinary literacy approach advocates for teaching students goals and practices that are unique to specific disciplines. Disciplinary literacy works to increase access to deep content knowledge, giving students “insider” status as scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, musicians, athletes, and more.

According to Rachel Gabriel and Christopher Wenz, in “Three Directions for Disciplinary Literacy”, published in the February 2017 issue of Literacy in Every Classroom, there are two broad approaches to teaching discipline-specific literacy. One of them involves teaching students discipline-specific strategies. For instance, teachers might choose authentic, disciplinary texts. This may mean avoiding textbooks and choosing actual texts from the field. By doing this, students learn how experts argue using the rules of their field, supporting their claims with evidence, and using technical language.

Modeling Expert Practices

Modeling expert practices requires teachers to be experts. For example, a science teacher may think out loud to students as they read data to conclude an experiment; a social studies teacher shows students how they might confirm the authenticity of a primary document. These are all nonfiction reading skills that require specific disciplinary expertise.

Encouraging Full Participation

The other broad approach is encouraging full participation in the discipline, outside of reading and writing skills. This project-based learning happens with the objective of accomplishing a real-world task, not becoming better readers and writers. For instance, if a class is planning a fundraiser for new playground equipment, they might learn to become better readers by reading about the safest and most fun playground equipment available. Then they become better writers by crafting fundraising emails and press releases to accomplish their goal of buying new playground equipment. The learning happens in the context of a real-life objective.

Neither content-area literacy nor disciplinary literacy stands alone as a good nonfiction reading approach. Both yield positive results and should be used in tandem to provide optimal results for students, both in and out of the classroom.