5 Ideas About Nonfiction That Will Change Your Teaching

Despite the emphasis today on nonfiction, there’s little discussion of what the term really means, what matters most when teaching it, or how to help students become critical readers of it.

Nationally known teacher–consultants Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have taken these questions on and point out some key understandings that support highly effective instruction:

1. Fiction invites us into an imagined world. Nonfiction intrudes into our world and purports to tell us something about it.

If we teach kids that nonfiction purports to gives us reliable, truthful information, then readers have a job. They must critically examine the author’s words, look for bias and evidence, and question the author’s purpose and motive. We accept the flying brooms in Harry Potter, but if we see them in a Home Depot advertisement — a nonfiction text — we should be skeptical. Texts about health care, climate change, Ebola, cyberbullying, testing mandates, or lengthening the school year should also be read with caution because…

2. The truest statement about nonfiction is that it might not be true!

Many kids — and adults — accept the notion that if fiction is invented and imaginary, nonfiction must be real and true. They like the mnemonic: NF=Non Fiction=Not False. But often, nonfiction is false! As Kylene and Bob point out, “Our job as readers of nonfiction is to enter into a text recognizing that the author is not offering the truth but one vision of the truth.”

3. We want kids to go to nonfiction to answer questions and question answers.

Critical thinking is crucial in a democratic society. “We don’t want students to dismiss a text simply because they disagree with it,” write Kylene and Bob. “Nor do we want them to accept a text simply because they do agree with it.” We want readers to turn to texts with questions to answer and, more importantly, answers to question. We want them to see nonfiction as a chance to change their minds.

4. And that means moving kids from interest to relevance.

Bob and Kylene note that getting kids’ attention is about interest — keeping it is about relevance. Interest can be fleeting, a curiosity quickly satisfied or abandoned. But relevance is meaningful and long lasting. Something relevant is inherently interesting, but something interesting isn’t always relevant. Moving kids from “That’s cool” to “This matters to me” is crucial for teaching nonfiction.

5. Relevance leads to rigor.

“Rigor resides in the energy and attention we bring to a text, not in the text itself,” write Kylene and Bob. “Rigor without relevance is simply hard.” That doesn’t mean reading material must always be about a student’s favorite topic. Instead, the strategies we use to introduce texts must increase engagement and point out relevance — not merely create interest.