Sunday, August 12, 2012

How Much Nonfiction? And How Accurate Should It Be?

When I was a Title I teacher ten years ago, I worked to get many new nonfiction titles into our Title I library. I believe the research then recommended a classroom library should be at least 40% nonfiction.  Back then, I thought it was a big deal, and most of what I purchased was nonfiction to try to get up our nonfiction percentage.

Today that number has gone up.

The Common Core State Standards (and Iowa Core) have been aligned with the National Assessment Governing Board Reading Framework for the 2009 NAEP, so here are the percentages that our students should be reading at these grade levels.

That's more than half of what my 8th graders read should to be Informational. Informational text includes both literary nonfiction and informational text in social studies, science and technical subjects. Students need to be reading some of this in content areas too, but they better be reading literary nonfiction and learning how to read informational text in my English course too in order to reach that high percentage.

In considering the fiction and nonfiction our children read, do students need to be able to know which kind they are reading?

1.  How far-out should nonfiction go?

2.  How far should authors of nonfiction go in entertaining children as they seek to inform them? Located on nonfiction lists you can find:
  • A book about a meteor told in the first person by the rock. (Call Me Ahnighito by Pam Conrad)
  • A book based on the words of an advertising writer that purports to be a speech by a famous Native American. (Brother Eagle Sister Sky by Susan Jeffers)
  • A book about penguins in Antarctica that describes them as having friends and panicking at the approach of helicopters. (Helen Coucher's Antarctica)
  • A book about architecture that tells children they can talk to buildings. (Forest Wilson's What it Feels Like to Be a Building.)

3.  At the same time there are works of fiction such as the "Dear America" series from Scholastic that seem to try hard to look like nonfiction materials.
4.  Are authors and publishers obligated to help children become critical readers or to produce best selling books?

What do you have to say about these ideas? How much nonfiction do you read? Your students? 

Image by mrsdkrebs


  1. Boy, Denise, you pose excellent questions. Staci and I had a short discussion about requiring nonfiction for this year's reading. We were only requiring a poetry anthology and an autobiography/biography/memoir for each quarter. It's startling to see that 8th graders should read 55% informational text.

    How many times does a person pick up an informational text (not in story form) and read it from cover to cover. Generally, it's used as resource to find specific information. Can newspapers be considered informational text? Blog posts? I read a lot of informational texts about photography, so could the students find some texts that reflect their passions? You have really made me think!! I'm anxious to see what others have to say.

    Your connected friend,

    1. Hi Kris,
      You are posing some questions of your own! There really is a big difference between a literary nonfiction book like Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, which was a great read from cover-to-cover, and informational texts, which are harder to read cover-to-cover. Although, like you say, if students find topics they are passionate about they may read completely books that would cause others to fall asleep.

      Here is the list of genres I'm asking my students to read this year (for their 40 book challenge, ala Donalyn Miller):

      Poetry Anthology 4
      Traditional Literature 4
      Fantasy / Science Fiction 4
      Contemporary Realistic Fiction 4
      Historical Fiction 4
      Mystery 1
      Biography, Autobiography, Memoir 5
      Informational 9
      Your choice 5

      As you can see, it's not even close to 55% nonfiction. However, I also have my students for geography, science, and/or history.


  2. Denise,
    I'm on the same wavelength as Kris. I am hoping,as this next year rolls along, that we can teach students about "nonfiction" on the web, as well. This is critical. I always let my students know, too, that many people skim NF for what they want to find... Even I don't read the entire book at times!
    Time is short - gotta wrap this up today!
    Good luck, once again, with the myriad questions!

  3. Joy,
    Thanks for adding your thoughts! You are such a busy commenter! I appreciate your input.

    There is certainly all kinds of informational text--newspapers and blog posts, as Kris mentioned. And, yes, the nonfiction on the web is frightening! That brings me back to my other questions, or similar questions. Last spring I wrote this blog post about a need for teaching kids critical reading: A Need for Researcher's Workshop (You commented on it and left some great links on the topic.)

    We have our work cut out for us in teaching what online is reliable nonfiction, and what is best to avoid when needing informational text.

    Thanks, Joy!

  4. Denise,
    How will you approach the requirement of nine informational texts? I want to make sure I understand what you mean by informational texts - these are texts that provide information about a specific topic...not in story form, right? So, what will you suggest to your students? Also, what is your definition of a traditional literature (a classic?). Do you think your students will feel somewhat stifled? It's so hard to know what to do.

    Thanks for pushing me!!

    1. Kris,
      I mean rich, wonderful books like Giant that I mentioned above, (which is an adult book.) But how about An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Newbery Medal winner of 2004. (Great to read with historical fiction Fever 1793. And I just ordered Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story about Brain Science. And maybe How about Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way).

      Joy just shared a link with my to this post: The Underappreciated Charms of Nonfiction that describes another good nonfiction book about Benedict Arnold.

      These are great stories about real life stuff. Real stories can sometimes be more compelling that fiction, I believe. Oftentimes nonfiction can be harder to read, but I hope they won't be stifled. I want them to love what they read, so I need to make sure to keep ordering the best and greatest.

      I think authors are probably writing more good nonfiction now too, don't you?


    2. And regarding traditional, I mean anything really old, originally from the oral tradition--folk/fairy tales, fables, mythology, legends, epics. I made this storybird about it: I Am Traditional Literature

      I think Greek mythology is wonderful to read, and I find kids love the outrageous and spirited stories. Mary Pope Osborne does a great job of making these accessible to kids with her Tales from the Odyssey series and her Favorite Norse Myths book.

      I just read another good one this summer--The Simon & Schuster Book of Greek Gods and Heroes by Alice Low.

      Traditional literature is one of my favorites, and I don't want my students to know it, so they don't miss out on all the wonderful allusions that they read in today's literature.

      Thanks again for challenging me!

  5. Informational text is less personal than narrative text and concept dense with many new ideas contained in a single paragraph- for example, Science and Social Studies textbooks. I help out in our school library and it’s not very often that students check out nonfiction books. We have an entire shelf of Dear America- which Denise mentioned tries to look like nonfiction and those books are rarely checked out. The reading level of information text is well above the frustration levels of students with reading problems; therefore, it’s not enjoyable and students want to give up. I like the idea of authors writing entertaining nonfiction for children as this keeps kids engaged in the story. I don’t think that authors and publishers have an obligation to help children become critical readers; children can become critical readers with best-selling novels and from informational text of core subjects. I read nonfiction for my own educational purposes and understand the importance of this information, but I really miss my leisure reading time with books of my choice!

    1. Carie,

      What examples do you see of engaging nonfiction in your library? Do you feel your librarian purchases some of the narrative nonfiction mentioned in the comments above? I know we don't have enough in our library.

      There are beautiful and creatively entertaining nonfiction informational picture books that we can put in the hands of all readers on their independent level. If you remember from our first week together, many of the books to begin on are nonfiction--concepts such as colors, numbers, transportation, and animals. These are a rich resource for readers of all levels. I even bring a stack of picture books to my junior highers when we start a new topic in history or science, so they can help synthesize the big ideas.


    2. Our library does have some AR leveled books that are nonfiction as far as sports, states, and science and social studies topics. The 3-5 classrooms in our building have a basal reading program with the leveled nonfiction books and the students do like those. I'm sure our library has many interesting nonfiction books- kids just want the series books most of the time and seem to read the nonfiction when its related to an assignment.

  6. I remember reading my textbooks in school and I thought they were pretty boring. I was pretty surprised to see how much nonfiction students should be reading compared to fiction. I think it's important but, like you stated, they need to make informational text entertaining and interesting to the reader. Especially for struggling students or non-motivated students who don't particularly enjoy reading, it's crucial to find informational texts that they would like to read.
    I think the books you gave in your intial post were great books for students to learn, but also enjoy. Those informational books can be more personal to the reader and help them enjoy and learn at the same time.

    1. Thanks, Emily. I agree about motivating and entertaining kids. What about when they go beyond the realm of traditional nonfiction? Anthropomorphism like when penguins have friends and panic. Or the inaccurate citations in the book that purports to be a speech by a famous Native American but isn't.

      Are you saying it's OK to be less than "nonfiction" if they entertain?


    2. I guess I'm on the fence with that question. You want the nonfiction to be "accurate" but for younger children I think it's also important to keep their attention, so if you need to have penguins "have friends" in the book, then I say that's okay. With older students, I think it needs to be more accurate.

  7. Our kids used to be hooked on videogames. We fixed that by swapping them out for audiobooks. Audiobooks are far more engaging. There are lots of sites where you can download them, but we use this one a lot because the stories are original and free. Here's the link if anyone is interested. It really helps to get them interested in reading.