By Brent Gilson
When I was a kid I did not spend a lot of time reading novels. The occasional Choose Your Own Adventure would be thrown into the backpack to read at home but generally, I was a reader of nonfiction. My grandpa was an avid bird watcher. I remember going to visit and just thumbing through his collection of books learning about the species of birds that would frequent his yard. I have the clearest memory of my other grandparents giving me these little binders full of fact files on different animals, I toted that around with me everywhere. The Komodo Dragon file was my favourite. My earliest Scholastic Book Fair memory is buying this sweet dinosaur book and giving out the stickers to my friends. Spending time learning about ecosystems in this giant book full of beautiful art and fold-out pages is another memory that I can picture as clear as it was yesterday.
The librarian at my school often had to remind me to return the Arms and Armour (Canadian not a spelling mistake) book. I think I checked it out more than any other book in elementary school. I would study the different swords of different areas and their armour. I would imagine what the battles could be like. I was not limited to facts; nonfiction books were the passport to imagination for me in those early years. I wrote stories of knights battling dragons, I studied their swords. These nonfiction texts jump started my fiction reading. They were more accessible, more engaging to the young reader than just pages of text. Beyond that, I learned. I built background knowledge of history and the world. In a time when disinformation is at an all-time high arming our kids with knowledge as they enter the world should be a top priority of teaching and utilizing nonfiction text provides a structure that is both engaging and informative.
As a middle school and high school teacher, I have noticed a decline in the drive to consume nonfiction that my elementary students had. I imagine it is a combination of the “I know it all” attitude the teenagers often proudly display and the fact that with academically heavier courses they no longer see non-fiction as an escape. Either way I want to get back into nonfiction in my classroom and after last Thursday’s chat, I know Five Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books by Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia provides a wonderful structure to get teachers started.
We ask our authors to reflect on three questions that will offer readers insight for their thinking. Melissa and Marlene respond to our first question:
What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?
MS: As a children’s book writer, I developed the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system for myself. I hoped that if I could get a stronger sense of the breadth of the nonfiction market, I might have better luck crafting the kind of writing publishers were looking for.
When I shared the system on my blog in 2017, the response was tremendous. To date, that post has received more than 500,000 hits.
At first, I was surprised that the system resonated with so many people, but then I began to see its broader uses in a school setting. The table below from p. 49 of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, highlights that different categories can be used in specific ways during literacy and content-area instruction:
So that’s one of the book’s main messages. When students are familiar with the characteristics of the five categories, they can predict the kind of information they’re likely to find in a book and how that information will be presented. And that understanding can help them identify the best books for a particular purpose as well as the kind(s) of nonfiction they enjoy reading most.
MC: For me it was a realization over 15 years ago during a professional development workshop, where I was asked to list all the texts I had read recently. I quickly came to the realization that most of what I read and used was nonfiction (news articles, professional journals, recipes, etc.) That’s when I first began thinking about my own classroom collection of books and how few nonfiction titles were available. But, at first, I didn’t think my students would really want to read nonfiction. I was convinced, as many educators are, that they preferred fiction and stories.
I conducted a small-scale action research study that proved my assumptions wrong. I had students in my class choosing nonfiction over fiction at the library every week. From then on, I took a more deliberate approach, and my own interest and love for nonfiction expanded. I met Melissa, was impressed by her work as a researcher and author, and the rest is history.
My hope is that other educators and librarians will use more nonfiction, from all 5 kinds, in their instruction and in their book collections.
Melissa and Marlene give us more insight with the second question:
What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?
MS & MC: Many educators have a natural love of stories and storytelling. They fill their classroom libraries with fiction and focus their literacy instruction on stories because they assume that kids feel the same way.
But as these charts show, many children think differently. They prefer expository nonfiction—writing that explains, describes, or informs in a straightforward way.
How can you transform these info-loving kids into passionate, motivated readers? Hand them an expository nonfiction book on a topic they find fascinating. Marlene created this terrific Book Match Survey to help teachers, librarians, and parents do just that.
To show students that your honor and respect all books and all reading, be sure to include all 5 kinds of nonfiction as well as fiction in literacy and content-area instruction. Read nonfiction aloud. Feature it in book talks, book clubs, and whole-school activities. 5 Kinds of Nonfiction provides tips, tools, and strategies to help you share and celebrate nonfiction with students.
In our final question, Melissa and Marlene give us a sense of direction:
What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?
MS: It’s so important to meet students where they are in terms of their natural reading preferences. Once they have a solid foundation, they’ll develop the confidence to stretch and grow and blossom as readers. They’ll begin to explore new topics, new formats, new writing styles, new genres. It’s exciting to support students on this journey.
MC: Nonfiction has the potential to deepen student learning, fuel their interests, and cultivate their curiosity about the world. All students can LOVE reading! It takes getting the right book, in the right hands at the right time.
Nonfiction on Display: Melissa Stewart Dishes on the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction
Thanks to Melissa and Marlene for sharing their thinking about 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. Check it out as you consider what kinds of texts you are reading. You may surprise yourself.