Nonfiction in the Early Grades: A Key to Reading Success
Nell Duke (2000) became famous for her research-based article entitled “3.6 Minutes per Day: The Scarcity of Informational Texts in First Grade.” In this study of 20 schools in 10 U.S. districts, she discovered that in first grade, only 3.6 minutes per day were dedicated to reading informational text and that a scant 10% of books in classroom libraries were informational. She made the point clearly and convincingly that reading and writing informational text is critical in this information age.
In the years following this study, the United States has made enormous advances. The Common Core State Standards, now adopted by 42 out of 50 states, expects a 50-50 balance of fiction and nonfiction text use in reading. More nonfiction is being published. In 2008, Barbara Moss found that 40% of California-adopted basal readers could be classified as nonfiction, a significant increase over earlier studies.
However, on an international scale, we often fail to provide nonfiction books and reading instruction. In developing countries, readers in early grades tend to have very limited choices for appropriate nonfiction, whether in a school, a library or a book store. Many book repositories do not include a basic collection of nonfiction books. Additionally, education organizations that produce children’s books continue to focus on the development of fictional text.
Nonfiction has a distinct importance in reading education, in supporting student comprehension, for making school relevant and for empowering learners in developing country contexts.
Why should we care? Here are 7 reasons you should care about nonfiction.
1. Nonfiction prepares kids for later grades and the information age.
Nonfiction becomes increasingly important to students as they progress through school, and it represents the vast majority of adult usage. For children to read and learn from nonfiction books they must be exposed to nonfiction regularly, and just as importantly, they need to learn the unique features of expository text. One key feature of expository text that can be learned is text structures, such as “compare and contrast” or “cause and effect.” Once learned, these structures help children process new information. Expository writing communicates more information in shorter sentences, and comfort with this writing style is important for learning from textbooks. And while many primary grade literacy teachers are less familiar with nonfiction instruction, there is ample research on how to incorporate it into lessons in ways that children enjoy (see Dreher & Kletzien, 2015, for some great ideas).
2. Nonfiction is an important resource for children of low socio-economic status.
Duke (2000) and others have found that children of lower socio-economic status are disproportionately under-exposed to informational text, which could partly explain stubborn achievement gaps. Background knowledge can be a particular challenge for children of low socio-economic status (Neuman, 2006). Lack of background knowledge is a major barrier to reading, and to participation in subjects across the curriculum. Informational text provides new knowledge (think science, history and math!), supports the development of new concepts and enables readers to develop more diverse reading comprehension strategies. Instruction may employ both teacher read-alouds of nonfiction and students’ own reading of nonfiction.
3. Nonfiction bursts with rich vocabulary.
Vocabulary knowledge is key to academic achievement, comprehension and general ability to speak, read and write. Nonfiction text integrates vocabulary in an accurate and natural manner. While this vocabulary can be complicated, as in textbooks about geology, it is also possible to integrate correct terms into fun books for children. For example, such vocabulary appears in books that focus on daily phenomena like cloud formation, local pottery and the habits of desert animals. Children easily absorb new words, and nonfiction has a special role to play in both learning words and connecting those words to related concepts.
4. Language learners can do well with nonfiction.
In developing countries, children are often challenged to learn new languages and function academically in languages that are not their mother tongue. Second language learning is enhanced when the subject of reading and discussion is concrete and oral interactions are scaffolded. Nonfiction books provide realistic pictures to talk about, and should be locally contextualized, aiding pupils to use both familiar and concrete schema to connect what they know in their native language to words in the new language.
5. Nonfiction connects children with their world.
Children everywhere have “funds or knowledge,” or simply put, a wealth of experience, before they start school. Most of it is from real life—for example, listening to parents at the market, participating in ceremonies and celebrations, taking animals to graze, and watching the river eat away a farmer’s land. Nonfiction can connect children with the world around them. Fun and exciting nonfiction links to children’s informal experiences, give children accurate vocabulary to describe what they see, deepens conceptions about the why and how, and extend what they know into the unknown. If you have seen how a local house is built, then why not learn how building a skyscraper is the same and different?
6. Life-improving information and voice is enabled by nonfiction.
Children in many contexts are faced with difficult situations and choices (displacement, hunger, corporal punishment or a heavy burden of chores and sibling care). Informational text can give children strategies to improve their health and safety. Text with analysis and argument can give students a new perspective and allow them to begin to explore ways to improve their situation. As Malala rightfully expressed, the voice of children armed with information and a firm grasp of their context can be a powerful force for change.
7. Nonfiction motivates reading.
Did you ever wonder “Why”? All of us do, and it starts early. Why don’t snakes have legs? Why do the rains come at the same time each year? Despite the adult misconception that kids are only interested in fantastical worlds, many children are awed by their own world and have a deep thirst for information. Research confirms that when adults show they care about nonfiction, and students have good quality books, many girls and boys prefer it to fiction, and most children want to read both.
I hope I’ve convinced you of the critical role that nonfiction books and instruction play in preparing students for academics, livelihoods and personal realization. So, I would encourage you to consider the question: Do you have a nonfiction blind spot? You would not be the first or the last. But you can do something about it! Develop titles, research existing nonfiction books (including expository books) that are appropriate for your context, categorize your book collection into fiction and nonfiction text types, educate others about benefits and types of nonfiction and share best practices in producing or designing instruction for nonfiction. Working together, we can find new and better ways to tap into children’s innate curiosity, expose them to wonders of the world through reading and prepare them to participate in and benefit from the fast-paced information age.
For more information on nonfiction resources or comments on this piece, please contact Emily Miksic: [email protected]
Emily Miksic is a Literacy Technical Advisor at FHI 360. She focuses on improving reading education in the classroom and related education systems. FHI 360 is a nonprofit human development organization, with programs and expertise spanning all sectors of human development across 70 countries. FHI 360’s expertise includes a robust literacy practice area, with current and recent programming in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Europe. Learn more about FHI 360.
Dreher, M. J. & Kletzien, S. B. (2015). Teaching informational text in K-3 classrooms: Best practices to help children read, write, and learn from nonfiction. New York: Guilford Press.
Duke, N. (2000). “3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade.” Reading Research Quarterly, 35(2), 202-224.
Moss, B. (2008). “The information text gap: The mismatch between non-narrative text types in basal readers and 2009 NAEP recommended guidelines.” Journal of Literacy Research, 40, 201–219.
Ness, M. (2011). “Teachers’ Use of and Attitudes Toward Informational Text in K-5 Classrooms.” Reading Psychology, 32(1), 28-53.
Neuman, S. B. (2006). “The knowledge gap: Implications for early education.” In D. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. II, pp. 29-40). New York: Guilford.