The Magic of Nonfiction

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I’ve been on the waiting list for Mary Roach’s new book for months.  So long, I actually had forgotten I preordered it until it appeared on my iBooks shelf.  I had gotten lost in summer and fiction, discovering the universe with Aristotle and Dante, gifting the sun with teenage twins, and feeling the pull and pain of home alongside Ifemelu.

The newest release by one of my favorite nonfiction authors. She aptly shares the whisperings of stories untold.

The newest release by one of my favorite nonfiction authors. She aptly shares the whisperings of stories untold.

However, when Grunt: The Curious Science of  Humans at War finally popped onto my shelf,  I couldn’t resist peeking in to the first few chapters, and Mary Roach didn’t disappoint.  With an opening detailing the chicken gun, Roach began pulling me into the world of military science.  A world where “quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic” abound, and “scientists and surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping” are left to design ways to keep people alive, not kill them.  This lesser told version of military science already had me entranced, as great nonfiction is known to do.

I wasn’t always a nonfiction fan; I firmly planted my feet in the realm of fiction if the truth be told. I would push through nonfiction, but I didn’t ever enjoy it, not fully until some of my KHS colleagues helped shift my attitude.  Nonfiction texts like Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain  and Roach’s Stiff  began appearing on my desk.  My access to high quality nonfiction changed, and with it, my attitude.

Attitude and Access

Lucy Calkins, in her Guide to the Reading Workshop for Intermediate Grades, discusses the cropped-shutterstock_86389951power of attitude and access in Chapter 13 “The Special Importance of Nonfiction Reading.”  She urges us to “consider…ways to support reading nonfiction that allow students to see nonfiction reading as a magical way to pursue their own quirky personal interests, hobbies, and passions” (126).  We also need to fill our shelves with irresistible nonfiction texts (see her ideas for texts on 127) and share our own readerly lives as we explore topics of our own interests with nonfiction/informational texts.

If we want our students to be avid readers of nonfiction, Calkins reminds us of the power of choice in texts, pace, and conversation.  If students can choose the books they read (even within some constraints), proceed at a pace that allows them to make meaning, and have a chance to teach one another, talk through confusing parts, or to share notes and questions, they will like nonfiction more.  (See the anchor charts “Ways Partners Talk About Nonfiction” and “To Teach Well” on 130 and 131.)

Matching Readers to Texts

Studying text complexity in nonfiction will make us just as adept at matching readers to nonfiction texts as we are pairing readers with engaging fiction texts.  It can also help us better identify the puzzles nonfiction texts present as they become more complex.  Calkins recommends collecting a “ladder of nonfiction texts representing increasing difficulties and study[ing] for yourself what makes one more challenging than another” (128).

Strands of Challenges


Another resource for matching readers to increasingly complex texts

However, Calkins gives us a guide for our study in Chapter 5 of Reading Pathways,  when she highlights the following strands of challenges readers face as nonfiction texts increase in difficulty:

  • the explicitness and complexity of meaning/central ideas/and/or author’s purpose
  • language/vocabulary
  • structure (including text features)
  • knowledge demands

Skimming the chart describing these strands (70-72) and the visuals that explore each topic further (72-83) helps us anticipate the work readers do as they climb the ladders of complex thinking and complex texts. Coaching students to do this kind of heavy lifting in texts will be made easier with the prompts Calkins offers (in both the text and online resources for Chapter 5), which provide language for students as they work on exploring main ideas, structure, language and vocabulary in a range of texts.


Cultivating a Thriving Workshop

With all of these puzzles presented in nonfiction texts, how do we help students grow their thinking and tackle more complex texts over time? (Guide to the Reading Workshop for Intermediate Grades, 129-133)

  • help students build their background knowledge by reading “easy” texts on the topic that will teach the vocabulary and concepts needed to better understand more complex texts
  • organize your classroom libraries in ways that allow students to “read up and down” a topic (Guide to the Reading Workshop for Intermediate Grades, 129)
  • encourage students to read for longer stretches of time before pausing to take notes
  • ask students to talk about what they’re learning from nonfiction
  • expect students to preview texts to set their expectations for reading
  • use scaffolding to support what students can almost do independently, not what is far out of reach
  • listen for students embracing complexities of texts instead of oversimplifying them
  • give students reasons to read closely: gathering information for a debate, synthesizing information from a variety of sources, studying craft and structure from a writer’s view


Your Turn

How will you help students better embrace the magic of nonfiction this year?