Dinner Before Dessert? (or, Should We Really Be Pushing for More Nonfiction Reading?)

I was in the staff lounge grabbing a cup of coffee recently. Next to the Keurig machine is a lending library. No one really runs it. People just put books on the shelf, assuming others might want to read what they are sharing. I think there is a decent amount of traffic in what is coming and going.

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Even at a glance, this collection would not be Common Core-acceptable in any classroom. Way too much fiction, and not enough informational and explanatory text.

But before I go back to the lounge and start sneaking in nonfiction books into this library, what do we see here? First, we have a lot of avid readers on our school staff. This alone is cause for celebration. Second, the books here are fairly complex texts, having read a number of them myself. In addition, this activity is independent of any requirements. As the school’s principal, I have not mandated that every staff member bring in “x” amount of books for this exchange. It just happens. It should also be noted that we have a book-a-day calendar next to the Keurig machine, as a daily recommendation for our next potential read.

I share this because of a recent article regarding the lack of nonfiction reading that is observed in today’s students. In this report, students’ reading habits and willingness to tackle complex texts start to decline after 6th grade. The journalist suggests that U.S. students will not be college and career ready at this rate, noting that “a key cornerstone of reading comprehension is vocabulary” and that “words that need to be encountered are in literature”.

What is not focused on in the article are the possible reasons as to why students are reading less once they hit secondary school. Maybe this is too simplistic in thinking, but could it be that independent reading – the time in which students are reading what they want, and often fiction – starts to go away in favor of the more traditional, departmentalized schedule? In my experience, the subject of reading is renamed “English”, “Language Arts”, or “Disciplinary Literacy” once students hit adolescence. Sounds depressing, if you ask me. No wonder kids are reading less.

Instead of assigning fiction with the blame of lower reading scores, what if we reconsider the way we promote reading in general? As an avid reader myself, I find fiction to be the gateway to a host of possibilities for reading in other areas. The thinking required for some of the novels I choose is deep, comprehensive, and often demanding of a second perspective. These inquiries naturally lead to book clubs, where a reader can share questions and become a better reader than they were before. Deep and complex thinking, asking questions, seeking new information…these strategies are the same that we demand of learners tackling nonfiction.

So if fiction is more than fluff, in comparison to the “rigor” of nonfiction, what are the implications for literacy instruction? It is much easier to teach anyone how to do anything when they are engaged in the process of actually doing it. We are giving them a taste of what is possible. Dangling dessert in front of our kids so they will eat their supper might work at the dinner table. But for more complex activities such as lifelong reading, we should reconsider our approach.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

5 thoughts on “Dinner Before Dessert? (or, Should We Really Be Pushing for More Nonfiction Reading?)”

  1. I completely agree with you about the choices we ask kids to make during independent reading times. I have, for years allowed my students to make their own choices about the books they read at this time (many need my guidance to choose a proper level). I teach grade 2/3, and by allowing my students their own choice, instead of asking them to read from the “level G bin”(Fountas and Pinnell) they can begin to realize the wide variety of books available to them. Asking kids to read from selected bins of preselected texts is phony- that’s not how anyone who goes to the library or book store would choose a book. We need to guide our students to make book choices that they would be interested in and in turn, we will help them to enjoy reading and go deeper into the topics they enjoy. My students are far more engaged when they choose their own books.

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  2. Independent reading has always been a part of my classroom at the secondary level. I always tell my students that one of my goals is for students to know what they like and what kinds of reading appeal to them without being told what they HAVE to read.

    If someday they find themselves stuck in an airport on a layover, I want them to be able to know what kind of book would interest them at an airport book store. I want them to be life-long readers and be able to know how to choose a book, and know what they like.

    Just as important is knowing what they DON’T like. I give my students permission to abandon a book if they choose a book that they don’t enjoy. For some reason, students are under the assumption that if they choose an independent reading book, and get a couple chapters in and realize it is not for them, they must torture themselves until they finish. Giving them permission to abandon the book and try something different encourages students to take a risk and try a title they may not normally select. Once and awhile, I will have a student become a “chronic book-abandoner”, but it’s rare. If that happens, I make an “appointment” for them with our librarian where they get to go in and get one-on-one attention from our librarian (or library aide) who will help that student find something that fits their taste.

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    1. Cara, it sounds like you really know your students as readers. Thank you for sharing your process for building lifelong literacy skills in your classroom.

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