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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Vocabulary Drill

What Does "Commercial" Mean?

This question came up when Marina, my wife, was reading an article in the Times with our 8 year old son Sasha. Marina was trying a technique that her public school teacher had used in second grade — selecting one Times piece a week to read with her kids. The articles are chosen not so much for content as to introduce kids to the thinking, argument, and writing style of a good newspaper. I was pleased that Sasha knew the term "eligible" from our talks about sports (a "tackle eligible" play in football), but we noticed he struggled with other words such as "divert," "dwarfed," "concept," and when we asked him what "commercial" meant he was sure he knew: the ads for cereals toys and cars he seens on TV. He was not wrong, but, of course, only partially right. 

Seeing Sasha’s unfamiliarity with these terms brought something home to both of us: while fiction introduces kids to new words, to fine writing, to rich forms of storytelling, non-fiction adds another key piece to kids’ education. Nonfiction demands context. To make sense of the real world, whether in science, or social studies, kids need to know the relevant terms, concepts, and structures. Popular culture embeds kids in a grid of its own — from the texting vocabulary we discussed here to real skills in manipulating digital enivornments. But all of that is, as I’ve said, horizontal knowledge. Nonfiction forces you to grapple with the real world, with the past.

When teachers or librarians steer young people away from nonfiction, when teachers avoid challenge and focus on a standard average, we leave kids adrift in popular culture — we create a ghost generation. If we want to prevent our children from being ecotoplasmic students, floating in the streams of the present, we have to give them the foundation, the flesh and blood, the roots that come from context, from nonfiction. I have said, and will say again, nonfiction is a pleasure, not a duty. Thinking is fun. But nonfiction is also a necessity. It is the soil our children need to grow.


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I think you build a broader understanding of a word through every sort of incoming material. It can be through a novel, through a newspaper article, or through an animated cartoon. That your 8-year-old did not know multiple definitions of a particular word is indeed because he had not yet encountered many of them. But he could still encounter them in a novel as easily as a work of nonfiction. Or through a science experiment. Or through something a teacher told him at school. Or at a museum. Or when playing Lego with his friends. There are a myriad of ways that knowledge comes to children, that children develop their word banks. Nonfiction is one of them, but not the only one.

  2. Monica Edinger says:

    Rereading your post and my comment, I want to make clear my real point — that context may be as necessary for those other forms as in nonfiction. That is, I don’t agree that nonfiction necessarily “demands context.” Lots of it is pure information without any presumption that the reader know anything previously about it. So some material (fiction, nonfiction, etc) requires the person taking it in to know something about it (context) and some doesn’t.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    sure, but the problem that posters have been identifiying here is teachers and librarians who steer kids away from nonfiction. Adults who enhance learning in many ways are terrific, those who rely on fiction are, well, limited.