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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Opportunity, and Challenge, of the Nonfiction Literacy Standard

The best news in the nonfiction universe in recent years has been on the Prize front — first the creation of the Sibert, then the YA NF award, and last year the first NF book to win the National Book Award in the young readers’ category. But this year came word that could be even better — the fact that the new national core standards include literacy in nonfiction as part of the English Language Arts strand in upper elementary school. We’d all long noticed the gap between the writing challenges given to those students — the research essay, the example of persuasive writing with supporting facts — and the classrom (and in fact library) focus on fiction as both assignment and pleasure reading. So now the education world is catching up and noticing that if we want kids to write good nonfiction, if we want to them recognize what nonfiction is, how it works, how it does what it does, we need to offer them the experience of reading good nonfiction.

But — here is the challenge: nonfiction is most often expensive, individual, hardcover books. Classroom sets of cheap paperback novels are easy to come by. Indeed — and I would argue this is part of the possible answer — every elementary classroom I’ve visited has rows of unread and unloved Social Studies textbooks sitting on the shelves. Surely they cost a chunk of change. So schools do what they can — they use databases, they use magazine articles — I featured Storyworks here. there is Time for Kids, and more. These are cheap, current, easy to use with kids and ….they are not books.

Authors, editors, publishers, librarians, teachers — we need to think about how to break out of this box. If we want kids to read engaging, well-crafted nonfiction that has a beginning, middle, and end, that introduces young readers to how to read, write, and, most importantly, think with nonfiction (which is precisely what the Core Standards require) then we have to find a way to give them whole books to read. This does mean rethinking the match of time and topic. In other words, a short article can fit with a one period class. A book takes more time to read than the teacher has to devote to its topic. Kids reading a really good book on Tree frongs may now be on the Weather, or a great book on the Boston Tea Party, are surely up to Westerward Expansion. The teacher has to separate topic and treatment — you read the book to experience the journey of the book, the symphony, how the author has gently lead you from here to there — the surprises the author offers, the way the author employs art, maps, quotations –evidence — to convince and guide you even as s/he is telling a story.

How about this — what if some clever service offered teachers a set of paperback books clustered around the scope and sequence of a school year. In other words five copies of a good book on Age of Exploration; Five on Colonial; Five on the Am Rev — and so on. The teacher now has enough to create a core reading experience around each key moment, the books are cheap, and the teacher is guaranteed “coverage.” The class would no longer have a textbook at all,but the bookseller would provide the teacher with all of the kinds of scaffolding she gets from the textbook — the ancillary materials. Kids gets books actually meant to be read. The teacher gets both content and literacy, and she has all of the tools she needs.   That’s what I’d like to see.


  1. Marc, this is a brilliant idea! And it makes me wonder: what would happen if a classroom set consisted of multiple copies of, say, three DIFFERENT books by three different authors on the same subject/theme? ( It’s similar to what I did when I was in the 8th-grade classroom. It was great fun to lead a whole class discussion on a theme, despite the different books/authors and fascinating to read the essays.) –Susan

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I have heard of teachers doing something like that — with the subtle idea that the different books are at slightly different reading levels, so the whole class can read about a subject, but in books that present different reading challenges. But of course that then leans towards the Lexile, while your idea has the appeal of showing different POV, different approaches, in how the authors treat the subjects. That points to another issue — in a way a library can assume it has a subject “covered” if it has a book on it. But you are pointing to just the opposite — the library needs a range of books that look at a subject in different ways, through different lenses, with different authorial views. “Coverage” — is not a list of facts — databases can do that. Rather it is opening up that area to the debate, argument, and expression of differing views by differing authors — how great would that be?

  3. Wow! What an exciting vision for teaching history. Looking through different lenses.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    that is what history is — that is what it must be — different ways to questioning, figuring out, making sense of, interpreting who we are and how we got that way — what could be more exciting?

  5. Shirley Budhos says:

    As a former college, high school, and middle school teacher with brief “appearances” in elementary school, and now retired, I see this is a 3-part challenge: One is to get teachers with different disciplines to communicate, plan, and share materials. For example, those teaching Social Studies (called history in my school days) and English (now Communication Arts) could select printed matter & assignments to encourage critical reading and thinking.

    Second, I’m afraid what I’ve seen in teaching the research papers or anything resembling scholarly research is truly lacking, because many teachers assume that students know how to cope with the process, such as examining the structure of the book for research, taking relevant notes, organizing the notes, writing to support a theme/hypothesis, and using writing skills/quotes/attributions, etc. As for paraphrasing, I suspect it’s a lost art. Copy and paste have replaced these skills.

    I used to plan the writing of their (research) papers in steps, and devote a portion of each classroom meeting to discuss skills & techniques students had to master, In college, and often in high school, the teacher/professor is the only person to read students’ research papers; instead, I’d devote time for students to exchange their papers, work in teams or groups to share their mighty effort.

    As for teachers’ exchange of units of books, years ago when Norbert Frye published a unique collection containing different periods in history/literature, I recommended purchasing these soft covered books. The school librarian, as well as the chairperson recommended using 1 of the books, which was very sad, for a year’s work could have been based on Frye’s resources, and they would have encouraged students to explore related works by other writers.

    As for working with Social Studies teachers to strengthen students writing skills, their attitude was that they had limited time to cover their curriculum, and, of course, inevitably, the essays and term papers students wrote were discouraging. And, as you wrote, non-fiction boks collected dust, because students focused on required reading &, taking tests.

    On another note: To have publishers/distributors respond to classroom needs, teachers must take the initiative. Long before post colonial literature was published in the US (and I had purchased many, of course, in London where Heinemann prospered), I’d visit, write, and “nag” those who made decisions about school purchases, In NY at the where I taught I’d attend book promotions by publishers/distributors and speak to representatives alerting them that there was a market for paperbacks by Achebe, and others, and I’d even show them copies printed overseas. I’d also bring a list I recommended for high school students. As a result, I introduced a course on such writing This was in the 80s), and again, I provided my students, and Social Studies’ colleagues with non-fiction references.

    Third: Using magazines is essential, and asking students to bring in specific magazines (for non-fiction purposes) would make for interesting dialogues. Don’t some news magazines offer special rates for teachers and students/ Keeping copies visible in the classroom means that students would realize their importance, especially when printed reports of an event were compared.

    Now, all that can be accomplished by using computers, for all the information and aids are there and it takes a few people to pull it together, as you suggest. Urging a publisher or several publishers to work towards “increasing business” by providing recommended groups of books for classroom use is the way to go. But, those working at schools who have the power and responsibility to purchase books/supplies must be included in this endeavor. Spread the word..

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    I’m all for spreading the word to any administrators or district supervisors who may be reading along.

  7. I agree, Marc. As Shirley and you point out so well, such an approach could have amazing cross implications for reading and writing — as well as in the “traditional” nonfiction areas of social studies and the sciences. It’s already there in the Language Arts and traditional English classrooms, where teachers use nonfiction texts as works of literature (and rightly so). I hope administrators and district supervisors are reading along.