Nonfiction is too often underrepresented in English/language arts classrooms, even though it’s “never been more vibrant or vital” for young people.
That’s according to a new position statement by the National Council of Teachers of English. The professional organization brought together 10 people—including teacher educators, teachers, and nonfiction authors—to write the statement, which was released Thursday and includes a list of recommendations to expand the use of nonfiction in ELA instruction.
The statement proposes a “paradigm shift” for reading and writing instruction, which often prioritizes fiction. When nonfiction is taught, it often is presented through basic online texts and basal readers—volumes of selected texts used to teach reading—both of which, the NCTE statement argues, lack the richness of nonfiction literature.
“When you hear nonfiction, you think of an article,” said Kari Johnston, a 5th grade dual language teacher at Perez Elementary School in Austin, Texas, and an author of the position statement. “And that’s one version, but I’ve come to see the different ways and modals and styles nonfiction can take.”
The NCTE statement posits that teachers are unaware of the vast body of nonfiction literature—which can encompass memoirs, essays, informational texts, literary or narrative journalism, and more—because many states don’t require prospective teachers to take courses in children’s and young adult literature in their teacher-preparation programs. Awards and lists for notable fiction are more prominent and publicized than their nonfiction counterparts. (NCTE has an annual award for outstanding nonfiction for children.)
Also, the increasing lack of school librarians and media specialists, especially in under-resourced schools, makes it harder for teachers to access high-quality nonfiction.
The point of the position statement is “not to advocate for the use of nonfiction at the exclusion of others,” said Xenia Hadjioannou, an associate professor of language and literacy education at Penn State Berks and a lead author of the position statement.
“Ideally,” she added, nonfiction “should be part of text sets, where you explore a topic through diverse texts that are structured and presented in a way that makes sense, that guides student thinking forward; ... [in a way] that follows their interests and the nuances of a topic that are important to different students.”
A perennial debate with a complex history
How to expand the use of nonfiction in the classroom has long been a debate in the literacy community, the position statement authors said.
“There was a call through the common core to more than double [the amount of nonfiction taught] in particular grades more than a decade ago, yet the practice still lags,” said Emily Kirkpatrick, the executive director of NCTE. “So what is going on?”
The Common Core Standard Standards, unveiled in 2010 and at one point used in more than 40 states, said in elementary school, half of what students read should be literature and the other half should be informational texts, such as essays and nonfiction books. The balance should gradually skew toward informational texts, and by 12th grade, 70 percent of what students read should be nonfiction.
During implementation, some ELA teachers complained that they had to drop beloved works of literature from their curricula to make room for nonfiction. While advocates of the standards argued that fiction was still a bulwark of the common core, the reality on the ground was messier.
The authors of the NCTE position statement insist they have no interest in rehashing that debate. Mary Ann Cappiello, a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University’s graduate school of education and a lead author of the statement, said she doesn’t want to perpetuate a “false dichotomy” between fiction and nonfiction because ultimately, “young people need a rich diet of all genres.”
Rather than prescribing a certain ratio, Cappiello said she’d rather teachers be aware of high-quality nonfiction texts and know when and how to incorporate them into their curricula.
Added Hadjioannou: “It’s not an either/or, it’s not, ‘This is better than fiction, so you shouldn’t be doing fiction,’ but it’s more about expanding the repertoire and the understanding of what spaces could be found within the day” to introduce nonfiction.
6 ways to incorporate more nonfiction
NCTE’s position statement includes six recommendations for teachers to expand the use of nonfiction in the classroom. They are:
1. Support and encourage students to choose nonfiction books during independent reading. Johnston said that when she first started teaching, her classroom library had a giant selection of fiction—and a single box of informational texts.
“But then as I’ve known my students, I realized you have to have a library that’s robust with tons of different interests,” she said. “My students are multifaceted; they have a million different interests—we have to have books that make them want to read.”
2. Use nonfiction literature in reading instruction. Nonfiction books help students build content knowledge, expand their vocabulary, and experience different perspectives, making it “ideal” for teaching reading, NCTE says.
Other reading experts have recommended nonfiction books for struggling older readers. Those texts can strike a good balance between having sophisticated, high-interest content and relatively simple sentences.
3. Incorporate nonfiction in writing instruction. ELA teachers should consider using nonfiction as their mentor texts, as they can also provide examples of strong writing and figurative language, Hadjioannou and Cappiello said.
Also, early-grade teachers often assign memoir-type writing that focuses on student’s personal experiences and feeling. But having them write about the content they’re learning or the world around them is an effective way to boost both students’ performance in writing and in other subjects.
The NCTE authors said assigning nonfiction expository writing in early grades helps improve students’ research skills and capitalizes on their interests. For example, Johnston said one of her students is obsessed with dinosaurs and willingly writes “pages and pages of information” about paleontology.
“Children are humans with interests, with fascinations,” Hadjioannou said. “They’re very curious about the world, and they’re eager to share that knowledge.”
4. Use nonfiction books to teach media literacy and research skills. These types of texts can help students develop the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate sources, the NCTE authors said.
“It really allows for deep thinking in really developmentally appropriate ways,” Cappiello said.
5. Use nonfiction books to support ‘visual literacy.’ These days, many nonfiction books are beautifully illustrated or feature powerful photographs. Johnston said she also loves introducing students to graphic memoirs, like When Stars Are Scattered, the story of two Somali boys growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya.
The NCTE statement says that teachers can use texts like these to teach students how images can “frame information, shape perspectives, and represent points of view.”
6. Diversify the curriculum with nonfiction books. Teachers can use nonfiction literature to provide students with multiple perspectives and worldviews, the NCTE statement says. Rather than positioning one text as a single source of information, teaching multiple books on the same topic can help students ask questions about whose story is being told—and whose is missing.
Also, “books that show people as children who become adults who make changes” can be really powerful, Cappiello said.
Hadjioannou said those types of biographies can help students recognize that influential people are “not superhumans"—they’re people who make mistakes and face obstacles, just like children today.