Helping Students Like Nonfiction After All

(This is long but worth it, I hope. Stay with me.)

A best friend and I recently concluded that, at age twentysomething, a switch has randomly flipped in our brains, and we now love non-fiction.

This revelation is a big deal, coming from us. She works in publishing; I'm an English teacher. We both have English degrees. We both have deep appreciation for fiction in all centuries. And even though we LIKE non-fiction topics (and read books on teaching pedagogy and feminism and psychology), we used to approach non-fiction like broccoli - good for you, but not particularly enjoyable (unless there's a reward, like ranch dressing...)

Our broccoli attitude about non-fiction is also the reason why our kids don't like it.
Think about it - we have an intense literary culture surrounding fiction. When we self-identify as "readers", fiction is implied, and we're doing it while wearing literary t-shirts, quoting famous lines, and making witty allusions to see if anyone notices. We carry novels around with us, teach literature units, preach from the podium about independent reading (usually of fiction), and openly rave and recommend titles... of YA, classics, dystopia, and all other fiction.

Where is this culture for non-fiction? Where is the excitement, the praise, or the t-shirts? Where are the book talks, the posters, or the entire units spent on every facet of the book and its importance?

Instead, our non-fiction culture is only about learning, not enjoyment. It's about the Common Core (or whatever standards you want), and it's about quotas, test data, comprehension, adulthood, careers, and cross-curricular good-for-you. It's broccoli. And as a result, when my friend and I actually started giving worthwhile non-fiction a chance, as open-minded adults, our reaction was surprised enjoyment.

I propose that until we start a culture treating non-fiction like candy, instead of broccoli, then our students will continue to resist it - at arm's length, only biting if ranch dressing is all over it.

Kids just don't have the same appreciation for non-fiction that they do for fiction. That's normal, and there are reasons why. That's why I'm diving into the topic of why students don't like non-fiction in this blog post - and better yet, I give you some ideas for what to do about it!
Image source
So, here are 10 reasons why student's don't like non-fiction (in no order), followed by some ways to fix it.

Our students don't usually have... 

1. The ability to perceive benefit in the book. I pick up a teacher book because I think it will benefit me or my students. I pick up Outliers because I think it will be fascinating.

2. Enough background knowledge for enjoyment. And I don't just mean background knowledge to understand it. I'm talking about the ability to look at a book on the shelf and say, "Hey, that book about Anne Boleyn? I remember reading about the Tudors in history. Looks fun." Instead, they misjudge any history book as a textbook, or don't give the topic a chance, and that goes deeper than just judging the book by its cover.

3. Tolerance for a delayed payoff. It's not just because we have an instant gratification culture - some of these books take their sweet time to make a point. Delayed thesis statements, long chapters that culminate to their message in the last paragraph, or a book that fully delivers the significance in the last chapter (sorry, Malcolm Gladwell) are poisonous to kids who are accustomed to authors who HOOK and MAINTAIN their readers through plot.

4. The stamina for longer NF books. And SO many of them are LONG (or long enough for a struggling reader...). There's a reason why the skinny "animal books" or the "big head biographies" are so popular among my students - they're short, in a get-it-over-with kind of way.

5. High enough reading comprehension. The combination of structure, jargon, longer sentences, and THEN general vocabulary can strain even students who are at or above grade level.

6. The ability to navigate sub-genres. When we teach non-fiction types, we don't fully delve into the spectrum. We often teach what we must for research: reference types (encyclopedia, dictionary, textbook) and biography. What about pop-psychology? What about the biographies of modern, relatable people still living?

Kids just don't have the same appreciation for non-fiction that they do for fiction. That's normal, and there are reasons why. That's why I'm diving into the topic of why students don't like non-fiction in this blog post - and better yet, I give you some ideas for what to do about it!
Screenshot taken 2/20/15 from BN (Source)
7. The ability to find the WHOA factor. For a combination of reasons stated above, including stamina and perceived enjoyment/benefit, few students make it long enough to get to "the good part", and they don't even know where that will be. In fiction, we have a reliable climax to wait for, an implied promise that it will get good... eventually. Not so with non-fiction; the guarantee isn't there, and even if there is something amazing, they might miss it.

8. A community of people to read, talk about, or recommend books. Don't get me wrong - I know there are teachers putting teaching minutes into book talks and personal dollars into expanding classroom libraries. This is not an accusation. But we can't say that, as a nation, we have collectively built a fraction of the reading community that exists for fiction. And where is the non-fiction reading community strongest? In college-educated adults (and ones who like reading, no less), a niche demographic from which not all students are born.

9. The ability to mentally separate non-fiction from WORK. What happens when students open a dictionary, thesaurus, or encyclopedia? They're looking up an answer (and quickly). What happens when students read biographies? They inevitably have to write or present about the person. Reading a more contemporary work? Get ready for a book report. We've conditioned students to associate reading non-fiction with a TASK (and the stress that comes with it), so why would students chomp at the bit to pick one up for fun?

10. Excitement. Few people get openly excited when a new non-fiction book is published, or even when they finish reading a good one. We need to talk about it while oozing enthusiasm!

Kids just don't have the same appreciation for non-fiction that they do for fiction. That's normal, and there are reasons why. That's why I'm diving into the topic of why students don't like non-fiction in this blog post - and better yet, I give you some ideas for what to do about it!
Image Source
The good news? Much of this is fixable. This semester, try to... 

1. Read AND watch TED talk transcripts. Videos are one of the fastest ways to undo the perception of non-fiction reading as difficult. Start by having them read along with the video, then assign the transcript to read BEFORE playing it in class, and so on. (Click here for some premade TED materials to try.)

2. Assign a variety of articles, including longer ones. They can be connected to your current unit and current events, but don't be afraid to pick them for strictly enjoyment, too!

  • Bring more non-fiction into your lit units. Here's a free example
  • And even better, let the students find the articles! Here's a project in which students collect, read, and rank articles on a variety of topics to last all year. 
Article Superlatives: Non-Fiction Reading Competition

3. Make a to-read list, including benefits analysis. Envision a worksheet with a table of a to-read list on it, with usual columns - title, author, genre - and also a WHY column to practice thinking through what's going to be beneficial or fun about it.

4. Look at the best-seller lists. Even if they're books for adults (and beyond what your students can do), project the New York Times' list on your screen and talk to kids about what's on it (and what's out there!)

5. Recruit volunteers to read certain books. The sneakiest way to get someone to read a book is to hand a new one to a specific student and say, "I haven't read this one yet, but I trust your opinion. Will you read this for me and tell me whether or not it's any good?"

6. Make non-fiction a routine. In any format, it should be just as routine as fiction. If you need help, try my non-fiction edition of the Book of the Month program.

7. Put relevance back into reference. There's more than just dusty leather volumes! Try my reference book report to ask students to evaluate a MODERN reference book, like...

Just Write: Here's How by Walter Dean Myers
Link to Book

8. Be picky. I have a confession: I didn't love American Plague, even though it's such a good companion book for Fever 1793 and gets recommended often. Go ahead and be picky and recommend the best stuff to your students. Build that trust that when you DO recommend a book, it will be good!

9. Not assign work for every book. Some books should just get listed on a reading log and left alone to either enjoy or move on.

10. Talk about it like candy instead of broccoli. Try to stay conscious of the facial expressions, tones of voice, and word choices that you and your students use when talking about a non-fiction reading or assignment. Use your book talk voice, and get excited. If you don't, no one else will.

This post series will try to help.
In addition to the upcoming posts that will occur this week, I'm going to be posting monthly (or so) book reviews of non-fiction books that you and your students might enjoy. There will also be other free and paid resources posted.

I'd love to hear your comments - about this post, about your non-fiction teaching experiences, or book recommendations you have.

But most of all, I hope you decide to eat - and read - some broccoli. :-)

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