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A Case for Nonfiction

Growing up with dyslexia, reading was difficult for me. The condition is genetic, so when my daughter was born, I was afraid she was destined to share my reading problems. I worried. As soon as possible, her mother and I plunged into teaching her to read so that she could have the best possible start with literacy.

As early as six weeks old, we read to her every day. We knew the drill: start young, read regularly, make it fun, and discuss the book. When my daughter was five, I began an eight-year, part-time journey to earn my PhD in education. More specifically, I studied literacy. This is when I discovered my big “oops.” I didn’t realize that what I read to my daughter mattered, particularly since we were reading so much. I had no idea just how much book genre matters. As it turns out, learning to read and interpret nonfiction is an important literacy skill. Children should read a wide variety of book genres including science, nature, and history.

Sure, we read folktales, storybooks, alphabet books, and even the occasional children’s poem. Dr. Seuss, P. D. Eastman, and the Olivia books were favorites. My daughter had a generous book collection and we were regulars at the library. Missing, however, were books about space, geography, and the natural world; we were falling short on nonfiction books.

Increasingly, evidence shows that using a wide variety of styles and types of books, especially nonfiction books, helps children prepare for school by strengthening their literacy foundations. Nonfiction books expose children to a broad range of vocabulary and build background knowledge. They are not just different because of the topic; the language is different, both in vocabulary and structure.

Here it may be important to be clear about what I mean by fiction and nonfiction. In my research, I look at books which are strongly contrasting in terms of genre. Fiction is considered the product of the author’s imagination and is always told in story form. Conversely, nonfiction tells the facts on a topic and never does so in story form. Of course, in the real world, these distinctions blur, a point eloquently made by the Horn Book’s “How Do You Solve a Problem like Nonfiction?” article. Despite the myriad of exceptions, I maintain the distinction because it is the contrast that benefits children’s literacy. 

In its common form, fiction is written as a narrative. Events happen in time order and it uses verbs in the present or past tense. Without much effort, children learn this form. They understand how stories work and expect a beginning, middle, and end. Nonfiction books, most frequently, do it differently.

Nonfiction books are generally organized according to topic, and verbs tend to be timeless — that is, the verbs describe characteristics that are true for the past, present, and future.  Also, articles such as “a” or “the” can be missing. As an example, a firefighter might fight a fire in a story (present tense verb followed by an article), but in a nonfiction text, firefighters fight fires (timeless verb without a subsequent article). In the nonfiction example, fighting fires is characteristic of firefighters and is meant to apply simultaneously to the past, present, and future. In other words, the fire fighters have put out fires in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

While this subtle difference may not seem important, a convincing body of evidence suggests otherwise. Researchers have shown that when children read two texts that are on the same reading level, they struggle more with nonfiction texts than with the fictional texts. Each genre has its own structure. Vocabulary changes as does writing style. Each of these factors complicates a child’s understanding of the text. However, with exposure, these challenges fall away, especially in early childhood when children are highly adaptive.

In the long run, an early exposure to multiple genres could impact school, work, and life. Exposing children to a wide variety of nonfiction texts may help inoculate them against future school failure. Jeanne Chall, a luminary in the field of reading, suggested that children struggle with the transition from reading fiction to reading textbooks. Early exposure, between the ages of one and six, may be important in preventing some common reading problems for school-aged kids.

Nonfiction books have additional benefits. My research (Baldwin and Morrow, 2019) and research from Price, Bradley, and Smith (2012) along with others, find that parents and children interact more with nonfiction books. Children ask more and better questions. They generally make more out of the reading experience in ways that support literacy development. Moreover, some children will read more if given nonfiction books. Perhaps this is because nonfiction answers children’s real-world questions and helps them understand their day-to-day experience.

Unfortunately, most parents just don’t know that they should include nonfiction. One study by sisters Ruth Helen Yopp and Hallie Kay Yopp (2006) found that only 7% of books read by a selection of kindergarten parents were nonfiction. Parents are generally unaware of the importance of nonfiction books, and my own research shows that some parents simply prefer storybooks. Fancy Nancy may be entertaining and even educational, but kids also need the chance to find out about the planets, wildlife, and firefighters.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for the end of stories. Stories are great and are essential for children learning to read. Instead, I am saying that we, as parents, can do better by including a lot more nonfiction. A variety of genres is key to accessing fuller literacy development.

The clarion call has gone out to educators around the country due to state literacy standards, but parents haven’t been included. The next advance in children’s literacy may not be found in schools, but with families in the homes. With the coronavirus pandemic, many parents find themselves teaching their children at home. More and more of the education burden is falling on the family. High-quality nonfiction books do a lot to spark children’s interest in reading, teach them about their world, and prepare them for school.

 Give your child a great start with literacy. Add a healthy dose of great nonfiction to your reading routine.

For more, click the tag Nonfiction.

Charles Baldwin

Dr. Baldwin is an associate professor of education and director of the masters of arts and teaching program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He studies the impact of genre on shared book reading.

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Margaret Robson Kett

So many times in my library career, a parent would lament aloud that a child, usually male, "wasn't reading." I would look over into the non-fiction shelves to see that child cross-legged, absorbed in a huge book about their favourite subject. I learned to ask, "Do you mean they're not reading novels? Reading is reading is reading."

Posted : Aug 23, 2020 10:06

Chica McCabe

A well written article on the importance of nonfiction in early literacy development. Nell Duke’s seminal work helped teachers and administrators understand it’s pivotal roll in the classroom, and your article helps reach parents and caregivers. Looking forward to seeing more of your work.

Posted : Aug 20, 2020 09:46


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