By Nora Heston Tarte
I grew up on books. I was the youngest of four and I always wanted to do everything my older siblings did. While my parents rejected my protests to watch PG-13 rated movies with my sister or play my brother’s gory mature video games, there was always one place they allowed me to reach beyond my age group: reading.
By second grade, I was burning through my sister’s entire collection of Babysitter’s Club books (by sneaking them one by one from her room while she wasn’t home, of course). By the time I got to middle school, my favorites included Harry Potter and A Wrinkle in Time.
An occasional book report, maybe once or twice a year, would call for a nonfiction (based on real life facts) subject – usually a biography – but other than that I wasn’t reading many nonfiction works outside of my textbooks. It wasn’t until high school that I started appreciating many texts outside of fiction literature, and by the time I got there, it felt a little like playing catch-up.
Reading is an essential skill. It is taught early in school and developed throughout a child’s entire education. If a student goes on to college, they will continue to work on and develop their reading skills at a higher level.
What many people may not realize, however, is that reading is more than one skill. Being capable of reading words does not encompass all of the skills a reader should possess. Comprehension, annunciation and vocabulary are just a few of the necessary skills associated with reading.
While most early introduction of reading in school for children involves fiction, Arizona’s switch to the Arizona’s College and Career Readiness Standards (AZCCRS) in 2010 brought a more balanced approach to reading instruction, according to Mike Winters, administrator for curriculum and instruction at Madison School District in Phoenix.
While there are many different types of non-fiction, including biographies and historical texts, perhaps the most accurate, all-encompassing definition of these reading materials would be “informational texts.”
“Informational text… plays a very important role in learning,” Winters said. “Students will typically read literary text during their reading block or as they get older their English class. They will also learn social studies, science and math where they will encounter informational text. So, the majority of a student’s academic day is in subject areas where they should be reading informational text.”
According to AZCCRS, 50 percent of elementary reading should be informational (a type of nonfiction) by fourth grade, 55 percent informational by eighth grade and 70 percent informational by high school.
“This lets teachers demonstrate to their students that reading can help them obtain important information about a wide variety of concepts,” explained Sally Stewart, public information officer at the Arizona Department of Education. “In K-5, students learn the foundational reading skills necessary to comprehend both informational and literary texts so they have the content background knowledge they will need to engage with the more complex informational and literary texts they will encounter in grades 6-12 where the content becomes more specialized.”
There is a common misconception that secondary English Language Arts teachers are supposed to teach 70 percent informational text and 30 percent literature. However, the ADE said this isn’t correct. The 70/30 split actually represents all of the reading done throughout a child’s classes, including the textbooks read in math, science and history classes, which makes up a large portion of the required nonfiction reading.
“It is important for students to have many opportunities to read and be exposed to both kinds of text during their school day,” Winters said. “Teachers should be explicitly teaching the types of strategies needed to comprehend both types of text to students on a regular basis.”
This shift to a more balanced reading list could be at least partly attributed to career-readiness.
“As kids grow up and join the workplace, they are much more likely to have to read nonfiction text as part of their job than fictional text,” Winters said. “The two types of text differ in structure, text features and writing style. In order to successfully comprehend both types of text students must apply different types of comprehension strategies.”
Parents may fear that their student will disregard informational texts as boring, but its possible that they aren’t looking at the full range of possibilities. Informational text does not have to mean an algebra textbook or political biography (although it can).
“It is important to recognize that ‘nonfiction’ is a very broad term that can include texts ranging from literary non-fiction essays, blog posts, magazine articles, newspapers, biographies/autobiographies to complex instructional manuals and discipline-specific text books,” Stewart said.
“According to research, school-aged children actually find informational text more appealing than literary text,” Winters said. “The main reason for this is informational text is often aligned to the students’ personal interests.”
Parents with children who reject nonfiction reading may benefit from a little encouragement.
Winters, a self-proclaimed “Star Wars geek” who counts the Star Wars: Complete Visual Dictionary among his favorite nonfiction texts (his other favorite is Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose), suggested asking students about their interests and then going from there. Finding books that cover their interests, no matter what they are, could spark a love for reading.
Reading was a large part of my life, and it’s a treasured pastime that I have embraced with my son. Reading is our “mommy and me time.” Since he was a few days old, we have been hungrily reading through Dr. Seuss’ library, as well as every book featuring dinosaurs that we can find. Even though we are still a few years off from abiding to any regulations put forth by the school district, I have already incorporated nonfiction into his little library. Instead of simply learning how a dinosaur says happy birthday or how they laugh out loud, we are also learning what the names of the different dinosaurs are, what they ate and how many horns they have on their head.
Top Teachers’ Picks Children’s Magazines:
Time for Kids
Sports Illustrated KIDS
National Geographic KIDS
Diary of Anne Frank (Grades 6 and up)
Harriet Tubman: The Road To Freedom By Rae Bains and Joanne Mattern (Grades 3-5)
Amelia Earhart: Adventure in the Sky By Francene Sabin and Joanne Mattern (Grades 3-5)
If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island By Ellen Levine (Grades 2-5)
Any Books by Jean Fritz (Varied ages)
The World of Animals Set By New Bridge Educational Publishing (Early Readers)
Who Was …? (series) By Penguin Young Readers Group (Varied ages)
DK Publishing, varied history and science topics (Varied ages)