Let's get kids excited about reading nonfiction

“Why is the sky blue? How do airplanes fly? Why do zebras have stripes?” 

Children are born with a natural curiosity about their world, and their frequent, varied questions are evidence of that. Books featuring baby animals, how things work, snakes, sharks, and weird-but-true scenarios spark many of these questions and are a natural starting point for finding their answers.  

On Dr. Seuss' birthday, it's especially timely to examine what makes classics like his stand the test of time -- and in what ways have young readers evolved?

All books, but especially nonfiction titles -- complete with awesome, graphic illustrations -- serve as powerful vocabulary builders and provide key information that students’ eager minds gobble up. Encounters with new words and knowledge provide a solid foundation for students’ learning, first as a precursor to making meaning of the words on a page, and later as the basis for learning and retaining information from reading. 

As a third-grade intervention teacher, I am constantly on the hunt for books to help motivate my students to read, and to increase the time they spend reading outside of school. I have discovered a fantastic resource to do just that -- the "What Kids Are Reading" report from Renaissance.

This annual report aggregates national reading data to provide lists of books kids are reading most in every grade, along with the book with distinct popularity in each state for the grade range. It also features cross-curricular lists, by grade range, of nonfiction and fiction book pairs of increasing text difficulty on science, social studies, and arts topics. 

As a nonfiction enthusiast, my favorite part of the report is this year’s emphasis on nonfiction, such as the lists of 10 digital nonfiction books for each grade. My students -- especially reluctant or resistant readers -- gravitate toward nonfiction because they relate to real-life people, places, and events. Easy access to nonfiction is so important for all kids to learn about the world around them, but it’s key for children with limited experiences or exposure to the external world. Nonfiction is their portal to learning about a wide variety of topics, and interesting revelations about our world, history, and the people who impact our lives. 

Reading nonfiction aloud to kids is especially impactful to model good reading habits and to help them access information at higher reading levels than they could read on their own. And because nonfiction is a favorite genre of mine, students catch the excitement I bring to each nonfiction lesson.

Three Research Spotlights tucked between the book information examine students’ reading data beyond the books they read to explore the impact of nonfiction reading, explain how students gain background knowledge, and provide a starting point for readying students for the future reading they’ll do in occupations beyond schooling.  

The report also includes essays from popular authors -- most of whom write nonfiction! -- Cari Meister, Drew Daywalt, Melissa Stewart, Isabel Thomas, and Janet Riehecky. 

Spreading reading joy is what getting kids hooked on reading is all about. When this report comes out every year, I simply show my students the books trending for their grade level. I don't have to do much of a "sales pitch" for these titles because I’ve found that my students love to read what other kids their age are reading. (Think positive peer pressure!) Sparking students’ interest and helping them unlock the information they are interested in helps to expand their world view and lay a strong foundation of background knowledge, both of which will help kids develop the critical reading skills they’ll use to tackle their independent reading.

Mary Brown is a reading intervention specialist at Duncan Falls Elementary School in Duncan Falls, Ohio. The 2020 What Kids are Reading Report is available online for download, with registration.

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