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Reading nonfiction is not optional

4 min read


When Walter Dean Myers — noted young adult novelist — became the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in January, he said something particularly profound in one of his first interviews with Publisher’s Weekly.

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

I’d take Myer’s message one step further: Reading NONFICTION is not optional.

The sad truth is that fiction still dominates the literacy lives of young readers. Whether they are wrapped up in fantastic exploits written by guys like Rick Riordan or churning through the latest release in the hottest new vampire series, today’s kids rarely make room for nonfiction in their book bags.

That’s why Benny — one of my former students — made my day yesterday.

You see, he had signed out a 923-page book on the birds of North America, and he was dying to show me something that he’d learned. “Guess what, Mr. Ferriter!” he said after risking detention by sneaking up to my room and trying to catch his breath while flipping through nearly a thousand pages of nonfiction all at the same time. “There are actually two types of Rufous-sided Towhees!”

Pretty geeky, right?

And pretty awesome considering how important a role that informational text plays in the lives of anyone over the age of 11. If we could somehow bottle Benny’s excitement over nonfiction content, maybe there would be less groaning every time new topics were introduced in our science and social studies classrooms.

So what are the keys to turning your kids on to nonfiction?

First, you’ve got to intentionally introduce kids to the nonfiction topics that literally surround them on a day-to-day basis. Benny was passionate about the Rufous-sided Towhee because we’d spent every Wednesday for weeks last year cataloguing the birds on our campus. Regardless of the weather, we grabbed our bird guides and our binoculars and headed outside to look for new feathered friends. The first time we spotted a Towhee, it was digging in the dirt below a row of hedges. Benny had never seen a bird dig before. He was hooked.

Do you see how simple all of this can be? I didn’t do anything particularly remarkable to turn Benny on to nonfiction. Instead of reading the textbook chapter on birds, my class hit the bushes — and hitting the bushes was enough to seed a passion for a new nonfiction topic in his mind.

I also think it is important for tweens and teens to see their teachers reading — and hear their teachers talking about nonfiction topics. Pick up a biography or the story of an adventure that really happened and tell your classes all about it. Better yet, find age-appropriate versions of the same biographies or adventure stories and encourage your students to read along with you. Kids of all ages love to talk about books with the adults in their lives. Why can’t those conversations happen around nonfiction topics, too?

Moral of the story: If you want students to love nonfiction — and you should considering the important role that nonfiction plays in learning — you really do need to stop spending all of your sustained silent reading time figuring out what’s going to happen next to Origami Yoda. Instead, work to passionately share stories about guys like Ernest Shackleton or Harry Houdini with your kids.

Does any of this make sense?

More importantly, does it seem doable?

Like many accomplished educators, Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) wears a ton of professional hats. He’s a Solution Tree author and presenter, an accomplished blogger and a senior fellow in the Teacher Leaders Network. He checks all of those titles at the door each morning, though, when he walks into his sixth-grade classroom.