By Vent, Cheryl T.; Ray, Julie A.
Teacher Librarian , Vol. 34, No. 4
"We have books about tropical fish in the library?" asked an incredulous fourth-grade student. To anew teacher-librarian, it was surprising that the students seemed unaware of the nonfiction books in the school library. However, a survey of the teachers confirmed the concern over the students' lack of interest in nonfiction books, especially because our state's standards require elementary students to be able to comprehend, analyze, and evaluate nonfiction materials, and they are tested on this in our annual high-stakes achievement tests.
NONFICTION IS TOO HARD!
We decided to investigate the problem by administering an interest inventory survey to students and checking the circulation statistics for nonfiction materials; the results were conflicting. When fourth-grade students were surveyed about their interest in nonfiction materials, 85% claimed that they liked to read nonfiction books, and most answered that nonfiction books were cool, fun, or even surprising. In ordering their preference of topics, these fourth graders were, predictably, most interested in animals, sports, explorers, and machinery such as cars and motorcycles. However, an examination of circulation statistics for these same fourth graders showed that only about 35% of the books checked out were nonfiction. Although the majority of students stated that they liked nonfiction books, they were not reading them. This was not due to the quality of the nonfiction section; in fact, most of the books in this section were new or in near-new condition because they were rarely used.
There were a number of possible explanations for this problem. The students who stated that they did not like to read nonfiction gave dues, saying that these books were boring or too long and that their required accelerated reading tests for library books were too hard. These students were not unique in their feelings about the reading difficulty of nonfiction materials. Nonfiction books present challenges to young readers because they are often formatted differently from fiction books and students need extra guidance in understanding diagrams and vocabulary found in nonfiction materials (Kays & Duke, 1998).
LACK OF EXPOSURE
Another possible reason that the students were not motivated to read nonfiction books was the lack of exposure to this genre. Many school libraries and classrooms have displays that feature book titles, but most are about fiction works. One study of first-grade classrooms found that, on average, books designed to convey information account for less than 3% of the materials displayed in the classroom (Duke, 2000). This study also noted that students were not being exposed to informational text during read-aloud time, given that students spent an average of only 3.6 minutes each day interacting with this type of book. The number was even less in low-socioeconomic-status schools (Duke, 2000). This is especially problematic because research suggests that students are more likely to read nonfiction independently if it has been read aloud to them (Duke, 2004).
ACTION RESEARCH TO PROMOTE NONFICTION
Given students' reluctance to read nonfiction materials, we decided to conduct an action research project to increase interest in reading nonfiction. The project focused on fourth graders, but it also influenced the interest level in nonfiction among the other grades. By the end of the project, nonfiction books were flying off the shelves, and students were clamoring for more titles.
STRATEGIES TO INCREASE INTEREST
The first step in the project was to learn more about successful strategies for motivating students to read nonfiction. The available literature provided several suggestions. One simple suggestion was to improve nonfiction displays in the library to be more like those found in a bookstore (Dreher, 1999). However, increased exposure alone would not significantly change students' reading habits. …