Facing Facts: Nonfiction in the Primary Classroom

By Bamford, Rosemary A.; Kristo, Janice V. et al. | New England Reading Association Journal, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Facing Facts: Nonfiction in the Primary Classroom


Bamford, Rosemary A., Kristo, Janice V., Lyon, Anna, New England Reading Association Journal


FEATURE ARTICLE

Despite the non in the term nonfiction, it's not what nonfiction doesn't do that is important, but what it does...

-Tressell-Cullen, A. (1999, p.2)--

Shawn, a first grader, proudly announced to his teacher, Kelly, that he had written a book about dinosaurs, a topic his first grade class had been studying during the last two weeks. When Kelly asked Shawn to talk with her about the book, he said that she could use the book to teach the class about dinosaurs. Shawn went on to explain that there were many true facts in his dinosaur book. As a six-year old, Shawn has a beginning grasp of what nonfiction books are all about.

Primary teachers recognize that their young students are fascinated and curious about nonfiction books. At the same time, teachers are also seeing the instructional potential for nonfiction books for reading instruction-specifically for read alouds, shared reading, and guided reading lessons. Because there are so many nonfiction titles now available even for the very youngest children, teachers need to become savvy and knowledgeable consumers of what's available in terms of nonfiction books. We believe that it's most beneficial to work toward gathering the best nonfiction books for both reading instruction, as well as for browsing and enjoyment. We think this view of only sharing the best will lead to much more powerful teaching opportunities using nonfiction than if many books of undetermined quality are used. Further, we believe that there are complexities and differences about nonfiction that make it very different from fiction, the kind of literature that is most often shared in read alouds at the primary level, as well as what is more frequently used for reading instruction. We also believe that nonfiction books can be challenging for a host of reasons and place demands on children who are just learning how to read.

There are several purposes to writing this article. First, we'll discuss what nonfiction is and how to help students make distinctions between nonfiction and fiction. We'll then discuss why choosing high quality nonfiction is so critical to successful classroom practices. Next, we offer selection criteria for making good choices. We'll then describe some introductory principles about using nonfiction for read alouds, shared reading, and guided reading. Lastly, we provide recommendations for making thoughtful and informed decisions about both selecting and using nonfiction with young readers.

WHAT IS NONFICTION?

To accomplish our goal of helping teachers become more critical consumers of nonfiction books for young children, we'll describe what nonfiction is and how traditional notions of nonfiction are changing the complexion of the genre. Good nonfiction writing is the artful crafting of factual writing about a topic. Quality nonfiction writing has style and reads well. It shouldn't be dry or boring. Trussell-Cullen (1999), a leading New Zealand educator, describes nonfiction this way:

Despite the non in the term nonfiction, it's not what nonfiction doesn't do that is important, but what it does. And what does it do? Quite simply, nonfiction documents and celebrates the real world-and that means everything about the real world that is actual, observable, recordable, demonstrable, and "experienceable." (p. 2)

However, a trend in nonfiction writing for young children is the blended book, one that is a combination of story writing or narrative with expository writing or nonfiction interspersed in the writing. This is sometimes confusing for young readers and their teachers! Is the book a made-up story or is it really nonfiction? If it is so much story, then is it nonfiction? We're wondering if this kind of book is sending a distorted message to young readers about what nonfiction is. High quality nonfiction doesn't preclude an author from using personal narrative but, in doing so, the writing should never mask the truth or the facts in order to be clever or cute.

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