Much of what many students must read in college is nonfiction — often complex and dense nonfiction — but their reading during their middle and high school years is usually heavily weighted toward fiction, often insufficiently complex fiction. Thus students arrive on campus unprepared to read what is required of them. Students need to read more nonfiction to be ready for college. And they will need to be able to read more of it for the gateway assessments that will get them there, including the redesigned SAT, which will focus intensively—even more so than in the past—on cross-disciplinary reading.
But even beyond these pragmatic arguments, success in middle and high school demands that students “read to learn.” They must glean knowledge from articles, textbooks, essays, research summaries, and the like to thrive in both social and hard sciences. And of course a broad and deep base of knowledge doesn’t just assist students in reading nonfiction texts: it makes successful readers of fiction too.
But there is a further challenge here. Students often like reading nonfiction less because it’s less engaging. So, it’s also worth reflecting on how we can help them enjoy it more.
In many reading classes, we focus on a primary text, a text chosen as the principal reading material for a particular class. It is often a book-length text, usually a novel, on which a teacher focuses the majority of instruction. It might be a whole-class text or a series of guided reading texts, read over the course of several weeks, say, building familiarity and an ongoing relationship between students and an engaging and important story.
A powerful, rigorous, and engaging primary text is one of the key drivers of successful literacy instruction, but it is also useful to think about the additional shorter texts that relate to the primary text in some way. These secondary texts could give context, provide background, show a contrast, or develop a useful idea that helps students better engage the primary text. Nonfiction, we argue, is ideal as a secondary text.
Embedding nonfiction is the process of pairing secondary nonfiction texts with a primary text in an intentional and strategic way. If you know a little at the start, you pick up the signs and symbols and hints in a book faster than if you know nothing. The more you know about the Nazis — especially the difference between a Nazi and a mere “enemy soldier” — the more you read the scene in the first chapter of “Number the Stars,” where Annemarie and Ellen encounter two occupying Nazi soldiers, differently than a student who knows little.
By the time an unknowing student has been told how malevolent the soldiers are, much of the richness and tension of the scene will have already passed him by. And a student who is never told this — whose knowledge of Nazis is left to chance — misses the power of the scene almost entirely. When students start from a base of knowledge, their inferences allow them to engage the text with much greater depth — to learn from what they read as efficiently as possible. They’re more attentive, both to the emotions of the characters and to the factual information presented in the fictional text.
Reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text almost certainly increases the absorption rate — how quickly students assimilate knowledge as they read — of students reading that text. So, as many teachers have recognized, it can be immensely valuable to start “Number the Stars” with an article about what Nazi soldiers were like.
On the flip side, the secondary text is also framed by the primary text. When texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up, and that’s the best part. Colleen discovered this during a unit on “Lily’s Crossing,” a novel set in New York during World War II that examines both “European” issues of the war — Nazism, appeasement, and persecution — and “domestic” issues of the war — rationing, shortages, migration, and immigration.
To contextualize “Lily’s Crossing,” Colleen decided to use sections of articles that corresponded to key issues in the book as secondary text. But instead of reading all the nonfiction first, as she’d originally planned, Colleen decided to read the novel for several days before pausing to read the nonfiction.
After four class periods and 23 pages of “Lily’s Crossing,” Colleen interrupted the novel to read a secondary nonfiction text she’d prepared on the topic of rationing during wartime. The result was both powerful and revealing. The nonfiction text helped her students understand and absorb more of the novel. She was able to pose questions about the historical concept such as, “What does rationing mean?” And also its application to the novel; “How did rationing affect the characters in our novel?” Her students better connected the background material to the story; the primary text started to come alive and make sense: there were things they could not buy because no one was allowed to. The fact that the students had started the novel — and knew something about the setting in which they would be applying what they learned from the secondary text — made that learning stick more. Colleen’s students already knew Lily, so what she was living through seemed more real to them — it mattered to them. Because of their nonfiction reading, the book was a richer experience and students could infer independently without Colleen’s support.
But something else happened that surprised Colleen even more. She found that while the background article was helping her students better read the novel, having started the novel was in turn helping her students absorb more of the secondary nonfiction passage. Students got more out of the secondary text when they could apply it to people they were interested in and felt a connection to — even if they were fictional characters. Students realized that these events really affected the lives of people during World War II — they weren’t just mundane, isolated facts in an article. They were parts of the experience of a “real” person like Lily. Reading some of the fiction first, then reading nonfiction, greatly increased their absorption rate of the nonfiction article. Not only were the two texts on World War II — the novel and the article — mutually beneficial, but there was also synergy specifically in the difference of the genres. Reading across genres on the same topic created additional value.
When we teach nonfiction as a unit, we often choose articles and texts with the specific goal of covering different genres, styles, formats or text features. Our choices have less to do with topic than format. If we do consider topics, we typically choose texts assuming that we are helping our students fill in knowledge gaps by covering as many things as we can, but this results in nonfiction that constantly appears out of context and, frankly, begs the question of why people read it at all. For Colleen’s students, the answer to why you would read an article about rationing was answered by its effectiveness in helping them unlock more about Lily’s life. Embedding, pairing nonfiction with related fiction, brings both to life.
Tips for Embedding Nonfiction
- Choose Your Spot. It may not always make sense to use a secondary text at the beginning of a novel. Consider times when synergy may be strongest.
- Create Synergy. Ask questions about the secondary text that applies to the primary text, and vice versa, to enhance synergies between texts.
(Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway. Copyright (c) 2016 by Doug Lemov and Uncommon Schools. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.)