No nonsense nonfiction: Tips for incorporating nonfiction into the ELA curriculum

By Pauline Zdonek on December 26th, 2013

        Many school districts are going through a painstaking process of writing new curricula to meet the Common Core State Standards. One of the biggest changes for English language arts teachers working to refine and update curricula is the need to incorporate larger amounts of nonfiction texts. As ELA teachers, we are experts in teaching literature – but nonfiction? Having recently gone through the process of writing a new middle-school ELA curriculum, I fully understand this challenge. Below are some of the ways our middle school ELA teachers worked to more organically integrate nonfiction texts into our teaching.

Nonfiction “novels”

At each grade level, we took one or two of the novels we taught and switched them out for nonfiction books. Memoirs like “Night” or “The Other Wes Moore” are great ways to get students interested in reading nonfiction because they read like a fiction story. This can also be an easier transition for teachers because these books can be taught in a similar fashion as novels.

Themed articles

First, we determined the theme or main ideas of the novel that we were teaching. Then we found newspaper and magazine articles that demonstrated real-life applications of that theme. For example, when we taught “The Giver,” we used articles about China’s one child policy and California’s history with euthanasia, which allowed students to see that elements of “the community” in the novel were based on reality. This provided us an opportunity to simultaneously teach nonfiction texts while providing depth and context to the novel.

Nonfiction “picture” books

There are many high-quality, shorter nonfiction books made for young adults that include historical documents and pictures to engage younger readers. One grade level gathered a sampling of these books and offered students “nonfiction circles” (instead of literature circles). Students ranked books based on their interests – from history to technology to animals, and the teacher aligned groups together based on student reading level. Another grade level used chapters from such books that corresponded with what the students were learning about in social studies, such as “Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy” when studying the Industrial Revolution and “Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” when studying World War II. Check out the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

Nonfiction Fridays

When we first started incorporating nonfiction, we picked one day a week to focus on nonfiction texts. And so, “Nonfiction Fridays” were born. At times, we would use the New York Times’ Room for Debate, and have students read and discuss different view points on interesting topics. Then they would write their opinions using evidence from what they had read. Once they got used to reading nonfiction articles, we had the students suggest topics, and we would search for articles on those topics, which the students loved.

While it seemed overwhelming at first, with just a little bit of leg work and a team effort from all the ELA teachers, by the end of the year, we found we had incorporated much more nonfiction then we ever expected.

Pauline Zdonek (@PaulineZd) is a special-education teacher in the Chicagoland area. She has her master’s degree in elementary and special education, and has taught in both urban and suburban school districts.

Zdonek’s article was originally posted on SmartBlog on Education. Permission for use granted by Melissa Greenwood, SmartBrief Senior Editor and manager of content for SmartBlog on Education.

Updated 01/01/14

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