Student Engagement

Teaching Nonfiction: How to Turn Good Readers Into Engaged Citizens

January 24, 2017 Updated January 20, 2017

Student reading independently
© / Monkey Business Images
In the Age of Information, the call for informational literacy is being sounded across the curriculum. Distinguishing fact from fiction has become a daunting task for even the most critical audiences, and deciding what to believe is only getting harder. From fake news to poorly vetted facts, people are rightfully confused about what is true and what isn't. Making matters worse is the boon of social media as a source for news and information. In May of 2016, an astounding 62% of U.S. adults cited social media as their primary news source, a number that is only expected to grow.

Accessing information through social media can be convenient, but it is far from reliable. An analysis of hyper-partisan political Facebook pages indicated that 19-38 percent of all posts contained information that was either partly false or mostly false. And true to the nature of social media, we tend to share what we consume. A 2016 Pew Research poll revealed that almost one in four Americans confess to having shared fake news with others.

But the problem goes deeper than our failure to vet the information we consume. Despite unprecedented access to information, a depressing number of Americans still lack the basic skills needed to analyze the information they encounter. The question for educators now is how to keep the problem from growing. A big part of changing the trend means reflecting on how reading for information is currently being taught and deciding whether or not it's working.   

Reading skills are the tool of every good reader. So it seems only logical that to make good readers, we teach good reading skills. But skill is only a byproduct of a habit. We tend to get better at something the more we do it, and we tend to do the things we enjoy the most.  So rather than emphasizing reading skills, wouldn't we be better off cultivating reading habits? Instead of making good readers, we should be making voracious readers. Voracious readers are good readers, because they are in the habit of reading a lot.

How do we become voracious readers of nonfiction?

Every educator knows that tapping into student interest is the Holy Grail of engagement. But how often do we sit down and ask students about what they want to learn? Asking students to share what topics interest them the most doesn't take very long to do and it removes a lot guesswork from choosing texts that will engage them. Not only that, but you may be surprised by what you learn.

Next, choose texts that are interesting and well written. Before assigning a text to students, ask yourself if you enjoyed reading it. Be honest. If you weren't engaged, chances are your students won't be either. Reading should not feel like work. While the texts chosen should challenge students, the payoff should feel worth it. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is one of the easiest steps to overlook. When we settle for texts that fail to engage us, we don't just miss out on engaging students. We miss out on the opportunity to show students how to choose something worth reading. Poor text selection reinforces the idea that reading is not something we do for ourselves, but a chore we suffer through in the name of school. The easiest way to motivate students to read on their own is to share compelling ideas from good writers. Once students are "hooked", their curiosity will do the rest.

Cultivating voracious consumers of information also means acknowledging personal taste. While sharing something you enjoy is a good place to start, there are a lot more places to go. There is a enormous variety of nonfiction, and students should understand that not all reading is created equal. Exposing them to variety is just as important as exposing them to quality. Give your students the space to figure out what they like and what they don't like and the freedom and respect to make those choices for themselves whenever you can. As they explore their preferences, they are also developing the mental flexibility needed to become strong critical thinkers and readers.

How do we turn good readers into engaged citizens?

It’s not enough to teach students to critically analyze what they read. Learning how to respectfully discuss the ideas they encounter is also crucial, especially when dealing with controversial topics. Learning to discuss divisive issues with objectivity is a crucial skill that students will carry with them throughout adulthood. By incorporating reading and discussion about current events into students' curriculum, we help prepare them to become tomorrow's thought leaders and to cultivate a climate of civil discourse in the years to come.

But just like texts, not all discussions are created equal. A good discussion is weighted in facts and a fair exchange of ideas. Students must practice listening and responding to one another, rather than through a facilitator. Inquiry-based discussion is a good way for students to develop these skills.

First, focus on an open-ended question about a text that everyone has read. Allow students to listen to each others' ideas and respond to one another directly. Encourage them to explain their thinking to one another and to reflect on how their classmates' ideas change their own. This approach leads to lively conversations, a deeper grasp of what they read, and a willingness explore other perspectives. The biggest gift we can give students is teaching them that there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. By learning how to listen and incorporate other opinions, we achieve a deeper understanding of each other as individuals and as a society. Once students are better equipped to critically engage with one another, they’ll be better citizens of the world.

How can we do all of this and still make time for literature?

With so much emphasis on informational literacy, there is a great pressure on ELA teachers to figure out how to cover so many different types of nonfiction and still give equal time to literature. But trying to "fit it all in" misses the whole point of why we read, which is to come to a better understanding of ourselves and the world we share. By treating fiction and nonfiction as two separate and inherently different types of reading with different purposes, we rob our students of the most essential function of education and the chance to discover that each text is one inextricably woven piece of humankind's great narrative. Together, they tell the story of our shared history and humanity since first we discovered the written word. Our questions, our discoveries, our shared hopes and fears, mistakes and insights, all painstakingly recorded in the annals of human knowledge, serve to tell a single story. While reading helps students acquire knowledge, by failing to reveal how all the pieces connect, we deprive them of wisdom.

Rather than feeling forced to choose, educators should begin to seek out opportunities to connect fiction and nonfiction. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the task, but there are programs out there that can help. Programs that pair nonfiction texts with relevant fiction as well as provide a framework for discussing them encourage further engagement. Teachers and students can explore a single topic, theme, or idea through the lens of fiction and nonfiction and compare what different thinkers have to say. This not only gives students a more well-rounded grasp of the themes and topics they’re required to learn, but helps them get into the habit of noticing those connections elsewhere.  

How we approach reading and sharing information is not set in stone. As educators, we shine the brightest when we emphasize the value of asking good questions, listening to one another, and connecting the dots. We do this not by cultivating the skills, but by cultivating readers and thinkers. All the rest will follow.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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