Taking a strong stance on the value of nonfiction for young readers and how educators can maximize this category’s benefits in their teachings, the National Council of Teachers of English has released a position statement that calls for an expansion of nonfiction literature in the classroom. The proposal, which was developed by a panel of literacy experts and approved by the NCTE board, demonstrates the organization’s ongoing role as a champion for high-quality children’s nonfiction.
“NCTE bolsters its support for nonfiction, advocating that the genre addresses many urgent learning goals and taps into student interest,” said executive director Emily Kirkpatrick. She cited the Orbis Pictus Book Award for Outstanding Nonfiction, founded 34 years ago, as further proof of the NCTE’s ongoing efforts.
An ‘Information Literacy Crisis’
According to the NCTE’s statement, the goal of the report is “to propose a paradigm shift for teaching and learning with nonfiction literature in K–12.” Cited benefits include nonfiction’s ability to contextualize primary source evidence, provide multiple perspectives on current and historic events, and share new scientific discoveries.
When asked what inspired its development, three members of the position statement writing committee—Mary Ann Cappiello of Lesley University, Penn State University’s Xenia Hadjioannou, and Austin, Tex., classroom teacher Kari Johnston—noted an information literacy crisis that impacts understanding local and global issues. “Children need to learn more about sources, information, and research processes from an early age, and nonfiction books are an ideal teaching tool for supporting this learning in developmentally appropriate ways,” they told PW. The team also noted the relevance of nonfiction in a post-pandemic society where teachers can “engage students in meaningful inquiry and exploration of the world around them and their roles in it.”
The lengthy document is divided into an overview of the reasons that nonfiction is currently underrepresented, followed by actionable items that teachers can employ to expand their usage in the classroom. Among the chief observations are nonfiction’s underutilization in the language arts curriculum and classroom libraries, particularly when it comes to writing exercises. NCTE’s statement reads, “Exceptional nonfiction should serve as a mentor for student writing. But in the age of standardized testing, much of the nonfiction writing young people do in school is limited to the genre of test-driven essay writing and short responses, which does not reflect authentic nonfiction writing.”
Book banning and censorship, additional factors contributing to the information literacy crisis, are also addressed in this report. “Without access to nonfiction literature from a variety of voices and perspectives, students are limited to a dominant view of history, which selectively erases the contribution of marginalized people and obscures the processes by which histories are composed,” the statement reads.
Strategies for Expanding Usage
To provide young students with greater access to nonfiction and cultivate independent reading across the genre, the NCTE statement offers a variety of suggestions for ELA professionals. Among these are to work directly with school librarians and media specialists on book offerings and support students’ preferences when selecting nonfiction books.
For teachers instructing students on developing strategies for engaging with nonfiction, the report recommends nurturing readers with interactive read-alouds and boosting their vocabulary with books that build upon their content knowledge. Suggestions for effectively using nonfiction in writing instruction include incorporating it into their lesson plans and encouraging students to pen their own nonfiction.
Another actionable item—teaching research processes and information literacy—can involve investigating biographies of historical and contemporary voices and choosing texts that focus on storytelling and oral traditions. The report also points out nonfiction’s critical role in supporting visual literacy: “Because nonfiction books are research-based, readers may be tempted to assume that they represent indisputable facts and ‘truths’ about the world. However, reading, writing and illustrating nonfiction are all interpretative processes.”
The paper concludes with a proposal on how nonfiction can assist educators by diversifying the preK–12 curriculum. Recommendations for educators include using multiple books on the same topic to show a range of perspective, encouraging students to closely examine varying viewpoints, and supporting them to become change makers.
Johnston offered her thoughts on how educators like herself can expand their own nonfiction collections, by taking inventory of their classroom and school libraries to ensure a variety of engaging and informative texts. “Teachers can advocate for students by giving nonfiction the space and time in their reading and writing curriculum, demonstrating its importance and affirming the interests of the students,” she said.