In this episode of Teacher’s Corner, Melissa Stewart and Marlene Correia, authors of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books, speak with Stenhouse’s Terry Thompson about changes in expository nonfiction over the years, the recognition of the info-kid and how teachers and librarians can use the categorization system in their book to better support students.
Characteristics of the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction
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Terry: Melissa, Marlene, I'm excited to talk with you today about this book. I just love it. One of the things I wanted to start off with asking is, in your opening letters for the book, you talk about a special affinity that you both have for nonfiction. What draws you to center your work on nonfiction?
Marlene: Thanks, Terry. So for me, it was a realization about 15 years ago when I sat at a professional development workshop and the presenter asked us to list everything we had read in the past week. As I was writing my list, I could already start to see the pattern and the point she was about to make, which was that most of my list consisted of nonfiction, and how applicable that nonfiction was to daily life; news articles, professional journals, recipes, et cetera. And that's when I began thinking about, "The presenter's probably going to make the case for nonfiction in the classroom." So I started to think about my own classroom at the time. And I realized I didn't have any nonfiction on display. I wasn't often doing, nonfiction read-alouds. And I was pretty convinced that's what my students wanted.
Marlene: And so, that's when I began the small-scale action research project that I did and discuss in the book. And it was evident that the children proved my assumptions wrong. And I started to take a more deliberate approach to incorporating more nonfiction in my classes. And I also started following Nell Duke's work, around the use of informational texts and nonfiction in classrooms. And then, I met Melissa and through this shared interest, she's really stretched my thinking about nonfiction even more.
Terry: Melissa, what about you?
Melissa: I think for me, I have always been, we're going to talk a little bit later about info-kids, and I would describe myself as an info kid turned, I guess, info-adult. And the reason that I love to write nonfiction, I know there are a lot of writers, they love to create characters, they love to invent worlds, but for me, I feel like the real world is just so interesting, so fascinating, so captivating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. So that's why I write nonfiction. And I feel like if one of my books inspires a child to look under a rock or chase after a butterfly, just to see where it's going, then my job is done.
Melissa: And when I started visiting schools, I could see that sometimes teachers were marginalizing that, that they were really focusing on fiction. And I could see every time I was doing a presentation, a teacher would say something to me like, "You know that child that asked you a question? They don't say anything. They're usually just very quiet. And you connected with them in a way that often teachers don't or that other authors have not in the past when they've had fiction authors." And so, that's what made me start to realize that maybe this was bigger than just my personal inclination and that this was maybe something that I could contribute to schools and to the way that they think about their doing ELA. But then also, content core curriculum, a way to reach out to these kids and to make all kids enthusiastic readers, because really that's what we want, right?
Terry: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And that's really the goal of 5 Kinds of Nonfiction. And it's just covered so beautifully there. And one of the points you make early in the book is that we've traditionally divided fiction into categories like mystery, science fiction, realistic fiction, historical fiction. But then, we just lumped all nonfiction together. How has nonfiction changed in recent years? And what are the benefits of presenting a new classification system for nonfiction?
Melissa: Yeah, nonfiction has changed a lot in the last, let's say 25 years. When many of us were growing up, there was just one kind of nonfiction, traditional survey books. Some people call them all about books, that would look at one topic, like a book about volcanoes, or a book about kangaroos, or a book about the Boston Tea Party. And for a variety of reasons, which we're going to talk about a little later, nonfiction has gone through just extraordinary changes in the last 25 years. It's expanded and evolved in lots of new directions.
Melissa: And so, that's really what 5 Kinds of Nonfiction helps to kind of bring some order to that, to the wide world of nonfiction. And it helps when students understand the system, or teachers, when people understand the system, it can help them choose the best book for a particular purpose. Such as which kind of books are great for the beginning part of the research process, which books work better at the later stages of the research process, which books work best as mentor texts for informational writing, which books work best in maker spaces. And so, it helps kids to be able to understand how to use those books, but also how to predict the kinds of information they'll find, how that information will be presented and the kind of writing that they enjoyed reading the most.
Terry: Yeah. That's so interesting. So that begs my next question, what exactly are the 5 kinds of nonfiction and where did they originate?
Melissa: So the 5 kinds of nonfiction is a system that I basically just developed it for myself back in 2012. I could sort of see that there were a lot of different kinds of nonfiction. And as a writer, I was wanting to grow and change and try some new things, but I felt like I sort of needed to understand what were the possibilities. And if I were going to shift to other kinds of writing, what would be most marketable? What might editors require? Or were there sort of gaps in the nonfiction landscape that I might fill?
Melissa: And so, I started thinking about this back in 2012, and I have had a blog since 2009, and every so often I would just kind of throw my thinking up on my blog and people would respond. They would give me ideas, they would stretch my thinking. And so, it was sort of, kind of a crowd sourced effort. In those early days a lot of people were giving me different ideas and it wasn't until 2017 that I had a system that it felt pretty solid to me. It felt like it was pretty inclusive. And I threw that one onto my blog, everyone really responded well to it. And immediately, it started getting a lot of attention. Within a couple of months, Colby Sharp had asked me to do a video for him. And a lot of people viewed that, a lot of people commented on that. And it's what made me really start to think about, "Maybe this has a bigger purpose than just helping me as a writer or helping writers in general. Maybe it can help educators and students as well."
Melissa: And so, the 5 kinds of nonfiction are traditional, which is the kind of nonfiction I was talking about before, those survey books that are often in large series that have straight forward engaging texts, that have an expository writing style. And then, the second category to evolve is what we call browesable nonfiction. And for that, really think about eyewitness books. Those are the first books that were in this category, and they are beautifully illustrated. They have short passages of texts. They're great for sharing. You often will see clusters of kids gathered around them in a school library, sharing all kinds of cool tidbits. They don't have to be read from cover to cover. You can just skip around. They're rich in text features to help you navigate. They also have an expository writing style and they usually have a description text structure.
Melissa: And the third kind is narrative nonfiction. So a lot of people have heard of narrative nonfiction. It basically traces back to the late '60s in the adult world. And it started to really appear in a pretty more significant way in the children's world in the mid 1990s. And it sort of has grown and become increasingly popular since then. So narrative writing tells a story or conveys an experience. So it's very much written with all the same tools and techniques as fiction, but everything is completely true. So there's a main character, but that is a real person. There are scenes, there is dialogue, but those are things that the person actually said. There is a traditional narrative arc. So it's a book that has a strong, clear beginning, middle and end. These books have a chronological sequence structure, and they work really well for biographies and books about historical events and processes.
Melissa: And then, the fourth category is expository literature. So these books really came on the market starting in the early '00s. And in some ways, they were a response to No Child Left Behind. When that was passed in 2001, suddenly schools shifted the way that they were allocating their resources. Instead of buying books for the school library, they were using a lot of money toward test prep for the standardized tests that were associated with No Child Left Behind. And so, these books are really a way to kind of take traditional nonfiction in a new direction and show increased value to having nonfiction that's used in schools. So these books, instead of having a broad focus, they have a really targeted focus. They're more centered on a specific topic and they have a strong voice. They have rich language. They have often an innovative format. And a key thing is that they have pretty much any text structure that you can think of. And so, that makes them work really well as mentor texts and informational writing units.
Melissa: And then finally, we have active nonfiction. And just like the name suggests, these are books that either teach a skill, they're highly interactive. So they might be a cookbook or a craft book or a how-to guide. And these books have clear, straightforward language and an expository writing style.
Terry: I really love the historical perspective of how the categories came to be, and this idea of crowdsourcing towards new levels of understanding and listening to kids and teachers and other writers, to really rethink some of the things that we've been thinking about nonfiction in the past. One of the foundational points that you make in the book is that teachers, librarians, book reviewers and award committee members have different reading preferences than some young readers, can you talk about this?
Marlene: Sure. So as Melissa was mentioning earlier, we know expository nonfiction has really changed in recent years, but I think that a lot of educators and librarians still think of the traditional nonfiction as it was years ago instead of the changes that have occurred. And that tends to keep them from using some of the new expository literature, nonfiction literature that's out there.
Marlene: I think that also, when you look at, in the book, we talk about the American Library Association and the youth awards. And we look at the awards that are given out for nonfiction. For that award itself, I think that we said 97% of the award winners had a nonfiction narrative writing style versus an expository nonfiction writing style. So when you think about that, what message does that send to educators and librarians about the books that are being chosen, or about the committee members who are choosing and selecting these awards as well? So narrative nonfiction tends to get more attention I think than the expository nonfiction does. And I think that's why our book is so important, that it gives a lot of attention to the expository as well as the narrative.
Marlene: But I also want to make the point that, and I think it's best through an anecdote, I know Melissa recently just did an interview for a blog about the book and I was reading the comments on the blog about the 5 kinds of nonfiction, and someone commented that they were getting ready to share their own blog. And they had put together a stack of books that they wanted to share with people on their blog that were nonfiction. And then, after seeing the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, this person said, "I have to rethink this because I thought I had this great variety of nonfiction to share, but in essence, what I have is solidly narrative." And so, I think we see that often with educators and librarians and sometimes not even realizing it.
Marlene: But when we look at the research that Melissa has done, that I have done, and that more recently others have done, we know that there are students out there that prefer the expository nonfiction. And so, it's trying to find that balance. There are educators and librarians who prefer expository nonfiction too. So it's trying to find that balance and including a 50/50 in your classrooms.
Terry: Yeah, I know that lack of balance was something that I look back in hindsight, in my own classroom book collection, in my own work with students in my classrooms, that I wasn't as aware of it. And that brings me to this term info-kids. You mentioned it earlier, and you mention it in the book and across social media platforms often. Can you talk about that term a bit?
Melissa: Yeah, so that's a term, it has its root in a book that was written by Ron Jobe and Mary Dayton-Sakari. It was published in 2001. And unfortunately, it's out of print now, but you can still find it around. And I think it's a wonderful book just to kind of shift your thinking in terms of how kids are interacting with nonfiction. This book has a lot of profiles of students who are reluctant or were classified as reluctant readers. And it turned out that when they were given a expository nonfiction book or a series of nonfiction books on a topic that they were completely fascinated by, that was their gateway to literacy. And there's also other work that is supporting this idea. But it's just this idea that there are some kids that they don't... you know people who love narratives connect strongly to stories and storytelling. They read, they want to have a connection with the character in the story that they're reading.
Melissa: Info-kids aren't really as interested in that. They really love ideas. They love facts. They love stats. They connect strongly with learning about, reading about concepts. And they're not really so interested in the narrative arc. It's not as satisfying and experience to them. And I think that really thinking about these info-kids, and the idea that what the research is showing is that there's more info-kids than people think there are. The research is now showing that somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% of kids think this way, and only 25% of kids are strong narrative lovers. And then the rest, around 35%, are in between. They enjoy reading both styles. And that research is very different from the research about teachers. For teachers, it's more like 56% prefer narrative and only 8% prefer expository. And so, we were sort of... you know there's a popular expression that humans are hardwired to love stories, and really some humans are, but some aren't, and we need to respect all readers.
Terry: Yeah, that's so interesting. Let's fine tune that conversation on kids for just a little bit, and think about the learners in our classrooms. How can knowing the 5 kinds of nonfiction help students in our classrooms become better readers and writers? And how can teachers and librarians utilize this categorization system to support this?
Marlene: Well, first, as an educator, I believe strongly that choice and student interests are powerful motivators. And so, we know that motivating students to read is critically important. When teachers and librarians know what their students are curious about, what their interests are, having books from the five categories, the 5 kinds of nonfiction for them to choose from according to their interests, really encourages them to read more. And reading more leads to so many benefits, of course, right? Vocabulary comprehension. One of the things I love about the 5 kinds of nonfiction is no matter which type you are using, it deepens students' background knowledge and the content. And then, it leads to more questions, right? So as Melissa was talking about these info-kids, this cycle of, "I have a question. I find the right type of nonfiction to research. I learn. I question some more." The cycle repeats. And so much learning happens in that cycle.
Marlene: I think also in the book, we have a whole chapter dedicated to text structure and teachers are always looking for new ways to use and to teach text structure, because when students understand how an author has organized a text, it's easier for them to make sense of it and to understand it. And so, we have some excellent activities like text structure mapping, and some other activities in that chapter, to help students really understand. A deeper understanding, that goes beyond the surface level of understanding what problem solution is. So I think that chapter does a nice job with that.
Marlene: And as far as writing, teachers use mentor texts often in their writing workshop to teach students strategies for writing. And I don't think they always often think that nonfiction and even some of this expository literature for example, are perfect mentor texts to teach. For example, one of the books we talk about is Giant Squid by Candace Fleming. I mean, such descriptive language in that book to share with students. And we talk about voice too, and how some of this expository literature now in the way that it has changed over the last few years has strong voice, perspective, point of view. There are so many things you can teach your readers and writers. I'm personally excited to have something that goes beyond the five-paragraph essay, and a research paper that has descriptive language and is creatively written and maybe is modeled after a nonfiction author.
Terry: Yeah, it's all so fascinating. It makes you wonder why we haven't always thought of nonfiction in this way. One of the points you make in the book as well is that we've traditionally placed more attention on fiction than nonfiction. But what are some of the ways that we can share and celebrate nonfiction more in our classrooms on a daily basis?
Marlene: Sure. So I think things that teachers are doing or librarians are doing already, but just to incorporate that nonfiction as well. So book displays, for example. Teachers and librarians, having book displays that show the 5 kinds of nonfiction, or having students create book displays. So taking a topic, maybe that they're learning about in a unit of study, and finding books that cover the five kinds that range in the 5 kinds of nonfiction, all on that topic, and putting them out on a book display. Looking for similarities across books and having students find the similarities in books and book display. I think book talks too, kids get really excited when teachers talk up a book. So if you share your excitement for a book, students are going to want that book. The minute you put it down, they want it, right? And I think having students in the book. In the appendix, we talk about how to help your students do those book talks as well. And I think that would really be helpful.
Marlene: Just a quick anecdote, I was working with an eighth grade group during the time we were writing this book and doing our research. And I was listening to the eighth graders do their book talks. And I noticed that not one eighth grader was doing a nonfiction book. And then later on what I found out was that the teachers were giving examples of books that students can use, lists, and none of them were nonfiction. So we had a conversation about that. But I do think both displays and book talks are a great way to do that.
Terry: That's one of the things I really love about this book, is the number of example titles that you offer in trade books that teachers can access in their libraries or go out and purchase if they choose to do so, and have at their fingertips to work with kids. They're just so engaging and interesting. About how many books are in there, suggested titles?
Melissa: Yeah, upward of 150.
Terry: That alone, it's just a huge collection of wonderful, rich, terrific nonfiction that kids are just going to dive into. One of the things that interested me in the final chapter, is you introduce these terms, blended nonfiction and gateway nonfiction, under the guise of your endgame. Can you talk about that a little bit, these terms and what you mean by them?
Melissa: Yeah. So the 5 kinds of nonfiction, if you take kind of the wide world of nonfiction, most books, I would say maybe 85% of all books fit snugly into one of those five categories, but there are outliers. And so, those are books that have characteristics that cross categories, and we call them blended books. So there could be some books that are a blend between expository literature and browsable nonfiction, that they have characteristics of both, specifically in terms of gateway nonfiction. So gateway nonfiction is a term that was created by a very well known librarian, Jonathan Hunt, who is out in the San Diego area. And he defines it as a theoretical group of books that can help kids kind of... it fills the gap between the high interest nonfiction books that kids love as elementary readers and the more rigorous texts that they're required to read in middle school, high school, college. And if there were books that kind of helped to make that transition, it might be a really valuable thing.
Melissa: So what are the characteristics of a book like that? And once we figure that out, let's get publishers to create more of them. And so, what we think is that blended books that are a mix of expository literature and narrative nonfiction really can fill that gap for a wide range of students. Because if you have some students who are narrative lovers and they can interact successfully with the narrative portions of that blended book, that they are going to be able to just tackle them and get excited. But once they're intrigued by the topic, they're going to want to read the entire book and it's going to motivate them to kind of cross over and really figure out, struggle to read those expository passages that they might not gravitate towards so much naturally. And the same from the other side, if you have an expository loving kid, blended books can help them, really center them on the expository parts that they love, but then cross over and learn to be able to navigate those narrative portions.
Melissa: And so, what you get are kids who on their own, self-motivated are developing the skills to interact successfully with a broad range of nonfiction texts. And once they have that skill, they can carry that with them for their entire life.
Terry: Exactly. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I'm sitting here listening to the two of you and I'm excited and I'm motivated. And I'm thinking about our listeners right now. And so many of them are gearing up to head back to school. And I imagine just from listening to this, they're really going to want to incorporate some of what you're talking about with the 5 kinds of nonfiction, into their new year. So before we close up, do you have suggestions for teachers and librarians who really just want to get going tomorrow? What can they put in place, in their classrooms, in their libraries from day one? How would they get started?
Marlene: I think starting with read-aloud the first week of school and incorporating both fiction and nonfiction in your read-alouds, so that students see that you're giving them equal attention. I think that's important. And some of the books that teachers use the first week of school typically are fictional. The First Day Jitters is a great book, but incorporate some nonfiction books that go along with the beginning of school as well, like One World, One Day. Those types of books also, just to show students that you're giving them equal attention.
Marlene: And then, I would also say another thing to do is follow Melissa's blog and check out the resources on the Stenhouse website from our book, to start to find titles that you want to share with students. We have designed a book match survey that teachers can administer to students at the beginning of the year, just to find out what their interests are. And then, you might be able to find books that match your students' interests, that cover the 5 kinds of nonfiction.
Melissa: And I think once you have that list, often parents will come in and say, "I would like to buy a couple books for the class." or there might be some Scholastic bonus points that you have, and you want to try to... that way, you'll have that list, and any time a little bit of money becomes available, you can say, "Okay, I'm going to buy this group of books because I know my class is going to be super interested in it and it's going to get them super engaged."
Terry: Yeah. Well, Melissa, Marlene, thank you so much for joining me today for this conversation. I know that the work you're doing and this book is going to make a tremendous difference in the learning lives of so many kids and their teachers too. Thank you.
Marlene: Thank you.
Melissa: Thank you.