Find your storybook ending: Using fiction text as a hook for building better nonfiction reading skills in the middle school classroom

Because integrating language arts into any subject is a critical cross-curricular skill, we need students to master nonfiction reading to be able to learn, innovate, and think creatively. How can we, as teachers, support this by teaching strong nonfiction reading skills? This is part one of a five-part series on supporting your middle school students in improving nonfiction reading skills.

Maybe you’re a third year teacher, and while you’ve mastered behavior management and parent communication, you’re struggling to support your students in their nonfiction reading growth. Between pressure from your admin to get those test scores up and the internal angst of watching more experienced teachers get results, you’re feeling frustrated and wondering if you’ve chosen the right profession. 

Take a deep breath and remember that teaching, as a profession, needs you and your energy, creative ideas, and love for your students. Every single teacher can grow in some way, from the most experienced teaching wizard down the hall to the electives teacher who gets all of the hugs. 

Teaching nonfiction reading is an art. There’s no way around it. You are capable of the hard work it will take to support your students with the skills and practice they need to improve at reading non-fiction. It’s important to take this journey in bite-sized chunks. The first step? Hook your kids with fiction.

This concept may seem out of place and like a giant waste of time. You’ll never hook your kids on reading non-fiction if it is so onerous, so frustrating, that they can’t even read the chapter books they see their classmates enjoying. Supporting kids in loving aesthetic reading can seem like a task only for our elementary teaching colleagues, but I’m going to push back on that. We, the teachers of content-specific curriculum, can help kids love reading. It doesn’t matter if you’re the PE teacher or the physics guru, you can help students find their path to becoming readers. 

Help your students find their storybook ending as readers of nonfiction with these four tips.

Book talks. Some classroom rituals stand the test of time, and book talks make the top of that list. I will stop my science class at any time to stop, drop and talk about books. the middle of a test? Time to go to lunch? Who cares? I need to tell y’all about a book! It only takes a few teacher-led book talks for students to want in on the action. Cede the stage to your students! Kids love learning about new books from their peers.

Read more middle grades fiction. You can’t recommend books without reading them first. My bedside table is littered with young adult books from all genres. Check the ALA list of recommended YA books. Browse the library shelves. Look at the books your students are carrying around. Ask for book suggestions from your students.

Read genres that are the worst. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But we all have genres that are not our favorites. I distinctly remember the day I was standing in the library at my overseas elementary school when the librarian told me it was time. It was time to get over my dismissive attitude for graphic novels. Allow me a vulnerable and honest moment? I thought they were trash. Looking back, it was critical to my growth as a teacher that the librarian called out my ignorance. By viewing graphic novels with a negative lens, I was showing disrespect to my students who loved those high-interest, high-action books. The librarian handed me a stack of books on the day before Thanksgiving break and said, “These are your homework.” I took it seriously. The book that won me over was Amulet. I now recommend graphic novels to my students frequently. The point is to get your kids reading. Sports magazines, diary-style books, high-interest books with more images than words. These books all provide students the opportunity to get lost in a book.

Make time for reading. Many middle schools have a class time that serves as a homeroom or study hall class. Use this time to encourage students to read. Get out the magazines, high-interest Ripley’s Believe it or Not books, and a selection of nonfiction picture books. Let students read under the desks, sitting on the desks, or upside down. Get outside with your books–one of my favorite missives to students is, “They shall know you by your dirty bottoms.” Yes, we can find a sunbeam, lay in the sun, and read!

Helping students find their happily ever after as readers can be a long process. But without this step, students will struggle to both understand the nonfiction texts you provide, and will have a lack of engagement. Students who never understood the magic of being immersed in a story can’t understand what their classmates love about reading. When students show up with the fixed mindset that reading is not for them, you will never make progress in supporting them with nonfiction reading skills.

Once you get students on board with aesthetic reading, it makes the nonfiction reading sessions an easier sell. For the next four weeks, I will detail ways to structure your lessons to build better readers of nonfiction. You already have so many of the necessary tools to help boost reading skills in your classroom: Relationships with your students, reliable classroom routines and structures, and content-area knowledge. Subscribe below to receive updates about new blog posts to continue the journey of improved reading skills in your middle school classroom.

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