Teaching Reading: Pairing Non-Fiction with Fiction

Updated: Apr 21


Text saying 'Teaching Reading: Pairing Non-Fiction with Fiction' over a blurred image of stacks of books.

Here's another blog post from the archives, from back when I was a year 6 teacher in the aftermath of the 2016 reading SATs:


Having spent a term with year 6 on reading fiction (and answering questions based on fiction texts) data analysis pointed firmly towards non-fiction as being next on the agenda. Data analysis aside, the reading of non-fiction texts is one of the key ways in which we learn throughout life; as Barack Obama said: "Reading makes all other learning possible". In addition to this, having a greater knowledge base makes us better readers of fiction and although reading fiction is one way to experience and learn new ideas, non-fiction is arguably better for this purpose. Still wanting to read a class novel (the reasons for my desire to do this are probably obvious and would take up an entire blog post for themselves) I realised now was the time to put into practice one of my key takeaways from 'Reading Reconsidered': the concept of embedding non-fiction and pairing texts. In chapter 3 of 'Reading Reconsidered' the authors describe how shorter non-fiction texts chosen to run alongside a class novel fall into two main categories: Inside the Bull's-Eye: contains "content necessary to support basic understanding of the primary [main] text" (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123) Outside the Bull's-Eye: causes "students to look at the primary [main] text in a new and unexpected or more rigorous way"(Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123) I would absolutely recommend that any teacher interested in teaching reading effectively read 'Reading Reconsidered' - the chapter on reading non-fiction is full of insights guaranteed to improve some aspect of practice. Focusing only on the Inside the Bull's-Eye category of text, here a just a few of those insights, the ones most relevant to this blog post: "When students start from a base of knowledge, their inferences allow them to engage with the text with much greater depth - to learn from what they read as efficiently as possible. They're more attentive, both to the emotions of the characters and to the factual information presented in the fictional text." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123) "When texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123) The book also describes how children are more likely to understand a non-fiction text if they can relate its content to characters from a novel who they felt connected to - this particularly when the fiction text is begun to be read before introducing some of the non-fiction texts. "...we typically choose [non-fiction] texts assuming that we are helping our students fill in knowledge gaps... but this results in non-fiction that constantly appears out of context..." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 125) "Embedding, pairing non-fiction with related fiction, brings both to life." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 125) So with this in mind I set about looking for paired texts to go with our current class novel 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig. The book is set during World War Two in Denmark and is all about the Danish underground resistance. It explore many themes such as antisemitism, homophobia and good and bad. As such, there are not a lot of books in our library with readily available texts to use as secondary texts so I began to prepare texts based on internet sources: The main characters in the book are a family involved in theatre - there are constant references to theatre throughout the text (even the chapters are called, for example, Act 1 Scene 3) so my first paired non-fiction text was simply a list of theatre vocabulary - already, after reading just a few chapters, the learning from reading this has been invaluable. The children in my class had not previously studied WW2 so it was important for them to have some context early on. Whilst we reading the second chapter we also read a fairly simple text, which included a world map, about the countries involved in the war; it also mentioned briefly the causes of the war.


The book fairly quickly throws up the idea of persecution, particularly antisemitic persecution. In passing pogroms are mentioned. Pogroms are not usually touched upon in primary schools however I saw it as a way into the whole concept of antisemitism. Rather than skim over the mention of pogroms, perhaps with a brief definition, I decided to prepare a linked text about them. It was full of challenging vocabulary (which the session focused on as well as information retrieval) but the children are already linking this level of persecution with every mention of a Jewish character in the story, helping them to understand the gravity of the situation some of the characters are facing. Continuing on the theme of antisemitism and persecution I decided to preempt the part of the story when Jews begin to be taken away by the Nazis. I wanted, as mentioned previously, children to understand and anticipate how the Jewish characters (and their friends) would be feeling about the events in the story. For this I chose a non-fiction with a certain amount of narrative: the life story of Zigi Shipper, a holocaust survivor. As well as the narrative provided in the text, there is lots of simply communicated background information about the Nazis and their death camps. The challenge of this approach will be continuing to find a variety relevant texts - the temptation will be to provide an endless stream of 'non-chronological reports' rather than a mix of newspaper articles, advertisements, information leaflets, diary entries, letters and so on. Hopefully, with careful selection (and creation), I will be able to provide the children with a range of non-fiction text that increase their understanding of the events in 'Hitler's Canary' at the same time as bolstering their knowledge of World War Two and their understanding of issues such as racism and tolerance. As their knowledge and understanding grows, it will be interesting to see if their inferences do become more accurate - they are already engaging with the novel at a deeper level than a previous group of children who were not provided with the paired non-fiction text. If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.




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