Defining nonfiction

Think back to when you were in school.  We all learned the difference between fiction and nonfiction, but take a moment to think about how you would define that term for your students.  I specifically remember one of my teachers reminding us that NF stood for nonfiction and not fake.  Last week I asked you to share your own definition of nonfiction in 5 words or less.  Here’s a word cloud I created based on the definitions you all shared:

Nonfiction_definition_wordle

You’ll notice as you look at this that the terms that appeared most in our definitions were informational, factual, facts, and real.

As we all know, when reading a nonfiction text, we cannot always accept everything at 100% factual.  Think of just about any controversial topic.  You can find nonfiction pieces written in support of and against global warming, evolution, or the risks of tobacco use.  Does that mean that both sides of the story are true?  Or are they both lying to us?  Most of the time, it’s much more nuanced than that.

For a variety of reasons, authors may omit information, tell us little white lies, or manipulate their research and data.  The reality is that nonfiction can be so challenging because it forces us to interact with the text in ways that fiction never expect us to do.  As Beers and Probst say, we must understand when reading nonfiction that “the author is not offering the truth, but one vision of the truth.”  Sometimes a nonfiction author will go so far as to explicitly tell us the inference they want us to make.  The author wants us to accept their version as the truth without questioning, but we must think about the purpose the author has for writing.

This brings us to the question, how do we really define nonfiction?  I love the definition that Beers and Probst put forth, and is much deeper than the definition I was given of “not fake”:

Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.

To me, the key word here is purports.  Every author has a purpose in their writing, and depending on that purpose they may lead us to conclusions that we wouldn’t generally make if we were in possession of all the facts.  This definition reminds us of the importance of reading with a questioning stance.

By seeking the author’s purpose while we are reading, we will be better able to look at nonfiction and understand why an author made the choices they did.  If you want to see a great example of an article that can be used to look at author’s purpose, take a look at “Vampires Prey on Panama” found on page 261 of Reading Nonfiction.  As you read the article, pay close attention to the words that are used to describe the farmer compared to the words that are used to describe the scientist.  Who’s the antagonist?  Who’s the hero?  Why does the author choose to write in this way?  If our students learn to have that questioning stance as they read nonfiction, they will be better at identifying the author’s purpose.

The nonfiction signposts will also help our students to get the author’s purpose.  During our PD with Beers and Probst last week, they identified 2 signposts in particular that help us better understand the author’s purpose.  I’ll share with you a little about each of those signposts next week.

In the past week it’s been great seeing so many of the teachers in our building working to integrate the 3 main questions that were the basis of my post last week.  So I’m curious, how do you define nonfiction for your students?  I’d also love to hear more about how you have been implementing the questions into subject areas other than reading, or what you’ve noticed about the thinking that your students are doing as a result of these questions.  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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5 thoughts on “Defining nonfiction

  1. Asking “What surpised you?” seems like such a simple question but I have been amazed at what thoughtful responses I have heard this week. Wendy and I have given each homeroom a different country to research as part of a Music Olympics theme we are doing. One of the questions they must respond to as they research their country is “what surprised you about this country?” Students have made interesting observations. We have also been watching an interview with John Williams where he discussed The Olympic Fanfare and Theme song he wrote. I have asked the same question of students after they watched the interview. Some students had really deep things surprise them such as realizing John Williams very purposely crafted the songs with different Olympic images in mind. Another student was surprised to see an ice skater in a clip and didn’t realize that ice skating was an Olympic sport. They noticed things that I didn’t notice or things that I didn’t think that THEY would notice

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    1. I agree Lisa! I never thought I would hear the students use the phrase, “I wonder” in math. Once I introduced it, they started asking more often and the high level thinking happened automatically. The conversations were so much richer!

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  2. Great suggestions! This is especially important when reading/watching the news always, but even more so during presidential election years! Something I use to show my kids this concept, and they get that aha moment, is cookbooks with descriptions. When you read how delicious fish eggs and chicken liver are next to beautiful pictures of the staged delicacies, it’s easy to see how an author can persuade a reader.

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