Using Fiction to Engage Students With Facts

Children need to learn how to read “informational texts”—fact-filled, often dense pieces of nonfiction of the kind that older students, and adults, work with all the time. Yet kids are more easily engaged by narrative stories. How do we square this circle?

Doug Lemov has a solution. Lemov, who many of you know as the author of Teach Like a Champion (and the new Practice Perfect), has been working on how to improve students’ reading skills in his other capacity, as managing director of Uncommon Schools, a network of charter schools.

I attended a workshop given by Lemov last night at which he spoke about the idea of “embedded nonfiction.” Basically, the idea is to supplement novels and short stories with nonfiction selections on related topics.

His teachers’ experience with this approach is that students understand the narratives better for having read the supporting factual material, and they care more about the nonfiction passages because they illuminate the experiences of characters the students have come to care about.

In one class he described, students read Lily’s Crossing, a historical novel about a young girl living through World War II, along with a nonfiction article describing the wartime system of food rationing. “I’ve never seen my kids care so much about something so dull!” the teacher said to Lemov.

The connection between the fiction and nonfiction readings need not be so close, either. Lemov showed a video clip of a teacher using a nonfiction article about hierarchies in the animal kingdom to help deepen students’ understanding of the social pecking order depicted in the classic young adult novel The Outsiders.

As Lemov noted, this kind of fiction-nonfiction crossover is something adult readers do all the time—we’ll become interested in something we read about in a novel and Google it to find out more. Our understanding of both the narrative and the factual material is enriched—and the same can be true for kids, too.

Here’s an Education Week article in which Lemov talks more about the technique of “embedded nonfiction.” Is this something you think could work for your kids?

5 Responses to “Using Fiction to Engage Students With Facts”

  1. Lonny Fennis says:

    This is an interesting and practical idea. Furthermkre, it gives us the opportunity to incorporate some ‘academic laguage’ and therefore vocabulary which children need to understand non-fiction.

  2. Denise Spivey says:

    What an excellent idea! I can imagine all kinds of pairings, including those using tv/film.

  3. The “I Survived” Series by Lauren Tarshis is a wonderful example of using a fiction series to further exploration of historical events. I recently read her new book, “I Survived the Terrorist Attacks of September 11th” to 4th and 5th grade students. I forgot that they were not yet born during this tragic time, and they were full of questions.

  4. There’s no question that narrative is a highly underrated tool when teaching at any level. I think of my daughter’s experience with the American Girl books: Although the books are completely formulaic, they still got my daughter to connect emotionally and more personally with topics such as slavery, the impact of World War II, and so.

    In a business context, Patrick Lencioni has done this as well by writing narratives meant to bring different models to life, as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. These would be pretty dry and abstract books otherwise.

    My company teaches leaders how to tell three-minute stories to make important points about values and behaviors they’re trying to drive. It’s really become THE way for leaders or teachers to engage hearts as well as minds.

  5. Caleb says:

    I absolutely love Doug Lemov’s work, and I’m glad to see more and more discussion about his books. As a teaching artist, his strategies really got me thinking about what good teaching means. I’d like to add too that the above works as a really good Arts Integration strategy. Using the arts to connect students to content learning allows for a more engaging and holistic approach. If I were leading a lesson like this, I would go a step further and have students act out scenes from the books in ways that can also demonstrate their knowledge of the nonfiction content — i.e. ad lib lines, tone of voice, or even narration of action like in a film noir scene. The more senses and areas of the brain a lesson engages, the more supple and lasting the knowledge gained.

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