March 12, 2012

Teaching kids to read using nonfiction works better.

Aha! Back in '07, I got all sorts of criticism for advocating teaching reading with nonfiction books — science, history, etc. — and now here's the evidence that it is the best method.


Alex said...

I have to agree with this. When I was growing up, I read a ton of science, history, geography, grammar and did vocabulary quizzes. I got plenty of fictional reading done without any prodding. The key is discipline!

cassandra lite said...

Yeah, and teaching history through biography would get kids (and adults) to love the subject. Memorizing dates and names is stupid and useless. Tell stories and people of all ages will remember forever.

Synova said...

It makes sense, even beyond the idea that a wider knowledge base increases comprehension, since young children are often better with concrete concepts and sometimes will get hung up on what they view as not lining up with what is real.

There has been a very weird focus on the supposed necessity for children to love novels. That has got to have an effect on kids who don't love novels, as if that means something is wrong with them.

*I* love novels... but is that really better than loving informative articles? I don't think so.

rhhardin said...

Look. Look. See. See. Dick and Jane and baby Sally are all grown up. See Dick now. He has a receding hairline and is a systems engineer for a public utility. Susan is his wife and they have three boys. They live in Dayton, Ohio. Dick still likes Kool-Aid. See Jane. She is divorced and has two girls. One of them has green hair. Jane is a loan officer and has an Amway distributorship See Sally She is a yuppie. She belongs to three health clubs, drives a Saab and skydives.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

If you're attempting to teach boys to read -- I raised three and taught 'em to read myself -- it had damned well better be non-fiction (or at least highly credible adventure fiction) or they quite simply won't give a shit about it.

For my boys it was nature, history, and most especially HOW THINGS WORK. I made especial efforts to ensure they understood that "feelings" do not matter to facts. They all grew up to be rational, sensitive men.

Over-verminized (oops, I meant over-feminized) government schools emphasize things completely arse-backwards and the results are predictably horrific.

edutcher said...

A good story is key, as Brother Bart implies, but I remember back when all the Westerns were on TV (50s, of course), kids rushed to the library to read up on Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, so, as least for boys, there would be probably some support for Ann's contention.

PS At the link, there's an Amazon ad for The Child's Treasury of Special Forces.

Yeah, that would tickle a kid's bloodthirsty imagination.

Bob said...

Most teachers of children are products of the national College-of-Education culture, which is an anti-history, anti-science, anti-factual culture that values things like storytelling and keeping personal journals.

MayBee said...

My son that doesn't love to read (but loves to write) really only liked non-fiction when he was learning to read.
He liked to know stuff more than he liked the act of reading.

PeterK said...

by the fourth grade I was voraciously reading first person accounts of WW2. to this day I much prefer reading non-fiction

n.n said...

The conclusion of this study only has statistical legitimacy. As with all studies which hope to ignore individual dignity, the value of their claims should be accepted with skepticism. The best experience and knowledge would suggest that moderation is still the only universally favorable principle.

As for reading comprehension, it seems the critical concern should be with the features of the writing (e.g. technical, structural) rather than the content, and engaging the reader. I suppose it depends on how you define effective comprehension.

MadisonMan said...

I suspect the fiction books did not include Harry Potter or Tolkien, which my son read multiple times.

roesch/voltaire said...

The first book that left its mark on me was Big Red by Jim Kjelgaaard, but after reading most of what he wrote, I spent my time reading books about amateur radio, and rocket science. For the last ten years, I have been trying to convince a high school to offer a literature/ writing course designed to appeal to tech geeks and future scientist with no takers so far.

Skippy said...

High schools in my district of California are stressing the reading of non-fiction as is the California State University system. The CSU has a program called RIAP that's excellent and which shows high school teachers across the curriculum how to get students to read and re-read non-fiction to make inferences, understand rhetorical devices, to write rhetorical summaries and essays using the materials they have read. Extremely effective -- much more so than getting the students to read novels.

Roman said...

How about cutting the psychobabble and not try to put people into piegon holes. Treat them as individuals, as we all are. When I was in about the 5th grade, I started reading the encyclopedia, all the way through. If your child likes fiction/non-fiction, be OK with it and celebrate learning.

themightypuck said...

Experiment design seems a bit suspect. Also: Most Published Studies Wrong

kcom said...

"and now here's the evidence"

Here's some evidence would probably be more accurate. One study doesn't prove anything by itself.

Why most research will tend to be wrong

mesquito said...

Teaching kids to read by turning off the goddam teevee works bestest.

wyo sis said...

Now we're in my area of expertise! The study, surprisingly, can be born out in practical experience. The key is allowing children to choose what they want to read. And after they choose it it's important to know if they really read and understand it.
In my experience children from 5 to 8 years old generally want to read nonfiction. After 3rd grade they tend to go for fantasy, adventure, and stories about realistic kids. Boys want ACTION in any genre.
Accountable reading practice with the child making the choice within their reading ability is the best. Kids will surprise you. If they want to read a book they will go to almost any length to get it and read it.
And, yes, Harry Potter was an explosive landmark.

themightypuck said...

Beat you kcom neener neener neener. Also Jinx. You get credit for better link.

Pogo said...

But if they read nonfiction, how will they learn about feminism?

Mark O said...

Comic books. Especially Uncle Scrooge.

Pogo said...

Want to kill a boy's desire to read?

Make him study an "award winning" children's book.

The worst was one my son had to read which had several chapters detailing how to throw a pot. In the other chapters, nothing happened at all. Many awards, for some reason.

Freeman Hunt said...

The school district here just adopted the Core Knowledge curriculum. I'm happy about it because we were already planning to keep pace with the CK scope and sequence on the side, so now my homeschooled children will have a bit more in common with their public schooled peers.

phx said...

In the early years of reading I don't remember getting books assigned by the school other than a reader (you know, Dick and Jane).

The books always came from home or the school library. Dinosaur books and other science books for children.

Kids need to be read to before they can read. Story and pictures books are excellent for that.

I think parents should make all their books available to their children.

I remember my very young child pulling all my books off the bookshelf once. I decided not to say anything because I never wanted her to be afraid of getting near them.

traditionalguy said...

It is an old wives tale that children like dumb fantasy. Only Liberals like that mind numbing diversion.

To e-duce some one to learn you have to start with something they already know about and build slowly from there.

Fiction fed to children floats on a cloud in never never land. The kids are bored to tears but they pretend to like it to please their nutty parents.

Freeman Hunt said...

CK will, however, be utterly destroyed in a decade or so. Now that the federal government is pushing it, it will be taken over by special interests and ruined. But it's a nice curriculum for schools for now.

Wally Kalbacken said...

I recommend that kids start off with true crime.

phx said...

Fiction fed to children floats on a cloud in never never land. The kids are bored to tears but they pretend to like it to please their nutty parents.

One third of the time traditionguy says some of the greatest things on althouse, then a third of the time he says some of the dumbest.

Synova said...

I think it’s a very problematic study,” said Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and an architect of the city’s balanced literacy program.

“As far as I can tell, they gave resources to 10 schools to support content literacy and then they tested all of the schools on content literacy,” she said, adding that there was no way of knowing with what fidelity the 10 comparison schools were using a form of balanced literacy


The thing of it is (as Pogo implied) the lets-read-novels approach is also "content literacy" since fiction is most certainly chosen for content.

Later on, that's going to make a huge difference. I love novels, but the ones supposedly good for me, that have the preferred content, are generally boring beyond all reason.

But this study isn't about later, it's about K-2nd grade or so.

And doesn't it make *sense* that if the idea is to increase vocabulary and comprehension for new readers, that reading that involves non-fictional description of real things will improve comprehension?

It is also unlikely that a young student is going to have any lack of storybooks, if that is what the child likes. So why not teach more to students who get excited about knowing real stuff about the world?

Synova said...

"I think parents should make all their books available to their children."

Isn't that a little bit like saying parents should take their children to all the same movies they see?

phx said...

synova I said "Make them available" not "Make them read them."

The problem with some of you is that whatever they fed you on you still didn't learn to read properly.

Lem said...

Intuitively that sounds right to me.

My earliest memories that I can recall are those of my father reading the paper daily.

Freeman Hunt said...

No, Synova makes a good point. Not all of my movies are available to my kids to watch (read: hardly any of them are.)

I also have plenty of books that they have no business reading. Lolita, for example.

bagoh20 said...

Like Roman, I learned to read by going through the encyclopedia. My parents bought a set from one of the door-to-door salesman that sold them back in the 60s. They gave you a little mechanical bank thing that you put a quarter in every day. Then you were supposed to send in that money each month.

I read every volume and much of it over and over. No discipline, no plan, just love of learning facts. I still spend many hours randomly browsing Wikipedia. I'm very glad I lived to enjoy the internet. It's the ultimate for a nonfiction addict like me. I love fiction once I get started, and my favorite books are fiction, but I find it very hard to start a story when there is still so much real stuff to learn out there.

The down side of this is that I don't think I have much of an appreciation for good artful writing. I just want clear and concise.

The older I get the more I realize how much I've missed of everything.

phx said...

FH - In my "book library" I don't think there was anything that would have been off limits to my daughter if she had an interest in it.

Videos and movies are an entirely different topic, IMO.

phx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Synova said...

I suppose I should have said... take their kids to all the movies they see if they express an interest.


Many elementary school students are fluent readers. By fluent I mean they test out past 12th grade comprehension by 4th grade and better than that soon after (if anyone tested for better than that.)

It is very easy to find books that are every bit as inappropriate as, oh, the movie Watchmen, and still hold their interest.

And yes, I think every child gets her grubby hands on something naughty from time to time and isn't irreversibly scarred, but that's not the same thing as a parent pointing to a shelf of erotica and saying "help yourself, dear."

No, I don't really think that's what people mean when they announce that they don't restrict what their children are allowed to read, and I might not fuss about the details except for the implications of smugness involved.

Should I say, sure, sweetie, read _Ghost_? Of course not.

phx said...

Common sense rules though of course. If you have porn or illustrated how-to sex books in your "library", don't make them available. You shouldn't store stuff like THAT in a place where kids can get at them, like a bookshelf.

I think the real issue today is not fiction vs. non-fiction, but books vs. DVD and games. I'll bet some people who are terrified of having their kids read some kinds of books probably let them have access to all sorts of inappropriate games and movies. I was always astonished at the stuff my nieces and nephews were allowed to watch.

Synova said...

OTOH, send a kid to school with one or another copy of Jane's and someone will probably sic CPS on you.

phx said...

Should I say, sure, sweetie, read _Ghost_? Of course not.

I don't know, what is Ghost? Maybe something I wouldn't have on my bookshelf to begin with.

I never once had a problem with anything my daughter read - that I knew about. Notwithstanding "Ghost" whatever it is, I can't imagine what I/we would have said no to, although I'm sure their must have been something that would have set my nerve on edge.

Maybe real commercial junk, but she knew enough to hide that if she was ever interested. Not as smug as I am.

phx said...

"My mom and dad won't let me read the Berenstain Bears."
That's for sure sweetie. Here, go play with the Nabakov book.

Synova said...

I actually refused to read any more Redwall books to the kids halfway through one of them on account of I decided that the morals were horrific. Genocide (of the sparrows) hardly made a blip and then a sparrow they knew died and it was a tragedy and then one time they'd righteously defend themselves with the dealing of violent death and the next time they'd be in a moral dither and get their friends killed.

I don't remember what event was the one that had me set the book down and tell the kids I was done.

bagoh20 said...


Unfortunately, that inconsistency sounds pretty much like the real world.

wyo sis said...

It sounds like the real world to me. I'm not a particular fan of Redwall, but in the Redwall series the animals are mirroring human behavior. It's a great time to discuss moral issues and help children understand choices and consequences. That's one reason parents reading with their children is so powerful.

Freeman Hunt said...

Looking at one bookshelf in my living room, I see 1984, The Jungle, The Inferno, Slaughterhouse Five, Beloved, and similar. My fluently reading five year old will not have access to these for several years. (Not that a five year old is going to read something like Beloved, but that's not the point.)

phx said...

(Not that a five year old is going to read something like Beloved, but that's not the point.)

It seemed to me as a parent that when my child expressed an interest in Beloved or any of those books, I saw no reason to keep them from her.

My original point was that if she wanted to pick Beloved off the shelf at any age and look at it, play with it, or read it I wouldn't stop her, because I didn't want her to ever think my books were off limits to her.

You and I agree that a five-year old isn't going to read Beloved.

So my respectful question for you is at what age that s/he can read it will you say no you can't read it, and at what age will it be okay for her? My answer has been "She'll ask for it when she's ready." How will you know?

prairie wind said...

mesquito said...
Teaching kids to read by turning off the goddam teevee works bestest.

Absolutely. We got rid of TV (though we kept the TVs to watch movies) and we all read more now.

Children should be taught to read well, no matter if they love it or not. Loving it sure makes the job of teaching easier, but even those kids who don't love reading need to be able to read well. All their lives, reading will be the key to a better life. Once kids show that they love to read, the teachers stop worrying about them. I sort of understand why, but I still want the teachers to make them better readers. Challenge them with more higher-level reading.

I agree that reading non-fiction is an excellent way to teach reading.

Dante said...

Let's not forget how "Look Say, Whole Word Language" was purported to be great for learning too. Yet, in the end, lots of children ended up not learning to read.

When I found out the local school was continuing in part with "Look-Say, Whole Word," I pulled my kids out of public school and put them in private school.

So perhaps there are other differences in the reading programs that make up for the differences.

Freeman Hunt said...

My answer has been "She'll ask for it when she's ready." How will you know?

How will the child know? The child has no life experience. That's why it's up to the parent.

I was reading my father's Stephen King books long before I should have been.

I think the best you can do is know by knowing your kid and knowing what is in your books.

Roger Sweeny said...

Today, females do much better in school than males. They get better grades, graduate high school at a much higher rate, and receive many more college degrees than men.

One reason for this is that males don't read as well, partly because they aren't as interested in the books that they are supposed to read. This is unplanned affirmative action for females. If schools do more non-fiction reading, males will do better. However, this will reinforce patriarchy and is a BAD THING.

Joe said...

It's more likely the Pilot Program Effect.

Come up with an educational theory, just about any theory, start a pilot program and it will likely be successful. Yet, do a wide implementation and will most likely fail. (An alternative is to take what one teach does and make it system wide. Same results.)

The cause is simple; Educational pilot studies are typically done by better than average teachers with one-on-one training and follow through by the proponents. The teachers want to succeed and so try harder. In turn, students are either told or figure out that this is something different and respond to it.

In this case, I'll wager that the kids read more and time on task is usually the best way to truly learn anything.

Synova said...

It sounds like the real world to me. I'm not a particular fan of Redwall, but in the Redwall series the animals are mirroring human behavior. It's a great time to discuss moral issues and help children understand choices and consequences. That's one reason parents reading with their children is so powerful.

I know that many many people think those books are fabulous. I felt that the lack of clarity about violence in self-defense and the *extreme* variability between the animal's attitudes about the horror of war showed the author's moral confusion rather than varied characterization within the novels, genocide not even getting a shrug because none of the dead had names, though it was over 10 years ago so I'm fuzzy on the specifics. This came to a head in the third book or so. Obviously I got pretty far into it.

I exercised the power of a parent reading to her children by explaining the moral objection to my kids and putting down the book.

Kirk Parker said...


" I don't think I have much of an appreciation for good artful writing. I just want clear and concise.

In my world those are one and the same.

Kirk Parker said...


"Unplanned"? Whatever makes you think that is the case?

phx said...

It's completely legitimate for some parents to tell their kids when the kids are ready to read certain books.

But personally I always knew my daughter would tell me when she was ready for them, usually be actually reading those books, which she did.

phx said...

"I don't think I have much of an appreciation for good artful writing. I just want clear and concise."

"In my world those are one and the same."

Certainly for nonfiction. For fiction, that's not always a hard and fast rule. The King James Bible isn't so clear and concise by today's standards for example. Yet many people value reading it more highly than other *clearer* versions.

I'm reading Jane Eyre right now. Not so concise by today's standards. But what a fantastic read.

YMMV, as always.

Tarzan said...

I have twin 6yo boys and every thursday at their school is Library day. To date, they have brought home like 2, maybe 3 story books. Everything else is science. Bugs, stars, planets, whales, sharks, whatever.

I was surprised by this and at first, admittedly a little disappointed. Count me as one of those parents who expected kids to be bored by science and more amused by silly or cute stories.

Now that I think about it, it makes a great deal of sense. They are ALWAYS asking questions and are starving for answers to EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME!

I'm quite enthused by this, and will make a much greater effort now to focus our reading on these science-y books.

Count me as someone who learned something here.

wv: "youndul themiz" - early 60's TV comedy about a perky young Jewish girl

Tarzan said...

All their lives, reading will be the key to a better life.

Yes. I do Kumon with my boys every night and it's been a huge help. I don't want them to fear school because they don't understand what's going on. That's me projecting my experience on them, of course, but that's that.

They don't enjoy Kumon very much, but get a huge kick sometimes out of simply being able to read.

I remember one of my boys reading a street sign or something out loud and then, after a brief pause, saying, "Daddy? How did I do that?" and getting happy and excited.

Those moments rule.

Tarzan said...

Re: Redwall

Haven't read that series, but I remember loving 'smart animal' books as a kid. Rabbit Run, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMN, Freddy The Pig ... I loved those books!

Then I remember coming across Watership Down around 6th grade or so and thinking, 'cool! something longer!'

Gag me if I ever finished that book. Just couldn't do it. Too f*cking depressing. Years later I recall reading the 'Duncton Wood' series and finally dropping it in disgust.

Tales of man's inhumanity to man abound. Seeing it played out with cute, fuzzy characters does absolutely nothing for me. Writers, apparently, enjoy the cleverness.

"They're cute! And they're killing each other! Get it?"

MAUS, whatever.

Yeah. Thanks. Yer fuggin' brilliant.

Tarzan said...

I shouldn't include MAUS. At least that book told you up front what you were getting into.

Duncan Faber said...

Our kids used to be hooked on videogames. We fixed that by swapping them out for audiobooks. Audiobooks are far more engaging. There are lots of sites where you can download them, but we use this one a lot because the stories are original and free. Here's the link if anyone is interested. It really helps to get them interested in reading.

John Michaelson said...

Ours really took to reading with the Bob books. We read to them constantly after they were born. I think that helped get them ready. John(