How Reading Non-fiction Texts Helps My Students Understand and Analyze Fiction

Andria FinchAs a 15-year veteran teacher of Secondary English Language Arts, I challenge myself daily by asking: how can I help my students not only grow in their reading ability, but also analyze the content they're reading and learn how to build their knowledge from the content?  Students enter my class at a wide range of ability levels in reading and some enter tenth grade as struggling readers. Research has pointed to the critical importance of reading ability throughout a students’ educational experience and has even been shown as predictive of such outcomes as graduating high school on time.  It has also been determined as an essential link to socioeconomic opportunity and civic involvement.

As my students’ only tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade English teacher, I feel an overwhelming responsibility to prepare them for their future endeavors.  Reading is a foundational key to unlocking the door to a student’s post high school goals, whether that is a career, higher education, personal development or engaged citizenship.

I have found that the most successful strategies I use are focused on helping students develop their knowledge related to concepts in challenging and complex texts. This helps students make meaning from complex texts by feeling more confident participating in class discussions and in writing well-developed pieces. This is not to say that we, as teachers, should feel the need to pre-teach every aspect of the author’s life, every new vocabulary word the kids may encounter, nor every detail relating to the time period in which the work was written. I do, however, feel that by strengthening students’ knowledge of a topic, subject or concept, they are better able to understand and critically analyze complex texts.

This happens when my students read a variety of texts, including fiction and non-fiction, related to the topic and/or standard(s) addressed in a particular unit. In past years before the Common Core Learning Standards, my class would often concentrate on a piece of literature for a few weeks and focus mainly on one topic such as character development. Now, they gain the relevant background information to aid them in making more detailed inferences and they are able to move well beyond character development to better understand challenging texts that they may not otherwise have been able to approach.

For example, while teaching an evidence-based claims unit using The Great Gatsby as a central text, my students read articles, journals, advertisements, song lyrics, and other primary and secondary source documents.  This enriches class discussion because students are excited to connect relevant information from the non-fiction texts to Gatsby.  My tenth grade students also created their own inquiry questions related to themes and concepts that arise from the text. A few examples include: What impact has technology had on both communication and morals during the ‘20s and today?; How has mass production impacted the ways humans interact with each other?; What impact did Prohibition have on the emergence of organized crime during the Jazz Age?; In what ways did the changing role of women due to women’s suffrage and fashion trends during the 20’s impact the “modern woman”?  Students then immersed themselves in non-fiction texts, video clips, and other relevant works and made claims based on what they had learned.  My kids were also asked to connect their research to the characters and setting of The Great Gatsby.  I have been repeatedly astounded by the level of their rich class discussions, their understanding of key concepts in the novel, and the ownership they take in their own learning when they feel confident in reading and comprehending rigorous texts.

The ability to read well undoubtedly helps students to develop new knowledge, language and vocabulary, and the advanced thinking that they need not only today, in high school, but in their lives once they leave us.  Whether in a job, in a college class, or understanding the viewpoints of candidates to vote for, my students need to be able to read a variety of written works and access information that is critical to their lives.

Andria Finch is a High School English Language Arts teacher in the Franklin Central School District.

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