What Are the Best Tips for Teaching Nonfiction?

E. Reeder

There are many ways of teaching nonfiction, including assigning projects, debates, in-depth text studies and presentations. A balance should exist between students being able to select their own texts based on their interests and having entire classes read the same text. Studying nonfiction is important because people need to be able to research information as part of their schooling as well as in real life.

Students can use the Internet to explore the facts behind an event after reading a nonfiction account of it.
Students can use the Internet to explore the facts behind an event after reading a nonfiction account of it.

One way of teaching nonfiction is by assigning projects. Students can be allowed to choose challenging nonfiction texts of interest to them individually. Although these projects can take many different forms, general guidelines are that they should read carefully, answer in-depth essay questions, create a visual or hands-on project, and present their work to their classmates. During presentations, teachers and classmates should be able to ask questions to ascertain that students have read and understood the text as well as related it to their own lives and beliefs.

Teaching nonfiction is sometimes easier with a small group of students.
Teaching nonfiction is sometimes easier with a small group of students.

Debates are another way that nonfiction can be taught. Students can choose a topic of interest to them, read and research the topic, and come to class prepared to debate the topic with their classmates. This works well with topics that have multiple sides, such as the death penalty or appropriate punishments for drug use. Students should be required to read texts that support multiple sides of the issue to be debated so they can strengthen their arguments. During debates, as in all methods, students should refer back to the text and do their own synthesizing of the information.

Teaching nonfiction also can be accomplished having all students in a class read the same text at the same time and both in and out of class, depending on the age of the students and the level of difficulty of the class. At the beginning of the units, students can be given objectives as well as questions to guide their reading. As classes work through the text, students can discuss different important points in groups and with the whole class; they also can highlight important elements of the text and of nonfiction, in general. Students also may be required to find other nonfiction sources to further their understanding of various concepts and events from the text. They also can participate in seminar discussions in which they are asked higher-level questions about the text and must back up their answers with logic and passages from the text.

In teaching nonfiction, it is important to examine the various elements of nonfiction — such as bias, narrative structure and purpose — as well as different types of nonfiction — such as biographies, autobiographies, informational texts and articles from newspapers, magazines and the Internet. Students can look at examples of the elements through in-depth studies of the text and different types of these texts together. They also can find their own examples to bring in and present to the class.

The elements and types of nonfiction can be taught and reinforced using any of the previously mentioned methods. The more students are responsible for learning information, understanding it and doing something with what they have read, the more they will get out of their nonfiction study. Students also may be required to write and share their own examples of nonfiction, such as journal entries or autobiographical sketches.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - Another idea is to assign a topic but not the pieces of non-fiction associated with it, so students have to find their own sources. The only problem is that they will often turn to summaries rather than in-depth writing, so you might have to be specific about that. But they can still have a discussion about the topic and the teacher can direct them into discussions about how it was presented in different mediums and with different text features as well.


@clintflint - I do think it's good for students to choose their own books but it's also very good for them to be able to discuss a book together, and that can only be done if they all read the same one. Creative non-fiction essays or articles can be a good idea in this case. One teaching method I've always liked was putting the students into groups and then getting each member of the group to find, assign, and lead a discussion on an article or other short piece of writing. This way everyone gets a chance to be in charge and pick something important to them and every student still gets to participate in a real discussion.


There are so many amazing works of non-fiction out there, and too often it's an unfairly maligned genre. It's very important to give your students a reading list that includes a lot of modern works that they will enjoy rather than just classics they will not be able to see as relevant to their own interests.

Give them the option of picking their own book if they prefer and if you really want to get into the genre in depth you might want to try assigning two books on the same topic with different perspectives.

Finally discuss literary techniques used in the books to make them interesting and see if you can get the students to apply these to their own writing. Teaching non-fiction specifically is a really good opportunity for integrated subjects and you could base a lot of work around a single book.

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