Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wait, that’s Not Broccoli. It’s Chocolate Cake! Part 5

For the last four weeks, I’ve shared evidence that nonfiction in general and expository nonfiction in particular is more popular among elementary students than most of us might think. Simply put, what the children’s literature community calls broccoli, many kids call chocolate cake.

Today I’m sharing two articles that present three case studies of struggling readers for whom expository nonfiction was the gateway to literacy.

Hynes, Myrna. “‘I Read for Facts’: Reading Nonfiction in a Fictional World.” Language Arts, 2000, p. 485-495.

This article highlights how a 7th grade boy (Jeffrey) who initially described himself as a non-reader became actively engaged in reading and writing when his preference for expository nonfiction was validated. This student enjoyed reading for a purpose—to solve problems or learn about things that interested him.

Caswell, Linda J. and Nell K. Duke. “Non-Narrative as a Catalyst for Literacy Development.” Language Arts, 1998, p. 108-117.
This article presents case studies of two struggling reader/writers (Peter and Isaac) who found an entry point to the world of literacy through expository texts. The authors recommend increased use of expository nonfiction in literacy education.

Caswell and Duke’s article contains a sentence that speaks directly to my heart:

“In Peter’s case, there was a clear desire to gather and communicate information about topics of interest—reading was a key to finding information and writing was a way to share it with others.”

One of the most common questions students ask me during school visits is why I write nonfiction instead of fiction, and here’s what I say:

“I know lots of writers who love to create characters and make up worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so interesting that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

And every time I say this, maybe 20 percent of the students in the audience, lift an arm, extend their pinky and their thumb, and rock their hand back and forth.

“Me too,” they are saying. “I agree.”

I have validated their experience in the world, and they are validating me right back. It's a powerful moment.

These students are what Mariam Dreher and Sharon Kletzien call “information readers” in their book Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms. For these children, expository nonfiction truly is chocolate cake.

My hope is that, one day soon, all educators will start serving up books that these students find delicious. I’ll be providing ideas for how to do that next week.


  1. This series has been eye-opening for me, Melissa. Our entire children's literature community owes you a debt of gratitide. THANK YOU!

  2. Shining a light on this issue is so, so important. Thank you!

    1. We owe it to young analytical thinkers to include books they love in classroom and library collections. Thanks for your support, Jillanne.

  3. Thanks for highlighting this, Melissa. Another reason why choice is important for readers, especially at the younger ages.

  4. I am so glad for this series. I have been working with struggling readers for many years and a wise teacher early on told me to go to nonfiction for unhappy readers. Part of how I started writing for capstone was seeing my student's faces light up when they looked at the titles in the catalog-wild cats! Paintball! Motorcycles! I am grateful that there are so many more options now than there were even 15 years ago.