Wednesday, February 26, 2020

5 Kinds of Nonfiction Update

If you’re a regular reader of Celebrate Science, you’ve probably read some of my posts about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction, a system for classifying the wonderful world of nonfiction books for kids.

When students understand the characteristics of the five categories, they can predict the type of information they’re likely to find in a particular book and how that information will be presented. As a result, they can quickly and easily identify the best books for a particular purpose (early stages of research, later stages of research, mentor texts in writing workshop, etc.) as well as the kind of nonfiction books they enjoy reading most.

Here’s what school librarian Traci Kirkland has to say about it:

“The 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system brings clarity to the way we think about nonfiction. We’re used to subdividing our fiction section into genres like mysteries and science fiction. But then we just lump all the nonfiction together. Now we can see smart, useful ways to categorize these books too.”

And it turns out plenty of other educators also find the system useful, so I’m excited to announce that Marlene Correia, a professor of literacy education and past president of the Massachusetts Reading Association and I, are writing a book called 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing with Children’s Books. It will be available later this year from Stenhouse Publishing. Hooray!

Here are newly updated Category Feature Cards for the five categories. For more printable versions, please see this pinterest board:

And here’s an activity for introducing it to your students: 
Organize students into small groups and invite each team to gather a variety of nonfiction books on a single broad topic from the school library. Possibilities include outer space, ancient civilizations, or natural disasters. After the children have sorted the books into at least three categories that make sense to them, compare the criteria each team used. Be sure to let the class know that each group’s set of criteria is valid and well thought out. 

Next, introduce the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction classification system. After sharing several books that fit each category, read aloud sections of books that are about the same topic but represent different book types. One possible text set is:

National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America by Jonathan Alderfer (active)

Eyewitness Books: Bird by David Burnie (browseable)

Penguins by Seymour Simon (traditional)

Birds of Every Color by Sneed Collard (expository literature)

—City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male by Megan McCarthy (narrative)

The sample books listed on the Category Feature Cards (above) can guide you in identifying other suitable titles in your own library’s collection.

Ask students to compare how the books present information. Is the focus broad or is a specific concept being discussed? What kind of text features does each book include? What kind of text structure, writing style, and craft moves does the author employ? Does the writing have a distinct voice? What similarities and differences do students notice across the categories? 

Finally, give each team a copy of the Category Feature Cards (above). After students take a few minutes to review the information, send the groups back to the stacks to gather a selection of nonfiction books on a new topic. (Asking students to gather a new set of books rather than re-sort their original pile reinforces the idea that there are many ways to sort books and that there was nothing “wrong” with their initial classification.)

Invite each team to sort the books into the five types—active, browseable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative. Did they find examples of all five kinds? If not, can they explain why? (For example, some topics may not lend themselves to active titles or a narrative approach.)

I'll be sharing more information about the 5 Kinds of Nonfiction next week. Stay tuned.


  1. Wow, 5 Kinds of Nonfiction is an excellent way of classifying nonfiction. Thank you!
    :) Jill Dana