Monday, July 28, 2014

Importance of Reading Nonfiction

I have two sons, aged 9 and 7 years, so I naturally assume that I’m quite aware of how much time kids usually spend watching TV, playing video games or reading books. However, I was completely taken by surprise when I came across some of these findings.

The Kaiser Family Foundation report of 2010 found that youngsters (8–18 years old) in the United States spend roughly:

·         4 hours, 29 minutes a day watching TV

·         2 hours, 31 minutes listening to music

·         1 hour, 13 minutes playing video games

Well, that’s a lot of time spent on leisure activities. So the obvious question that came to my mind was: Where does this leave reading?

It seems like children spend roughly 25 minutes a day reading books, 9 minutes reading magazines, and 3 minutes reading newspapers. We would all agree that the amount of independent reading, or out-of-school reading, is important in improving students’ reading skills. Students who read more would learn more vocabulary and therefore, would become more skilled readers.

Research indicates that the less-skilled readers read less, and lose ground over time. What is important to note is that these differences create an increasing gap in learning over time. The student who spends 65 minutes per day reading, reads 4,358,000 words a year. That is quite impressive!

My sons’ school recommends at least 20 minutes of reading in Grade 2, so of course I am interested in that number. It seems like students who spend 21.1 minutes reading every day come across 1,823,000 words a year, and students who spend less than a minute reading each day read only 8,000 words a year.

Cunningham and Stanovich research in 2001 of fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students indicates that reading volume contributes significantly to vocabulary knowledge. The amount of reading is understandably the result of advanced reading ability. Students who are skilled readers tend to read more, and this contributes significantly to the development of verbal intelligence.

Okay, so as we always said: Reading is fundamental. But research indicates that it's not just how much students read that’s important, but also what they read. Students need to read and grasp informational texts as often and as easily as they do narrative texts.

We know that on average, children spend 25 minutes a day reading booksbut how much do they spend on reading nonfiction? Well, it seems like it’s less than 4 minutes a day. Yes, that’s not a typo. It’s less than 4 minutes a day.

Even in classrooms, nonfiction material is not widely available. A study by Duke in 2000 involving 20 first-grade classrooms found that informational texts constituted 9.8 percent of texts in classroom libraries. On average, students spent just 3.6 minutes with informational text each day.

The new Common Core Standards for English Language Arts & in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (“the Standards”) in the United States are trying to correct this discrepancy by placing emphasis on reading nonfiction. This emphasis on literature and informational text will start right from elementary school.

So, what is this Common Core?

State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working toward implementing the Standards, which are intended to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to either take credit-bearing introductory courses in college programs or enter the workforce.

As part of these core Standards, students are expected to develop research skills across content areas, with a strong focus on nonfiction, including literary nonfiction, essays, biographies and autobiographies, journals and technical manuals, charts, graphs, and maps.

Why so much focus on reading nonfiction? One reason reading nonfiction is so important is that it helps students develop their background knowledge, which is essential to reading comprehension. Comprehension requires that the reader knows something about what s/he’s reading. Children who grasp what they are reading are using prior knowledge to understand new concepts. A broad knowledge base is essential as a child’s reading level increases. When there are gaps in knowledge and vocabulary, it becomes difficult to understand accurately.

So, what this means is that lots of nonfiction reading leads to lots of background knowledge or information, which improves kids’ ability to analyze accurately and make correct interpretations when they read.
Background information becomes more important in later years of elementary grades, as students begin to read more content-specific books that include graphs, charts, diagrams and other elements that are not often found in the fiction books they read in the lower grades.

Nowadays, educators stress that reading more nonfiction early on enormously helps children reach the appropriate reading levels in later grades. A 2006 report from ACT, a non-profit organization, found that the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready, and students who are not, is their capability to grasp complex texts. Research indicates that nonfiction reading is a great way for students to develop critical thinking and analytical skills and, you guessed it, the ability to read and understand complex texts.

If nonfiction reading is as important as fiction, if not more, then how should we as parents respond to these findings?

First of all, it’s important to understand that nonfiction reading may be different from fiction reading. Nonfiction reading may require active participation by the reader. For instance, nonfiction books may contain experiments, or encourage readers to engage in further research. Readers may want to stop to try out different experiments or explore certain concepts more.

Secondly, we should realize that nonfiction books can be equally as interesting for children as fiction. We should try to find out what our children are interested in reading. Is it sports, science, history, geography, or something else? Whatever it is, look for books that are engaging and age-appropriate in those areas. Our goal is to get them to read nonfiction regularly and enjoy it.
Although increasingly more emphasis is being placed on reading nonfiction, especially in schools, both fiction and nonfiction reading have their place. It’s important to encourage kids to read fiction as well as nonfiction. Reading fiction develops children’s imaginations and creativity; reading nonfiction provides background information, triggers their interest and opens their minds to both old and new possibilities!



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