NONFICTION FOR YOUNG READERS
Feeding young gifted readers a steady diet of complex content, including nonfiction, offers them maximum opportunity for growth — and the research backs that up.
Earlier this year, in a conversation about how Grayson’s library differs from those at many typical schools, Kimm Doherty, Director of the Lower School, remarked that many schools keep early elementary school children away from nonfiction until they finish second grade, in the belief that children must learn the way narratives flow and story arcs work before they can “handle” reading nonfiction. “Inviting the Pre-K students to wander around in the nonfiction section like we do is actually kind of a radical thing,” she said.
I genuinely felt like I must have misheard her; what I thought I heard just didn’t make any sense. Surely she didn’t mean that specialists in early childhood education thought nonfiction was inappropriate for young readers — did she?
That’s exactly what she meant, in fact. (It still shocks me a little bit as I type that, even now.) The reason I was so gobsmacked by this idea is that it does not comport at all with our gifted students’ everyday behavior, which includes voracious consumption of a lot of pleasure reading choices, plenty of which are from the primary nonfiction sections of our library.
If our school library’s traffic and composition is that different, what does that tell us about gifted children, non-gifted children, and reading?
“If a student has finished with the day’s work and wants to occupy himself for the last five or so minutes of class, I often recommend that they choose a nonfiction book or magazine from the classroom library. (They usually look at me like I’m completely crazy.)
The thing is, nonfiction allows young readers to just take a dip into it in a way that fiction just doesn’t. You don’t have to know who all the characters are, or where you are in the story arc, or what crucial plot point has just been revealed, and you don’t even have to spend any time inferring meaning: most of the time, it’s very plainly right there on the page in front of you. And you might actually learn something, too!”
GIFTED READERS ARE HUNGRY FOR KNOWLEDGE
Here’s the truth: the Pre-K through 3rd-grade students who come into our library for storytime and to select books are ravenous for nonfiction. Every week, we check out and check back in dozens and dozens of volumes of nonfiction alongside all the usual suspects in picture books and early chapter books. The specific topics change year to year: we cannot keep books about jellyfish and sharks on the shelves this year, for example, while last year ancient Egypt was all the rage, and volcanoes the year before that. But no matter what the popular topic is, or how young the reader is, the nonfiction flies off the shelves.
Because I was curious about whether or not this was a real phenomenon or if I was just imagining it, I checked our library’s data: so far this school year, our 138 students have checked out 3,582 books, the majority of which went to our elementary school students — and nearly half of those were nonfiction. In our collection, we have over 50% more primary nonfiction books than we do picture books, in fact.
Considering what we know about our gifted readers and gifted students in general, this appetite for nonfiction is unsurprising: they have interests that are often deeper — much deeper — than their typical age-peers. Our library is set up to feed precisely those minds: we do not have separate “Lower School,” “Middle School,” and “Upper School” libraries, but one unified library — structured that way by design, not just because we are a small school.
Gifted students often fall into a topic, seeking more and more information about it, and this unified library configuration is ideal for their brains: a student who is interested in emperor penguins, for example, may quickly chew through our primary nonfiction resources on the topic, but she is able to seek out more information. Generally, she would ask the librarian to help her find more books — so we walk about 20 yards farther down the shelves, where I help her slide a hefty 650-page book about the Antarctic off of a shelf of geography books. The next time she comes to the library, she knows a lot more about penguins… and now she knows about the leopard seals and orcas that prey on them, which leads to a new search for books about orcas… or regular whales, or krill, or giant squid, or any number of other topics.
She has both gone deeper in her understanding of one topic and sparked additional curiosity about a broad number of subjects. Those are the magic ingredients that feed a gifted mind — and also fuel an intrinsically motivated reader.
A VIRTUOUS CYCLE OF LEARNING
Research has shown that the characteristic with the highest predictive value for reading comprehension is not mastery of specific reading skills, but prior knowledge of the subject matter, leading one expert to recommend “more conversations about knowledge, coupled with less emphasis on the discrete skills of reading, may be a more effective path to improving literacy” (Kerns, 2020).
As we have previously described, gifted children revel in the acquisition of novel (if often esoteric) information, so they have a generous store of background information with which to begin reading new material. That well-informed starting point increases their likelihood of comprehension of additional material, which in turn means they go into the next piece of material with an even deeper cache of prior knowledge. This iterative dynamic is essentially a virtuous cycle of content mastery driving comprehension which then drives mastery of more complex material (Recht & Leslie, 1998).
There is recent research on typical students which also reinforces this understanding. In 2019, a reading comprehension study of over 3500 students in grades 9-12 revealed that researchers could actually define and identify what they call a “knowledge threshold” below which students had significantly more difficulty comprehending new material. In the study, students’ knowledge of a particular topic was pre-assessed based on key relevant vocabulary words. In fact, the key words (which were identified with a natural language processing database) did not even have to appear in the new material at all; just being familiar with those terms constituted enough prior knowledge of the subject to really boost their understanding of new material: a score of 59% or higher on the vocabulary preassessment predicted substantially better comprehension of new material on that same topic (O’Reilly, Wang, & Sabatini, 2019).
There is even larger-scale evidence that content mastery improves comprehension across the board, as well: when the French government changed their national curriculum from content-heavy to one more focused on reading skills, their achievement scores on international tests plummeted; the decrease appeared across all socio-economic groups, but was especially pronounced among the neediest students (from E. D. Hirsch’s 2016 Why Knowledge Matters, as characterized in Wexler, 2019).
It seems that the inherent drive to learn that is so characteristic of gifted children is more than just a compulsive effort to jam facts into their heads. It represents the creation of a wider and wider framework of understanding to “hang” new ideas on. The more they learn, the more they can learn. It’s therefore incumbent upon us as educators to offer them the chance to drink from the largest firehose we can find.
THE IMPORTANCE OF READING EARNESTLY
To revisit our penguin aficionado, is the gigantic tome she has checked out “on grade level” for elementary school students? Certainly not. However, what is the “grade level” for a 650-page book on Antarctica?
The answer is simple: it doesn’t matter. By the time the student got to this huge book, she already knew a lot about many of the topics in it, so she’s likely to recognize much of the vocabulary in it from that prior knowledge. Even if the words are longer than she’s used to or if many of them are unfamiliar, this student is clearly motivated to make a go of it, and every sentence she reads is one more than she had read before.
Do we expect her to have read the entire book about Antarctica? Of course not. (I wouldn’t put it past her, though.) This is a book she chose — sought out, in fact — because of intrinsic curiosity, not because there was a curricular demand that she do so. If all she does is read the flap copy before deciding she is done with Antarctica, that is fine.
It is important to note here that just as students should not let something like the thickness of a book deter them (thank you, J. K. Rowling, for firmly driving that point home). The adults who teach them should not let the ostensible grade level of a text determine who can and cannot check out a particular book to read for pleasure. We just don’t know what prior knowledge they have about non-curricular topics — and we also don’t know (and shouldn’t guess at) how much deeper they might want to dive into particular material.
Maybe we should get out of their way and find out, instead.
Kerns, G. (28 May 2020). The Power of Prior Knowledge. Language Magazine. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
Neuman, S., Kaefer, T., and Pinkham, A. (2014). Building Background Knowledge. The Reading Teacher 68(2), 145-148. Article summarizing results on ReadingRockets.com retrieved 8 November 2021.
O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019). How much knowledge is too little? When knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science, 1-8. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1998). Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers’ Memory of Text. Journal of Educational Psychology 80(1) 16-20.
Renaissance Learning. (2021). What kids are reading: 2021 edition. Retrieved 8 November 2021.
Terada, Y. (11 October 2019). Research Zeroes In on a Barrier to Reading (Plus, Tips for Teachers). Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved 7 November 2021.
Wexler, N. (August 2019). Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong. The Atlantic. Retrieved 7 November 2021.