Fiction Is to Nonfiction As Food Is to Water

Fiction Is to Nonfiction As Food Is to Water

“Fiction invites me into an imagined world; nonfiction tells me about my world. Both teach.”

– Bob Probst[1]

The great debate is still raging.  Fiction or nonfiction?  Literary or informational texts?  How much of each?  Which courses call for more of one than the other?

Here’s the short answer: Read ‘em both, and make sure one connects to the other.

The analogous answer: Don’t expect to thrive without food (fiction), nor without water (nonfiction) for very long.

The Immediate Threat: Assessments

Standards, and therefore assessments, materials, curricula, professional development, and lesson plans abound with increased attention to the ratio of fiction to nonfiction in our students’ academic lives.

In the spring of 2015, the Florida Standards Assessments (much like PARCC and SBAC) will reflect the percentages published in the Common Core State Standards document[2], which of course were taken directly from the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework: 55% informational texts in the middle grades and 70% informational texts in high school.

If our kids are going to read and analyze complex informational texts on their high-stakes assessments, then we’re obligated to prepare them for it.  And it’s well worth the effort, as “most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K-12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.”[3]

The Required Response: Synergy

Of course, we language arts teachers can’t be expected to prepare them for this on our own, and the same authors of the same Common Core document recognized this: “Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6-12 must take place in other classes.”[4]

To address this, a renewed but gradual reinvestment in content area literacy has resulted.  More and more social studies and science teachers, in particular, are using reading and writing as the primary means of delivering content.  The process of the Literacy Design Collaborative has been embraced by thousands of teachers, as have relevant and intriguing materials like Teengagement Units of Study.  Instead of “death by PowerPoint,” teachers all across the country are inviting students to grapple with, annotate, discuss, debate, and write about primary and secondary sources in order to construct meaning and articulate new ideas.

In other words, constructivism is back.[5]  Thank goodness.

The ELA Teacher’s Role

Of all the advice offered by fiction writers throughout the centuries, perhaps the most helpful in our situation is Douglas Adams’ “Don’t panic.”[6]  Chances are, if you’re reading this of your own volition, because you constantly seek to improve your craft, you and your students are on the right track.

You’re on the right track if:

  • You tend to enjoy spending time with your students.
  • You invite them to figure out what’s happening in a text.
  • You give them opportunities to forge thematic connections between texts of diverse genres.
  • They write often about the inferences they make, and you talk to them about the ideas in their drafts.

If you want your kiddos to read, write, speak, and listen well, you’re in the zone.  Thanks for all you do each day on behalf of the students who need you.  You’re saving the world, one kid at a time.


[1] Bob Probst, Twitter post, November 10, 2014, 5:24 p.m.,

[2] “English Language Arts Standards » Introduction » Key Design Consideration.” Common Core State Standards Initiative. June 1, 2010. Accessed November 12, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Piaget, Jean. Genetic Epistemology. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1971.

[6] Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Harmony Books, 1980.

Photo Source: John Guthrie, permission via the Wikimedia OTRS systemticket 2013013010009435.

Paul Holimon taught high school English, Writing 1 & 2, Creative Writing, Latin 1 & 2, Intensive Reading, AP Language & Composition, and Advanced Communications Methodology for about a decade, first in Louisiana, then in Lee County, Florida, and finally in Collier County, Florida.  After four years supporting teachers and shaping policy as a district coordinator of secondary literacy and world languages, he has returned to the classroom at the middle school level, where he is passionately encouraging his students to use curiosity as a catalyst to explore our world from new perspectives.  An ardent fan of poetry, baseball, and punk rock, his wife and son laugh at most of his jokes and tolerate the rest of them with extraordinary patience and good will.


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