How to Integrate Nonfiction throughout a Year in Language Arts

by Tricia Ebner

Early in my transition from Ohio’s 2001 academic content standards to our current standards, I realized I needed to integrate more nonfiction into what I was doing. I knew that I needed to continue teaching fiction, especially the classic literary works that were part of our curriculum. The challenge was finding the right kinds of nonfiction to use. I had also observed that one of my classes, which used a more integrated approach of fiction and nonfiction throughout the year, seemed to be able to shift between reading fiction and nonfiction much more easily than my other classes. I needed to find a way to integrate the fiction and nonfiction throughout the year for all my classes.

I decided to look at my class that was doing well with both fiction and nonfiction in an integrated approach. First, I considered the students in the class. These students had demonstrated very strong language arts skills in their sixth grade language arts class, so we had created a multi-grade class of seventh and eighth graders whose work had shown a need for more challenge in order to stretch and grow their skills. I debated about whether that alone was the cause for their confidence and ease in working with both fiction and nonfiction in the same unit. While that seemed to be a factor, it wasn’t the only one fostering this confidence and skill.

Next, I looked at the curriculum I was using with them. The class was on a two-year looping rotation, using four units from the The Center for Gifted Education at the College of William and Mary (published by Kendall-Hunt.) This curriculum smoothly integrates fiction and nonfiction texts, using a variety of primary sources, poetry, speeches, plays, novels, and more. The focus of the curriculum is on the development of student understanding of the concepts and themes. The reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills are developed through the work of developing a deep understanding of the unit’s overarching theme. So having a larger goal or purpose seemed important, too.

Ultimately, I decided that using or devising curriculum in which the focus is on a larger, overarching concept, rather than focusing on discrete language arts skills and standards, was the best approach I could take with my students. By integrating fiction together, rather than teaching a distinct nonfiction unit, I could provide regular support for informational reading and foster ongoing growth. This became the lens through which I started evaluating my current lessons and units and made decisions about what to keep, what to modify, and what to replace.

I started with the easiest first: I looked at what I was already doing. Some units I was teaching already had some integration, like our sixth grade Titanic unit. During this unit, sixth graders were reading historical fiction novels about the sinking of the ship while studying interactive web sites about her construction, newspaper articles from the day after the sinking, and a host of videos and other nonfiction texts. I also saw that the historical fiction unit I had been using with my eighth graders used a few nonfiction texts to help support the literature circles. Rather than developing entirely new units, I simply needed to review and revise some of the existing work. Being efficient with what was already working bought me time to get into more substantial changes in other parts of my curriculum.

Then I looked at some web sites I had heard about, like I found a number of units offered there and began doing some investigating to decide which might be good options for my classes. I also considered which of the standards I needed to focus upon, so that I was fully addressing all grade-level standards throughout the year. One example is this seventh-grade unit, which focuses on South Sudan and is based on a novel but uses a variety of nonfiction articles to help further explain the conflicts and struggles of life in South Sudan.

From there I began branching into other web sites and trying other searches to find resources that could support integrating fiction and nonfiction. Although my eighth grade historical fiction unit already had a blending of texts, I wanted to revise it to make it stronger. Through some online searching, I found this wonderful study of Longfellow’s “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” This is on the web site, so I checked with my colleagues in our social studies department to ensure I wouldn’t be duplicating something they were already using. As my students studied the poem and related works, they developed a new, deeper understanding of historical events and how authors will take liberties with fact from time to time.

Today the majority of the units I teach use both fiction and nonfiction. By focusing on themes or essential questions, my students and I are using texts to look for answers and deepen understanding. Students are seeing that fiction can provide insights which nonfiction can support, and that both fiction and nonfiction are important. By the end of each school year, my students are reading text excerpts and working with with confidence, whether fiction or nonfiction. If faced with this situation again, I would like follow similar steps. Reflecting on what I was doing and determining what units needed revision saved me from a wholesale redesign of an entire year’s worth of curriculum. My search for resources also provided me with some “go-to” sites, so that when I have students whose needs require a different curriculum from what I have used in the past, I have a starting point for resources to help me make good choices.

Are you interested in revising and renovating some of your existing units? Take a look at Char Shryock’s blog post about the tools and strategies that can help you make wise, efficient decisions.