Q: Our school is giving students more nonfiction assignments and wants parents to make it a priority at home. My seventh-grade daughter loves vampire books, "The Hunger Games," and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," but says nonfiction is boring. Why are schools pushing nonfiction?
A: There's been a decline in students' ability to read increasingly complex texts, especially nonfiction. One reason is a diet of easy fiction. Only 15 percent of middle school assigned reading is nonfiction. At the elementary level, it's half that. Students aren't developing comprehension skills or vocabulary required for success in math, science and history as they move up the grades.
Nor are many students challenging themselves in their reading choices. "The Hunger Games" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books are written at a fifth-grade level. Much of what your daughter chooses to read is two levels below her grade.
She's not alone. "A recent study by Renaissance Learning shows that a majority of students in grades one through three read at or above their grade band," says children's author and reading researcher Michael Milone, Ph.D.
"Beyond this point, the percentage drops precipitously," he adds. "By grade six, most students are reading books below their grade band. By grade eight, a relatively small percentage reads within their grade band. This doesn't reflect students' abilities, just the books they choose to read or are assigned."
To improve this picture, the new Common Core State Standards shift the balance of fiction to nonfiction as students advance through school. New guidelines suggest that by the end of fourth grade, students' reading should be half fiction and half nonfiction. By the end of 12th grade, the balance should be 30/70.
Show your daughter that nonfiction is far from boring, says Jonathan Rosenbloom, editor of Time Learning Ventures.
"Biographies, autobiographies, opinion pieces, essays, speeches, memoires, almanac entries, and journalism that tells great stories are examples of nonfiction students now encounter," he says.
To promote nonfiction reading at home, start with what your daughter likes. Share reviews of vampire books and movies, says Rosenbloom. "Find profiles of authors she reads, such as Suzanne Collins, or behind-the-scenes reports on favorite book-based movies ... Look for stories about Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence."
He also suggests you subscribe to magazines that cover topics she's interested in.
Develop the habit of reading a short news article with her every day. Point out the characteristics of nonfiction writing, Rosenbloom advises.
"Show how headlines, photos, captions, charts, maps and graphs aid understanding and advance the stories," he says.
When you share nonfiction with your daughter, you not only expand her interests, you're preparing her for college and beyond, says Rosenbloom.
"Novels relax us, but more than 80 percent of what we read as adults is 'informational text,'" he says. "It's a fact that bringing a little nonfiction to the breakfast table can have a big impact on her life as a reader."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)