No longer can we simply refer to something as fiction and nonfiction. The CCSS requires us to distinguish between literature, informational text, and literary nonfiction–and engage our students with all three.

  • LITERATURE is what we grew up calling fiction. It includes made-up characters who overcome problems and resolve conflicts. It encompasses picture books, short stories, fables, fairy tales, legends, folk tales, chapter books, historical fiction, realistic fiction, sci-fi, novels, poetry, and plays/dramas.
  • The term nonfiction now includes two types–INFORMATIONAL TEXT and literary nonfiction. You read informational text for the purpose of gaining knowledge. By its nature, this text is of a higher text complexity with specialized vocabulary specific to the topic, heavy doses of facts, and numerous text features. These texts include textbooks, primary source documents, newspaper articles, etc.
  • The big difference between LITERARY NONFICTION and informational text is how the facts are revealed. These texts read more like literature, but all the information is factual. Think of it like a hybrid. Authors of literary nonfiction engage readers with their lively narrative voice, weaving facts with details that appeal to the reader’s emotions and make the subject come alive. This type of nonfiction is also known as “narrative nonfiction.” These include biographies, memoirs, documentaries, and some nonfiction picture books. Essays and speeches are also types of literary nonfiction.

Use this quick-reference T-Chart to compare the purposes, formats, and characteristics of each type, looking at them side by side.

Reveal three texts to students–one per type–but all on the same topic. Compare how the same topic is treated in each text. This will help students distinguish the differences more readily. For example, Sleepy Time Crime (literature), Sea Turtle (informational text), and Into the Sea (literary nonfiction) are all about turtles.

A big difference between them is the use of text features. Literature and literary nonfiction only include features such as a title, chapter titles/numbers, and maybe corresponding illustrations. However, within informational text, it’s common to find subheadings, photos, captions, diagrams, charts, maps, fact boxes, timelines, and many more visual literacy elements. Spend time identifying these text features and how they convey information via visual elements. Consider what the author does to help the reader understand the concepts (e.g., puts important terms in bold print and then defines them, uses charts and diagrams to explain ideas, plots events described in multiple paragraphs on a simple timeline, etc.).

Common Core State Standards #5 and #7 within the Reading Informational Text strand tell us to teach the unique purpose and function of each text feature. Teach students what they are and how they work. (Check out this entertaining 6-minute video that may be helpful in defining the purpose of text features within informational text to elementary students.)

In addition to text features, informational text also has a varied use of text structures. The organization of expository information can come in one of seven types of text structure. However, literature is always organized in one manner–chronological. The predictable organization of literature typically makes it less complex than informational text. In order for the reader to really grasp all the facts within informational text, he has to first read for more than just details; he has to see how all those ideas are related and organized.

As we are teaching the Common Core standards, we need to do more than just read the different types of text. We need to teach their similarities and unique differences side by side.

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