Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers

Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers cover

Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers

As English teachers, we often face a huge obstacle between our goal (encouraging lifelong readers!) and our accountability to standardized testing. This obstacle? Student reading levels. With our high-performing students, we can almost imagine leaving them to face the test alone and we know they’d be fine. With the rest? Well, it’s unimaginable. Therefore, we’re tempted to sacrifice student interest in the name of test preparation. This is the way to get our reluctant readers on track, we tell ourselves.

How can we balance rigorous learning with engaging nonfiction? We’d want that, right?


It’s Danielle from Nouvelle ELA, and today, I want to tackle nonfiction. Some of you love it; some of you dread it. Here are three ways to use nonfiction to engage reluctant readers. None of these are “drill and kill,” but each meets the reader where they are and supports them as they work toward grade-level skills.

1.       Use nonfiction to develop background knowledge.

We know that our students can have varying background knowledge when we begin a new novel. This could be a matter of culture and exposure, vocabulary level, or understanding of genre. One way we can scaffold the reading experience for reluctant readers is to strengthen their background knowledge.

Consider, for example, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. What did Fitzgerald’s contemporary audience know and understand that our students might not? His audience exemplified the American zeitgeist and Post-War sentiments of the era, and both inform the novel. Our students don’t have easy access to this knowledge. Our reluctant readers will just write it off as “too difficult.”

Once you generate a list of topics (as I’ve done here for The Great Gatsby), you can find nonfiction and primary sources to support students. For example, I use this Close Reading to introduce students to the quality of life in the Post-War United States. This is also a good opportunity to provide key content vocabulary that students will later see in the novel.

2.       Strengthen connections through literature.

In the last section, I discussed providing access to literature through nonfiction. You can also approach it from the other direction. Often, age-appropriate and engaging literature is a key to understanding denser nonfiction. Literature can also go a long way to make content in nonfiction texts more relatable for students.

Let’s look at Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. In this novel, the main character travels to the Philippines and learns about the impact of Duterte’s war on drugs first-hand. This book is accessible to many reluctant readers and easy to pair with a closer look at current events.

You can also use shorter stories to connect to informational text targets. I created a series of reading intervention escape games with just this in mind. In Burnbridge Breakouts, each game follows a different protagonist. Students collaborate to solve puzzles and riddles to reveal clues to the bigger mystery of the series. Even though the reading level of the stories is below grade level, each game comes with related informational tasks at grade level. They explore topics broached in the games, conduct research, and write procedural texts. However, their perseverance is sustained by the interest in the topic sparked by the game. Literature becomes the bridge to more difficult nonfiction.

Interested in Burnbridge Breakouts? Try the first game here!

3.       Inspire creative writing.

You can also use nonfiction to inspire creative writing. Students are less constrained with creative writing and more easily accept that there’s “more than one right answer.” Because of this, they’re using their understanding of nonfiction to support their imagination. This is effective because it puts the onus on them: they’ll look back and make sure they’ve understood for the sake of their story rather than the sake of a test question.

An example of this is my resource, Abandoned Places. Students read an article about ten abandoned places from around the world. Each section is short and attainable for reluctant readers, developing a sense of achievement along the way. Then, students choose one place as the setting for a piece of “Flash Fiction.” This quick writing decreases students’ ability to be self-critical, since the writing time flies by in a “flash”. They don’t have time to make it perfect! (You could have them revise a draft later, though.)

Moving Forward with Reluctant Readers

You want to instill a love of reading in your students, and you will! The key is providing accessible, age-appropriate texts and doing different activities with each one. Students can read for enjoyment, read for test preparation, and read to inspire writing! With some resources and inspiration, you can meet students where they are and help them on their journey to mastery.

How does nonfiction inspire you? Let me know in the comments!

Using Nonfiction to Engage Reluctant Readers pin

Resources from other Coffee Shop teachers: 

Nonfiction Assignments for Any Text by Presto Plans
Analyzing Informational Texts by Stacey Lloyd
Exploring Issues and Informational Texts by Room 213
Nonfiction Reading Practice by Tracee Orman
Nonfiction Test Prep Escape Room by The Daring English Teacher
Informational Text Bundle: Inspiring Women, Men, and Non-Binary Figures by The SuperHERO Teacher
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