Setting the stage for writing about nonfiction

Writing about nonfiction elicits the same initial lack of enthusiasm from my students as reading about nonfiction – a nonfiction affliction that seems, at first, impossible to overcome.    It’s the “dead Presidents and whales” syndrome that Donalyn Miller examines in Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits, in the section so aptly entitled “Dead Presidents and Whales”.  Donalyn writes: As with any other genre they avoid reading,when my students claim they dislike reading nonfiction, I assume they lack positive, meaningful reading experiences with it”.   So, when we arrive at our nonfiction unit of study in reading and writing workshop, my aim is to create as many positive and meaningful experiences as I can.  Here are some strategies that seem to work when we explore  writing expository text in writing workshop:

Cultivate the nonfiction habit:

Nonfiction is woven into the fabric of our reading workshop from the very beginning of the school year. Every Wednesday is “Wonder Wednesday”, as my students share what they have learned from their Wonderopolis adventures.  The multitude of topics, written about in an informative but engaging way, are an early introduction to the idea that nonfiction is, to use a sixth grade term,  cool.  My kids are always excited about sharing what they’ve read about, and amazed that such a topic could actually hold their interest (who wouldn’t want to read about Wonder #1364, for instance: Why does time fly when you are having fun?).


Launch a nonfiction unit of study in reading workshop before you begin this in writing workshop:

We immerse ourselves in reading nonfiction long before we even begin thinking about writing in this genre, as  I’ve written about here, here, and here.  By the time we arrive at this unit in writing workshop, we’ve already figured out and practiced working with:

  • the purpose and forms of text features
  • the varieties of nonfiction structures (compare and contrast, cause and effect, etc.)
  • the range of topic selection
  • the manner in which topics are broken down into subtopics


Spend time talking about what to write about and why:

In my early years of teaching, I allowed my students to pick their topics based solely on their level of enthusiasm.  Student choice was key, I thought.  Not so much, as I soon discovered.  For this is how students wound up choosing topics that were hard to research, too broad, too narrow…or (the worst) ones they quickly lost their enthusiasm for (boy bands, Uggs).   These days, we spend a lot of time:

  • talking through topics, sharing ideas and creating lists
  • thinking and writing about subtopics – which ones are worth researching and writing about?
  • sketching out our ideas and making our thinking visible


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By the time my students are ready to begin the research phase of their selected topic, it is my hope that they will share Randy Bomer’s definition of feature articles, which are written “to inform readers about something they never realized could be so complex and interesting.”  Even if they choose to write about dead presidents and whales!