I remember when I first saw the term “narrative nonfiction” in my state’s reading standards and honestly, I didn’t know what it meant! If you’re new to teaching a narrative nonfiction unit, I hope this post will give you a good overview to get you started!
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
Narrative nonfiction, or literary nonfiction, is nonfiction text that uses a storytelling structure to present factual information about a topic, such as a real person or event (versus expository text, which simply presents the facts). It’s part of the literary nonfiction genre. Since the facts are written in a narrative format with characters, a setting, a plot, etc., it can be a more engaging and memorable way for students to learn about the world.
It’s kind of tricky to differentiate between narrative nonfiction and historical fiction. To me, the difference is that narrative nonfiction is more about presenting facts through a story, and historical fiction is more about telling a story that is based on some facts. Clear as mud, lol.
Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs are definitely part of the narrative nonfiction genre, but it can also include texts based on historical events or other topics like animals. The good news is that there’s a huge variety of options that will attract readers with different interests in your classroom.
Introducing Narrative Nonfiction
There are tons of ways you can do this, but one activity to start the unit is to put out a selection of nonfiction, fiction, and narrative nonfiction books and have students explore them. You can have them work in small groups to discuss what they notice about the formats of the books and maybe sort them into groups.
They’ll start to see that expository nonfiction books have text features and mostly stick to the facts, but narrative nonfiction books look a lot more like fiction books. You can have groups share out the characteristics they’re seeing and create an anchor chart.
Following this activity up with a mentor text for an interactive read aloud can lead to discussions about the format and author’s purpose of narrative nonfiction. And there are so many great options, I read one every day of the unit!
Another good way for students to see the difference between expository texts and narrative nonfiction texts is to use book pairings. You can match narrative nonfiction books with nonfiction titles on the same topic. Students can compare and contrast the structures and details of the two books. I ask students to discuss which type is the most efficient to use if you need to find a fact quickly, and I also like to have them chat about which type they personally prefer. You can also try using shorter paired passages, which are great for reading groups.
Here are some examples of book pairings –
I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are by Bridget Heos and Flies by Larry Dane Brimner
You can also compare narrative nonfiction books or passages with fiction ones. Students can highlight the facts they find in the narrative nonfiction passages. This will help them to see that while they’re entertained, the main purpose of the text is to teach them information.
Relevant Skills and Standards
There are tons of reading skills that you can weave into a literary nonfiction unit, including:
- summarizing the events and supporting details (and sequencing, too)
- drawing conclusions and making inferences
- identifying the conflict and resolution
- analyzing the author’s word choice (i.e., figurative language, descriptive words, vocabulary)
- identifying cause and effect relationships
- inferring character traits
- identifying the narrator of the story
- describing how the language, characters, and setting contribute to the plot
- explaining the author’s purpose
- synthesizing the main idea of the text (i.e., what are this person’s contributions/why is this event significant?)
My fourth graders were struggling one year with summarizing the events of a text. I read aloud Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell. We identified the major events in the story as a class and then I assigned partners one event to illustrate and write in their own words. We put them together to create our own timeline of the book and it made a really nice display.
This genre is a perfect one to dive deep into character analysis and have students infer character traits using evidence from the text. They can practice making conclusions about that person’s contributions or the event’s significance. I’ve also had some great conversations with my students about what might have happened to the character(s) if they’d lived in a different place or time.
My Favorite Narrative Nonfiction Titles
Here are a few narrative nonfiction mentor texts that I recommend for 3rd-6th grades! Click on the titles for more info!
- Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick
- Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy
- We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson
- The Boston Tea Party by Russell Freedman
- One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul
- Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff
- Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
- Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
- The Marvelous Thing that Came From a Spring by Gilbert Ford
- Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff
- Henry’s Freedom Box by Levine Ellen
- Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate
- Nya’s Long Walk: A Step at a Time by Linda Sue Park
- Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet
- One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies
Scholastic News and Time for Kids are some other good places to look for short narrative nonfiction articles.
I think narrative nonfiction is a really engaging and fun genre to teach. It definitely makes informational text more accessible for reluctant readers! It’s also fun to have students write their own narrative nonfiction pieces after researching a person or topic of interest to them. If you have some fun activities for teaching narrative nonfiction, let me know in the comments!
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