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 literary nonfiction, 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 information about a topic, such as a real person or event. It’s different than expository text, which simply presents the facts.
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, 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 texts that will attract readers with different interests in your classroom.
Introducing Narrative Nonfiction
One way to kick off this unit is to put out a selection of nonfiction, fiction, and literary nonfiction books for students to explore. 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 and often contain dialogue. I like to create an anchor chart as groups share the characteristics they notice.
Another option to introduce literary nonfiction is to start with a mentor text read-aloud and ask students to identify the author’s purpose. This leads to great discussions and helps students see that it’s kind of the best of both worlds. Scroll down for some of my recommendations for books to use!
Another way to teach students the difference between expository texts and narrative nonfiction texts is to pair literary nonfiction books with nonfiction books 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 have them share which type they prefer. You can also try using shorter 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
Similarly, you can compare narrative nonfiction books or passages with fiction by asking students to highlight the facts they find it in each. This is a great way to reinforce author’s purpose for this unit – while they’re being entertained, they are also being hit with lots of facts!
Literary Nonfiction 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 Books
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 pieces after researching a person or topic of interest to them. What tips do you have for teaching a literary nonfiction unit?
This post contains affiliate links; I earn a small commission from products purchased through these links.