5 Strategies for Teaching Non-fiction

I love teaching non-fiction texts and build it into my course plans for each year group. It’s invaluable to familiarise pupils with this style of writing earlier rather than later, and in a reasonable degree of depth. It’s not something to be glazed over or used to fill an end-of-term gap. Non-fiction texts cover a huge range of popular genres – reports, journalism, travel writing, reviews, biography, history, philosophy, politics and more.

There are countless ways to help ensure non-fiction texts are used to create lively and thought-provoking classroom experiences; here are some that I like to use with my pupils.

1. Make Use of the Classics

Apparently non-fiction texts are used rarely in responses to SQA critical essay questions, but of those pupils who do make that choice George Orwell is a big hitter. Orwell is the godfather of literary non-fiction for anyone dipping their toes in the water. His non-fiction books Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier are ripe with big ideas paired with crisp language. Two of his essays in particular are very popular options to study at National 5 and Higher English: both A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant are stuffed full of symbolism, metaphor, thematic exploration and ironic observations. And, because they’ve become such common texts in schools, there are lots of useful resources online to help teachers. Weighty themes are explored, including the ills of capital punishment and the perils of imperialism, which can be transferred into students’ own discursive writing.

With the rise of online publishing, there is an unprecedented array of new options available for the teacher who is up for teaching something brand new

2. Discover New Classics

With the rise of online publishing, there is an unprecedented array of new options available for the teacher who is up for teaching something brand new. Places like The New Yorker are great: free to view online, and with a massive archive available.The Guardian’s Long Read section is pretty extensive too, as is a website called, neatly enough, Longreads.com. Lena Dunham’s A Box of Puppies is a nice option to start with; with the popularity of her sitcom Girls, she has a strong cache amongst teenagers. David Sedaris is worth a punt, and Caitlin Moran has published some great essays, although her columns for The Times are behind a dastardly paywall. A personal favourite to use is David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, a mad, complex, neurotic piece of food journalism which spirals into an hilariously intense philosophical debate about the morality of killing animals for human pleasure. Riddled with digressions and supported by weighty footnotes, the language is definitely at the more complex end of the scale, but should not be too daunting for an ambitious Higher class. On a practical note, it’s always worth editing these texts for length and suitability, depending on the needs of individual teachers and students.

3. Non-fiction vs. Fiction

Broadly speaking, there won’t be too many differences between how a pupil studies a non-fiction book compared with how they approach a novel. They will still need to show a strong understanding of the writer’s purpose and thematic concerns. Analysis of language features such as imagery, word choice and structure will still be prevalent. Evaluation of the writer’s stance and choices will remain the same. The key difference is in some of the terminology, most pertinently in the potential impact of the text on its audience. All readers can condemn the racism portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, and empathise with the crusade undertaken by Atticus Finch; however, can this match the impact of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, detailing her own real-life, personal traumas at the hands of racist attitudes? There is something fundamentally more involving and more painful when readers know that what they are reading is true, and not the exaggerated, fictionalised experiences of imagined characters; no matter how much novelists may use real life as their foundation.

4. Non-fiction as Writing Stimulus

There is something fundamentally more involving and more painful when readers know that what they are reading is true, and not the exaggerated, fictionalised experiences of imagined characters

English teachers have always asked pupils to write non-fiction texts of their own, from Getting-To-Know-You exercises and What-I-Did-On-My-Holidays in primary school, to discursive and personal reflective essays for writing folios at Higher. So if students are expected to write in this fashion, it only makes sense for them to study the skills that will make their own efforts effective and successful. Pupils can make the incorrect assumption that non-creative writing equates to boring writing, that they need not use their imaginations; but this is far from the case. The best personal and discursive essays are packed with imaginative phrasing, pithy remarks, insightful imagery and evidence of careful thought. In this regard, studying the masters of non-fiction can be an exercise in learning by example, and provide pupils with valuable models and exemplars which will allow their own writing to flourish.

5. Non-fiction Media Texts

Curriculum for Excellence’s Principles and Practice paper for Literacy defines a text as a “medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated,” going on to provide a rather exhaustive list of examples which includes recipes, adverts and text messages. It would therefore be remiss when talking about non-fiction texts to ignore the fertile land of documentaries. I’ve had great success and fun teaching the anti-fast food expose Supersize Me, looking at use of voiceover, animation, soundtrack, bias and persuasive language. While this remains a powerful and relevant film, ten years after its release it does admittedly look a little dated. An alternative to this could be Food Inc., which shares messages about health awareness and food consumption; or why not mine the vast archives on Ted.com for shorter clips to use in class? Ron Finley’s Gangster Gardener performance is compelling in its use of language, humour and persuasive force. Personally, this year I am planning to introduce a new unit with my S3 class on the real-life psychological thriller Blackfish, which focuses on killer whales held in captivity, and the trauma this has caused for them and their trainers. This is a more up-to-date film and should create great discussions about the morality of capturing animals for human entertainment and the importance of corporate responsibility.

 

Check out another way Alan explored non-fiction by examining spam emails with his pupils. Alan has also written a number of blogs on both analysing and writing poetry.

Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie lives in Glasgow and teaches at Fernhill School.