Reading comprehension is complicated and can take a lot of focused intervention to support our students with learning disabilities!
But what kind of texts should we use for reading comprehension? Are there benefits to using non-fiction vs. fiction stories? Does starting with narratives help later on with expositories?
First of all, the things we are looking for in a non-fiction vs. fiction text are pretty different. Comprehension of stories, picture books, narratives, and other fictional texts is more concerned with story grammar elements. In order to understand the story and what it’s about, we need to know who the story is about and what they were trying to accomplish.
Comprehension of non-fiction or expository texts is a little different. In this case, we are more concerned on understanding the text structure of the text and the factual information presented. We’re more focused on the main idea and other explicit reading comprehension strategies.
Are these just two completely different skills? Is one a prerequisite of the other?
Why We Might Start with Fictional Texts for Reading Comprehension
According to Topping (2014), kids prefer to read fiction and understand fictional texts better. That seems like a good reason to start with fiction, but we have to ask ourselves, why might that be?
The What Kids Are Reading report looks at what trends are currently occurring with the books that kids select to read on their own. While they have found that kids read more fiction than non-fiction, they have also found that kids have more fiction readily available to them in their home, school, and classroom libraries. When kids were given a greater percentage of available non-fiction options through an online library system, they chose more non-fiction books on their own. With traditional libraries, kids chose non-fiction about 25% of the time. With the online library, kids chose non-fiction about half of the time.
They also found that while kids in general scored higher on reading comprehension of fiction than non-fiction, it was really only about a difference of 5 percentage points, with the average scores being above passing level on both fiction and non-fiction. However, kids picking their own books are picking books they are interested in.
And interest and preference have a high impact on reading comprehension skills because of background knowledge.
Coppola (2014) conducted a study where the researchers split kids into two groups based on SES status. Everybody got the same text and took a reading comprehension quiz. The kids in the lower SES bracket scored significantly lower on the reading comprehension.
Then, the researchers gave all the kids an expository text about “wugs,” a made-up concept that controlled for prior exposure and background knowledge. The gaps disappeared between the SES groups. When the higher SES kids had more background knowledge, they did better.
So if background knowledge is the key, should we even teach reading comprehension?
Yes, we still should target reading comprehension! But we can’t forget about prior knowledge. And we should absolutely keep it in mind when we are providing speech therapy and taking data. If we have a student who is inconsistent about performance – you know the ones who get the answers mostly right one day and then completely wrong the next – take a look at the topic. Is this something the student has experience with? Is this a preferred topic? They are going to do better if they are interested in it and already know something about it.
So… Non-fiction or Fiction?
In other words, right now we don’t have any good evidence that fiction is easier or better to start with than non-fiction or vice versa. What you might find is that you have a student who can relate with a particular fictional text over another. Or a student who has a passion for the weather and will eat up any non-fiction weather-based text you send their way.
Narrative Text Comprehension Packet
To cover all those bases, I have created my Narrative Texts Comprehension – Using Language Strategies Including Inferencing packet, perfect with lots of texts to quickly target those reading comprehension skills, especially for your students working on fictional reading comprehension.
We tend to focus on story grammar with younger kids reading picture books. This packet is perfect for older elementary students or secondary students who are struggling with reading comprehension, but maybe have moved beyond picture books. They are simple and teach the strategies we know will work, like breaking down a text into smaller chunks, identify and define important vocabulary, and make inferences about what we read.
Fictional texts can be more relatable to our students, who can often relate to most of the stories through personal experience or exposure to stories through media. Relatable = more background knowledge = more success = motivation to keep going!
It was so popular, I had to make an expansion pack too: Narrative Texts Comprehension Expansion Pack – Language Strategies & Inferencing!
Good luck working through the complicated and multifaceted maze that is reading comprehension!
Coppola, Shawna (2014). Building Background Knowledge. The Reading Teacher, 68(2), 145–148 doi: 10.1002/trtr.1314
Keith J. Topping (2015) Fiction and Non-Fiction Reading and Comprehension in Preferred Books, Reading Psychology, 36:4, 350-387, DOI: 10.1080/02702711.2013.865692