How Nonfiction Content Can Help Struggling Readers

It’s no secret that the amount of independent reading a student completes plays a significant role in growing their literacy skills. In fact, students at the 90th percentile of reading test scores encounter 1.8 million words a year, while students in the 10th percentile read only 8,000 words a year.1 So, the more a student reads, the more words they encounter, and the easier reading becomes.

However, building literacy skills is not solely dependent on quantity of reading. Equally important is the type of content a student reads.

Over the past decade, researchers have found that nonfiction texts are just as necessary for students to be able to read and comprehend as fictional texts.

Nonfiction Text Features
A key differentiator between fiction and nonfiction content, in terms of improving literacy skills, is the structure that nonfiction content follows.

Nonfiction texts organize information through categorical elements that often are not present in fictional content, such as headings and subheadings, graphics, captions, introductions, and summaries.

These elements, also known as nonfiction text features, provide a structure that helps readers access the meaning of information, even if the content exceeds their reading level.2 This structure allows students to interact with the text and, most importantly, integrates literacy with subject learning.

Here’s a breakdown of common nonfiction text features and how they can help struggling readers better understand the content in front of them:

  • Table of Contents. This feature outlines different chapters or section titles and where they are located within the text, which helps students organize large chunks of information.
  • Index. Readers can use the index to look up specific terms or concepts and go right to the specific information they’re looking for.
  • Glossary. When a student encounters an unfamiliar vocabulary word, they can use the glossary in order to better understand the contents of specific paragraphs or pages, which facilitates their ability to grasp broader concepts.
  • Photos. Photographs and other images present information in a way that struggling readers can easily understand. Successful readers rely more heavily on letter-sound correspondences to identify unfamiliar words, whereas struggling readers rely more heavily on context clues and pictures.
  • Captions. Typically found under the visual, captions give readers a quick summary of what information is presented in the graphic and establish a connection between image and text, which helps students better retain the meaning of the content.                    
  • Charts. Charts can be used to organize complex information into smaller, more easily digestible bits of information that help readers better understand the concept as a whole.

Benefits of Reading Nonfiction Content
As previously mentioned, a key benefit of reading nonfiction content is that the material is applicable to what students are learning in other subjects. Nonfiction texts help students build literacy skills within the context of real-world topics, which helps them excel in different areas of study.

For example, a student could be struggling in math class, not because they lack an understanding of multiplication or division, but rather because they are unable to comprehend word problems. The same issue could extend to any number of subjects, which emphasizes the importance of building literacy skills at a young age.

Literacy is the foundation for all other types of learning and has a major impact on a student’s ability to succeed in adulthood. 1 in every 6 adults in the U.S. lack basic reading skills—that means 36 million people can't read a job application or understand basic written instructions.

1 in every 6 adults in the U.S. lack basic reading skills—that means 36 million people can't read a job application or understand basic written instructions. —

Advance Literacy with Nonfiction Texts
The fact of the matter is this: students can’t engage with nonfiction texts if they aren’t given access to that material, and teachers can’t effectively prepare their students for the curriculum ahead if they are unable to provide them with the resources needed to excel.

Fuel Education’s Big Universe digital literacy platform changes that.

Big Universe’s leveled ebook library contains more than 13,000 texts, over 70% of which are nonfiction, giving students 24/7 access through any digital device.

With Big Universe, students can explore nonfiction books that cover a variety of topics, which means they can read something on their reading level that actually interests them. Big Universe also offers fiction/nonfiction pairs to keep students engaged with the subject matter they’re learning in the classroom. Fiction books excite and interest the reader, while nonfiction texts help students understand the course material.

This platform not only benefits students, but educators as well. Teachers can search Big Universe’s database for relevant nonfiction texts to incorporate into their lesson plans and use monitoring tools to track student progress as they build their literacy skills.

Discover how Big Universe’s diverse library of content can help struggling readers in your classroom or district succeed.

Request a demo today or visit our website to learn more.


1Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Random House. Fig. 29, p. 107

2Kelley, M. J. and Clausen-Grace, N. (2010), Guiding Students Through Expository Text With Text Feature Walks. The Reading Teacher, 64: 191–195. doi: 10.1598/RT.64.3.4

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