The Benefits of Reading Non-Fiction
The benefits of reading fiction are well established. Reading supports wellbeing and mental health, develops comprehension, expands vocabulary, develops empathy and aids sleep, just to name a few. The lists of benefits from reading fiction, immersing oneself in an imaginative world, of joining a character and facing their world and emotions, are endless.
But how does non-fiction stack up? Does reading non-fiction provide the same benefits to readers as reading fiction does? Diving into the research around this turns up some interesting results.
Benefits of reading non fiction
Is it well established that reading non-fiction helps readers to develop content area knowledge (Klvacek, et al. 2019). It helps to build background knowledge and support content learning, exposing students to specialised content vocabulary (Yopp & Yopp, 2012). Non-fiction texts give readers a broad background in concepts, and enable them to conduct in-dept investigations. Non-fiction also provides the opportunity to engage in questioning and both engage and challenge prior knowledge (Job & Coleman, 2016). Non-fiction texts also enable readers to explore how to organise patterns and systems, and inform their own inquiry. (Job & Coleman, 2016; Stein & Beed, 2004). This makes them ideal for use in all levels of schooling.
Non-fiction introduces students to complex thought, including using evidence to prove a theory and explaining a concept through deductive reasoning, not typically explored in fiction (Doiron, 1994; Livingston, et al., 2004). Reading non-fiction builds academic vocabulary, connects students to real-world questions and content, and assists in cross-curricular learning (Flowers & Flowers, 2009).
It is important to expose students to a wide range of text structures and non-fiction provides a diversity in text structures not found in fiction (Yop & Yop, 2012). Non-fiction exposes students to the language and text structure of expository writing (Yop & Yop, 2012). Today, literacy includes the ability to read and engage with online information, reports, images, diagrams, maps, and articles. Each need content-area-specific vocabulary and academic vocabulary, to which reading non-fiction introduces students and provides opportunities to build these skills (Job & Coleman, 2016). In this online information age, the importance of being able to read and write informational text, critically and well, is vital. It is central to success in schooling, the workplace and the community (Duke, 2000). There is a skill set needed to comprehend and analyse non-fiction texts. (Job & Coleman, 2016).
All reading is not the same and is unlikely to have the same effects (Topping, Samuels, & Paul, 2008). Much has been made of that fact that reading non-fiction has been found to be correlated with lower reading quantity and comprehension compared to fiction. Fiction is often highlighted for more strongly supporting verbal abilities, increasing empathy and social abilities, and reading ability (Merga, 2017). Other research has found that while those who read fiction for pleasure perform highest on reading tests, those who read non-fiction also performed above average (Clark & Rumbold, 2006). However, the bulk of research doesn’t take into account the wide variety of non-fiction texts, as research groups all non-fiction together, rather than specifying if expository, narrative, or commercial texts were used. Non-fiction has also changed dramatically in the years since the bulk of the research was conducted.
While fiction is established in developing empathy, reading non-fiction provides the opportunity to prompt discussion and comprehension activities that can’t be provided by stories (Yop & Yop, 2012). Research suggests that once students are in this conceptual mode of thinking, they can interact with their peers in working with these concepts and show more independence in learning (Lutz et al., 2006), as well as better social skills and self-esteem (Rice, 2002). Reading non-fiction can also help to develop an identity as a reader. Research has found that for some readers, reading non-fiction and engaging in areas of interest or hobbies, can allow readers to become experts in these areas, gain respect from peers, gain status and even reinforce positive masculine identity (Smith, 2004). Further, findings indicate that when taught how to read non-fiction, reading achievement is higher than in fiction (Topping, Samuels, & Paul, 2008). This raises points about how often non-fiction is used and promoted or taught to students. This will be discussed later.
Dreher (1998) found that reading achievement increases as the diversity of the reported reading experience increases. In other words, readers who reported reading not only stories but also magazines and information books had the highest achievement. Most likely the relationship between diverse reading and reading comprehension is due to the increased exposure to new vocabulary and new ideas that such reading provides (Dreher, 1998). Research has established, for example, that wide reading correlates with vocabulary development and general knowledge. This highlights the importance of providing access to both fiction and non-fiction to readers. Reading motivation research has found that choice is a key motivator in reading and non-fiction should be offered and promoted as a source of reading for pleasure (Clark & Rumbold 2006).
The preference for fiction or non-fiction has been much talked about. There are anecdotal reports, socialised perceptions and stereotypes, including different genders preferring non-fiction and children with learning needs preferring non-fiction. However, many of these have been disproven in studies. Research has found that avid male readers prefer fiction over non-fiction (Merga, 2017). Results have found that where boys prefer non-fiction might be the result of socialisation through gender stereotypes (Davidson & Ellis, 2018). Research has also found that children with ASD, particularly those with stronger social communication skills, prefer fiction to non-fiction (Davidson & Ellis, 2018). However, other studies have found that young readers have a preference for non-fiction, particularly those that are well-written and engaging with narrative elements, visuals and special features, (Joy & Coleman, 2016) This provides support for ensuring the non-fiction meets these criteria.
What research seems to focus on is disproving the preference for non-fiction and results emphasise that there is far more difference within demographic groups than between demographic groups. It comes down to preference. And researchers highlight the importance of that preference, where the emphasis should be placed on selecting books that are enjoyed as priority rather than valuing one format over another (Nyhout & O’Neill, 2014).
Non-fiction promotion and use also differs through the lifespan. It has been noted that the dominance of fiction in the early years, with the focus on “learning to read”, switches to “reading to learn” in the older years, where students are required to read for information, projects and reports. However, there is little focus on promoting reading non-fiction as something to enjoy or reading for pleasure (Using nonfiction in a read-aloud program, 1994). Today the emphasis of learning to read and reading to learn have been replaced with reading for pleasure and reading for information. However, reading for pleasure has typically focused on fiction or narrative texts while reading for information has implied nonfiction or expository texts. This has given fiction even more dominance (Using nonfiction in a read-aloud program, 1994). Yet, while not as readily promoted for reading for pleasure, non-fiction capitalises on children’s interests and curiosities and provides opportunities for children to apply and develop further areas of expertise (Duke, 2000). Many students want to learn as well as read. (Job & Coleman, 2016). Reading non-fiction enables students to activate prior knowledge and explore their interests. Reading non-fiction may also serve as an entry point for literacy and reading for some children (Yop & Yop, 2012). Information texts motivate children to read, their way into literacy that some may not find in narrative or other forms of texts (Duke, 2000).
Recent research has focused on the benefits of reading fiction for pleasure, with little reference to the benefits of reading non-fiction. The focus of teaching reading instruction also centres around using fiction. Research has found that between 84% and 90% of reading instruction is fiction based and dominant in English lessons, literacy teaching and language arts instruction (Dreher and Klutzier, 2015; Job & Coleman, 2016; NCTE, 2023; Topping, Samuels, & Paul, 2008). School libraries and classrooms cary few non-fiction texts compared to fictional texts (Job & Coleman, 2016). This might explain why some of the research that has found that students struggle to comprehend non-fiction texts or experience lower reading achievement gains when reading non-fiction (Topping, Samuels, & Paul, 2008). This is especially so when much of the writing required of students in school is expository writing. Promoting reading of non-picture for both pleasure and information is vital for building these skills, increasing engagement with non-fiction (Bryce, 2011).
There is research needed in the benefits of reading non-fiction, particularly noting the different types of non-fiction. However, the implications from the existing research demonstrates that non-fiction has a vital place in reading for pleasure and reading for learning, in classroom instruction and school libraries.
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