Literary nonfiction belongs in English courses

If you teach high school English and you aren’t having students read some book-length literary nonfiction each year, you ought to start.

Nonfiction is the writing that each of your students will be required to read and to write outside your classroom. Most of it (such as your lesson plans) are deadly boring.

Literary nonfiction is nonfiction that isn’t boring because its writer smuggled techniques out of fiction and put them into nonfiction writing where nobody will be looking for them. Then, when unsuspecting readers come along ready to suffer through another boring recital of facts, Zap! the writer pulls a fiction trick. Before readers know that happened, they are caught up in reading the story they thought was going to be a colossal bore.  

photos of covers of three books
Three can”t-put-down literary nonfiction books to be reviewed here in July..

In an English class, literary nonfiction is an equalizer. It gives those students (mostly males) who gag on Jane Austen a chance to read something as challenging as Jane Austen but on topics that appeal to their interests.

It also gives the Jane Austen fan club crowd a chance to see that techniques of fiction can be used for more than just entertaining readers. Fiction’s techniques can be used in discussions of factual data to show people how and why some nonfiction topic is important to them.

Next week, I’ll post brief reviews of literary nonfiction I’ve read since April 1 that I can recommend for use in high school English classes.

Literary nonfiction books should meet five criteria

To get my recommendation as literary nonfiction suitable for assignment as reading for students in high school or college English classes, books need to meet five standards.

Books must be well-written. They can’t be stuffy, academic, or too technical for an ordinary reader. I prefer books set in in a large enough typeface to be comfortable reading, as I think students also do.

Books must tie in with students’ academic work. History, science, the arts, sports, and the backgrounds of current events are topics that often appear as literary nonfiction.

Books should have short chapters. Students are more likely to read chapters under 10 pages than to read longer chapters. Also, if books have short chapters, it’s possible for two students to share a book and both get assigned reading done without too much hassle. (This requirement is one I recently added after struggling through a book with three 150-page chapters.)

Books should be found in libraries. While not all students have access to public libraries, some will. And the presence of a book in a library is a sign that the book has staying power.

Books should be readily available at second-hand booksellers and book discounters. It’s cheaper to buy hardback books that last years than to pay a licensing fee to rent digital books.

Finding literary nonfiction that meets all five criteria takes some work. Probably half of the books I read won’t work as assigned reading for students for one reason or another. Often the book is good, but just not suited to high school students’ backgrounds.

5 books of literary nonfiction
These nonfiction books didn’t meet all five criteria for assigned student reading

The best thing about selecting literary nonfiction for your students to read is that you get to read books that will expand your horizons.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

2 ELA writing prompts sets out June 22

I have two PenPrompts Collections of writing prompts for teens and adults ready to launch on the first Saturday of summer, June 22, 2019. The delivery mechanisms are being tested this week.

Prompts in each PenPrompts Collection are embedded in self-contained writing lessons giving students all the information they need to begin work without bugging their teacher for help.

"Ready, Set, Write!" is written on cover of composition book My newest PenPrompts Collection, Ready, Set, Write!, is a set of 20 writing prompts designed to help not-yet-competent teenage and adult learners master expository writing as they write about ELA topics.

Person directs words that cause another to cringeThe second edition of Bullying Begins as Words, a revised and expanded collection of ELA writing prompts about how word choices impact behavior, contains 15 prompts for not-yet-competent, competent, and proficient teenage and adult learners.

Each student lesson in PenPrompts Collections is accompanied by material to help teachers decide if the prompt is appropriate for their students and to help teachers use the prompt well.

PenPrompts Collections are delivered as digital downloads. Each comes with a copy of the PenPrompts Collections Handbook, which serves as a reference for all PenPrompts Collections.

I’ll post more information about  each of the new collections as soon as the bugs are worked out of the delivery mechanisms. .(My Momma didn’t raise me to be a technician!)

Informal writing prompt: fix the message

This message from Microsoft appeared on my computer screen prior to a software update: “You may need to perform necessary actions to complete the installation.”

Since it took me four tries before I got the the download to install, I wondered what message Microsoft was trying to convey.

Like me, you would probably have been surprised if you had learned you needed to perform unnecessary actions to complete a software installation.

Let’s turn this bit of bewilderment into a two-part informal writing prompt about precise language that is suitable for use in English class or in a business/computer/technology class.

Part 1. Show students the sentence quoted above and have them explain in 1–3 sentences why they do or do not think the sentence is well-written.

Part 2. Direct students to write a more precise message to the computer user based on their knowledge of how computer updates work.

Factual accuracy is a writing requirement

An article in my local school district’s newsletter written by a fifth grade ELA class about a presentation by a retired teacher from the district contained this startling fact:

“Haiti is an island located in the Pacific Ocean, east of Florida.”

Haiti shown in Atlantic Ocean east of US

Haiti shares an Atlantic Ocean island with the Dominican Republic.

Whatever else a writing teacher does, he or she should not allow students to get away with such blatant factual errors. Accuracy in writing should extend to more than correct placement of commas.



Vague writing: a formal ELA writing prompt

Photo of novel The Hotel New Hampshire and quote from it.

Turn this quote into a writing prompt


While reading John Irving’s 1981 bestselling novel The Hotel New Hampshire for GreatPenformances, I ran a statement teens and adult students in English and composition classes should consider. Irving says, “When you write vaguely, you are always vulnerable.”

I think it’s safe to say that Irving isn’t talking just about a student writer getting a bad grade on an English class assignment.

Have your students consider Irving’s assertion, taking into consideration:

  • What does Irving mean when he says a writer is vulnerable?
  • To whom or to what is a writer vulnerable?
  • Does being vague always pose a problem for writers or is vagueness only a problem in certain situations?
  • If vagueness makes writers vulnerable, how does it accomplish that?

Have students write a formal document in which they either agree or disagree with what they understand Irving means.

Junk jargon that makes essentials exotic

English educators use highfalutin terms to describe routine activities. The terms may impress journal readers, but they scare off students. In large part, your success in teaching writing depends on making students see writing as part of ordinary, everyday life.  So use simple, common, everyday terms to describe activities in the writing process:

  • Use terms like draw a picture (or chart, graph or diagram) instead of graphic organizer.
  • Use plan instead of outline.
  • Use doodle instead of mind map.

If ELA jargon isn’t necessary—it rarely is necessary—junk it.

Junk jargon that makes essentials exotic

English educators use highfalutin terms to describe routine activities. The terms may impress journal readers, but they scare off students.

In large part, your success in teaching writing depends on making students see writing as part of ordinary, everyday life.  So use simple, common, everyday terms to describe activities in the writing process:

  • Use terms like draw a picture (or chart, graph or diagram) instead of graphic organizer.
  • Use plan instead of outline.
  • Use doodle instead of mind map.

If ELA jargon isn’t necessary—it rarely is necessary—junk it.

[An earlier version of this post appeared in the June 2008 issue of Writing Points ©2008 Linda G. Aragoni.]

Let’s Teach Some Students Some Writing

Several bloggers have posted pieces lately about the need stop teaching writing the way we’ve gotten into the habit of teaching it. In her take on the problem, “Let’s Stop Teaching Writing,” Paula Stacey sketches her 30-year journey through the trenches to a better way of teaching writing:

My proposal is modest, cheap, and deceptively simple: Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions. Questions and answers. Nothing fancy. Much like home cooking, however, this kind of questioning takes time, it requires practice and honing, and the kitchen is a mess afterwards. But it is worth the trouble and the mess, for in this back and forth, this conference between teacher and student, real thinking and the work of real writing occur.

Stacey’s thoughtful and well-written piece got me thinking about why the education establishment seems to have such difficulty finding ways to teach writing. Ignoring the superficially easy reasons (testing, teacher education, etc.),  I think a big part of the reason is our own fault.

Writing teachers talk about the issues of teaching students to write as if “a student” and “writing”were clearly defined entities. When I hear the best way of  “teaching students to write,” I interpret that in terms of my students and my writing classes. And every other writing teacher does the same thing.

That personalization is our downfall.  When we’re offered a new idea to try, we need to know the situation in which it was discovered so we can decide whether or how we could apply it to our situations.

A third grader, a high school junior, and a budding novelist in a MFA program may all be students who need to develop writing skills. However, their cognitive development, educational needs, and intended out-of-school applications of writing are very different.

Stacey’s approach to teaching writing appears ideally suited to the elementary school student. It engages them in writing about what’s going on in their classroom, which is why they all have something to write about and why they were willing to write.

At the high school level, having students write about course content is still the best way to teach writing, as well as being a boon to the teaching of other course content. However,  I’m not sure that Stacey’s approach is manageable for the typical high school teacher with a huge class load and multiple preps. Also I think students need to master some pattern for nonfiction writing that they can adapt to college or workplace writing they need to do. 

Stacey’s question-and-answer approach would probably be great with writers in an MFA program. They are eager to reflect on their experience and to experiment with writing.

Educators  would do themselves (and students) a favor if they scrapped the broad terms “students” and “writing”  for descriptors that indicate at least age/grade level (as a proxy for cognitive development levels) and the writing genre.

The person with no experience in teaching writing might still assume the same strategies and techniques could be used to teach third graders to write poems and high school seniors to write research papers,  but at least educators wouldn’t be confusing each other. We know, even if the state education department doesn’t, that any teaching idea applied to every student in every situation is a bad teaching idea.

Set your objectives at C-level

Don’t set your writing course objectives equal to a grade of A. Set them equal to a C.

You want everyone to achieve writing competence, even the even the dullards, the unmotivated, and the lazy students. You have a fighting chance of getting the back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class group to try for a C.

Competent expository writing is:

  • Unified to make one clear point (its thesis).
  • Organized clearly in support of that thesis.
  • Developed with adequate detail to make readers think the thesis is plausible.
  • Presented clearly so readers never have to guess at the writer’s meaning. Correct grammar, punctuation, and usage contribute to the writer’s presentation.

When student are competent expository writers, I can stop teaching them about expository writing. They will improve just by practicing what they already know. If I change the genre or raise my standards, then I may have to do more teaching.

If C is the grade you award for competence, you should have a big group who earn A’s and B’s. (One year I taught five sections of English composition in which no student earned less than a B.)

In writing, as with many skills, the step from no skill  to competence is enormous, but the step from competence to proficiency is small. Once students get to C-level, they’ll get to B-level just by having more opportunities to practice.

Hands-on learning is not just for kids

I attended a local school board meeting a few weeks ago at which a team of teachers gave a presentation about a survey they had conducted on bullying. The report was to have been presented months earlier, but the team had difficulties collating and analyzing the data.

One of the teachers said the team had not realized they needed to ask all participants the same questions in order to be able to compare answers given by different groups of stakeholders.

I came home wondering why such a small survey in a restricted setting was so difficult.

And don’t most people know about what happens when you compare apples to oranges? Basic survey design is a skill that the NCTE/IRA standards say students should develop before high school graduation.

Why did these women trained in education have so much difficulty handling what to me are routine information analysis tasks?

The first reason is that they studied to become teachers and I didn’t. Teacher education coursework at the bachelor’s and master’s degree level typically doesn’t include instruction in how to do original research, whereas my undergraduate psychology program required a course in statistics and a senior research project.

Two young men working in office side-by--side, one on phone

But I probably would not know much more about research than the teacher team if it weren’t for my work experiences.

In college, I was a reader for a visually handicapped student with whom I took several courses. Instead of reading her the statistics book with its diagrams and formulas, I took her to the chemistry lab where there were chalkboards on three walls. I taught her the material, writing everything on the board in letters big enough for her to read. Tutoring her, I learned how to think in terms of usable data.

Much later at Syracuse University, I was graduate assistant for William E. Casey Jr., who is now vice president for special projects at the Wall Street Journal. Students in one of his newspaper classes conducted phone interviews for a political polls using questions developed by professional journalists. I helped key in the results. From that experience, I learned not only about wording questions, but also about how to organize a survey project.

I needed that knowledge when I and a colleague were assigned to develop election polling for The Journal, in Martinsburg, WV. She and I developed the questions, designed the sample, trained interviewers, and wrote the news stories while continuing our regular work and meeting our daily deadlines. My colleague was Marcia Langhenry, now with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was a team player before the term became a buzz word.

My work experiences—from cleaning rat cages to developing instructional packages for the pharmaceutical industry—are where I got my real education, the knowledge and skills I use every week. (They are also where I began developing a network of professional contacts outside academia.)

Perhaps preservice teachers need more hands-on experiences early in their academic careers to give them a context for their classroom experiences.

Perhaps in-service teachers need hands-on professional development opportunities in the form of sabbaticals working in jobs other than education.

I even go so far as to recommend ELA teachers find summer work as a way to find out what actual skills entry-level employees must have.

Photo credit: Business contact! by Wagg66