The Common Core places new emphasis on the importance of reading and analyzing complex nonfiction and informational texts. This has many English teachers feeling like their literature is under attack, but students fall in love with stories. We don’t need to lose our stories in our transition to the Common Core.

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Each week, I do “story time” with my high school students. They sit on the floor and I read them a children’s story. At the beginning of the year, they think I am nuts. In fact, one students said in his evaluation of the class, “I think story time was the most enjoyable [class routine]. At the beginning of the year I thought it was really weird that we were doing it when we were students in high school, but now I’m really happy that we do it because its a great way to end the class after a long day.” Another student gushed, “I LOVED story time, it made me feel like I was back in Kindergarten, it was always something I looked forward to at the end of the class!”

Clearly, students of all ages love stories. There is nothing in the Common Core that says we have to lose our stories. What has been interesting for me is to change my approach to teaching literature. Now,  I ground the stories we read into real world events and issues so students see those connections more visibly. This is a great way to pull in those complex nonfiction pieces and use them to deepen our students understanding of the novels, plays and poetry they read in English.

My suggestion is to pair each title you teach with a “nonfiction focus.” For example, when we read To Kill a Mockingbird at the start of the year, I selected the death penalty as our nonfiction focus. I pulled in a variety of digital texts related to the death penalty. We read, analyzed and discussed everything from the morality of killing people to the cost of executing prisoners to racial inequality in the justice system. It definitely encouraged students to think about the Tom Robinson trial in the novel more carefully.

The beauty of  digital texts is it is easier than ever to connect students with the most updated and relevant information online to introduce a variety of nonfiction and informational texts. When we read The Joy Luck Club, we focused on parenting styles and how cultural norms impact parenting decisions.

Diigo example - Tiger Mothers Leave Scars


I had my students use Diigo (a free research and digital annotation tool) to read two different perspectives on Chinese parenting, then my students had to synthesize what they read and connect it to the novel. I didn’t need a big clunky anthology of nonfiction pieces, instead I chose what made sense for my curriculum and my students reading level.

As I prepare for another year of curriculum, I am in the process of identifying my nonfiction focus topics that match the titles I am teaching this coming year. Here is how I am pairing my literature with nonfiction topics. I hope it sparks some ideas for other English teachers!

Novel:                                                         Nonfiction Focus:

Of Mice and Men                                      Migrant workers and immigration

Lord of the Flies                                       Human nature: are people inherently good or evil?

Canterbury Tales                                     Crime, punishment & torture: what does it reveal                                                                       about society?

Night                                                          Modern day genocides

Othello                                                       Racial stereotypes and biracial relationships

Princess Bride                                          Gender roles and gender inequality

If you want to to know more about what a complex text is, check out “What is a complex text anyway?” and “Common Core: Reading, Understanding and Analyzing Complex Texts” which may be helpful to teachers planning for next year.

As always, I welcome an additional strategies for teaching complex texts along side our literature!

28 Responses

  1. Thanks for this no-nonsense approach to weaving in non-fiction texts, Catlin. I’m so tired of the knee-jerk response that many English teachers have to this important idea — no one says that you have to stop teaching novels, plays, poems and short stories! It’s not about giving up (such a teacher-centered reaction). It’s about enriching the students’ experience by making meaningful, real-life connections and deepening their understanding in the process. BTW, honors-level students like ours should be writing synthesis essays, as this is one of the portions of the AP Language exam!

  2. I thoroughly agree with you. That is why I began writing nonfiction books with a focus on pictures for the middle grades to make learning history more fun. Learning facts does not have to be boring!

  3. Would have loved to be in your class myself! I am doing the same thing with drama for K-12, although I’m not restricting the pieces to one topic. I am embedding original nonfiction pieces as “Real World” links in each of the 12 Common Core Drama Projects in our Digital Drama Festival. I believe this is an excellent way to make literature relevant.

    • Your approach sounds wonderful, Annabelle.

      I ask students to focus on the topics I have selected in the beginning of the year, then by mid-year I let them know they are welcome to identify topics that interest them if they don’t find my ideas compelling. I like giving them the freedom to choose. I want them to incorporate things they are passionate about as much as possible.

      Thank you for the comment. It is always wonderful to connect with like minded educators.

      Take care!


  4. Although Texas is not using Common Core, the practice you speak of just makes common sense. I would love to have suggestions for middle grade literature and the paired informational topics.

  5. Love this! I love pairing other texts with the classics. What a great encouragement this post is! Any suggestions for Julius Caesar, Scarlet Letter, or The Red Badge of Courage?

    • Hi Shannon,

      There are so many great nonfiction pairings for these!

      Julius Caesar lends itself well to anything in politics (i.e. conflict/betrayal within a political party, political upheavals and take overs in other countries, difference between a politician’s personal and political lives – how much do we as the public deserve to know about personal choices made by political figures?). There is also an interesting discussion between whether our lives are the product of “fate,” which is beyond our control, and free will. This could yield interesting debates and argument pieces.

      Scarlet Letter could be linked to modern day instances of adultery and how the perception of this “sin” has changed over time. Why is it that men and women today are still treated differently when they commit adultery? Find modern day examples. Religion as forgiving versus religion as judgmental and harsh. Where do we still see evidence of the Puritan ideology in today’s society?

      The Red Badge of Courage could open the door for a deep dive into what courage really is and who in our current society epitomizes courage. What is the importance of human life is another interesting debate/argument topic. Lastly, I think connecting a novel about war in our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be fascinating if students researched the stories of men who fought and how they experience war.

      Just my first thoughts! Maybe these will spark something for you!

      Take care.


  6. Catlin, I shared this on Twitter but thought I should add it in a comment, too. You and your readers will find background material for many of the previously mentioned literature related topics in the “informational texts” of the Library of Congress Chronicling America newspaper collection. To save teachers an enormous amount of time searching, the Chronicling America staff has collected some of the best stories and built two useful indexes – one by broad subject areas and one alphabetical: These examples help teachers fulfill both primary source and informational text requirements of Common Core State Standards.

  7. Thank you for this insightful post. It is so important for all content area teachers to offer to students an array of texts and genres. I pair information text with fiction all the time in my middle school English classroom. I am currently teaching Warriors Don’t Cry and I have paired it with the picture book Freedom Summer. I also include additional readings from newspaper articles, song lyrics, poetry, and more. The examples that are shared are models for all teachers and show that the CCLS are attainable and relevant.

  8. Catlin,
    May I ask for a little more detail on how you use “Story Time?” Are you using the stories to demonstrate literary concepts, comprehension strategies, etc…? Do they tie into the “big topics” you’re asking your classes to follow throughout the year?

  9. Thank you for sharing this article! My district in NYS is moving towards CCCS. Do you have any titles that go along with The Book Thief, Lord of the Flies, Oedipus the King or Macbeth? Thanks so much!

  10. Good evening!

    Our school has been implementing this ideas for 3 years now. It does actually connect the students to the text. Ss deeply desire connection to real life. Informational text helps make those connectsions!

  11. Could you send the nonfiction text you used while reading the Canterbury Tales? Also, did you pair it with a specific tale or the whole work?

    • Hello Jennifer,

      I used a variety of online texts and a TED Talk during this unit. I paired the texts, which were mostly online articles and informative pieces, with the individual tales. For example, during the “Knight’s Tale,” we read and discussed pieces related to courtly love and chivalry. My students read excerpts of Andreas Capellanus’ De Amore (1184-86) “A Treatise on Courtly Love” and discussed the elements of courtly love evident in the tale.

      We also discussed topics, like torture, that were relevant to the time period in general and not tied to a specific text.


    • Hi Nann,

      I typically have students research the historical time period. I break them into groups and each group researches a topic like entertainment, plague and other illnesses, entertainment, the monarchy and crime and punishment in Elizabethan England. They find credible texts and resources online, actively read them with Diigo, create collaborative Google Slide presentations, and present to the class. Most of the informational texts for this unit are the ones they find during their research.

      This year I plan to focus on child brides as a nonfiction focus area.

      I hope that helps!


    • Hi Amy,

      I might use the idea of the hero to motivate students to research modern day heroes. Who in our society qualifies as a hero? Why? What qualities and/or characteristics make them heroic? Alternatively, you could select a controversial hero or political leader and allow students to research that person and debate whether that person is heroic or not.

      Beowulf’s culture does not seem to believe in an afterlife, so students could research different religions to find out what they believe about life after death or what happens to people (their souls) when they die.

      Good luck!

  12. Hi, do you have any suggestions for non-fiction, informational articles or short stories that could be used with Macbeth? My students are 10th grade, but they are struggling readers. I’m currently student teaching. Thank you!

    • Hi Theresa,

      If I was pairing Macbeth with a nonfiction focus, I’d probably choose one of the following: the role of prophecy and superstition in history, unscrupulous leaders who rule by force, power couples in history, and/or the health consequences of extreme guilt.

      If you are working with struggling readers, you want to select a high interest topic or allow them some degree of choice about what they investigate.

      Good luck!

  13. Hi, Do you use the free teacher version of Diigo? Does this allow students to annotate pdfs as well as web pages? Do you create groups? If so, do you know if students in the same group see each other’s annotations? Is there a difference between “annotations” and “sticky notes”, or are they the same thing? Sorry for so many tech questions. Thanks.

    • Hi Dionne,

      I use the free version and my students sign up for the free version. I tried groups two years ago and didn’t love it, so I don’t use it anymore. My desire to try groups was so that students could see each others annotations. I’d love for them to learn from one another, but it was glitchy when I tried it.

      The virtual “sticky notes” are what students use to make their annotative notes – ask questions, identify unfamiliar vocabulary, note important points, etc.

      I hope that helps!


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