Side by Side: Reading Nonfiction Together

There are many times that our students experience text together. During a read aloud, students all share the same text experience. In book groups, small groups of students share fiction text. I believe that my students need those same experiences and more when it comes to the nonfiction text that they interact with.

Our Current Environment of Nonfiction Reading

I realized this when watching emerging readers in first grade pour over nonfiction text. They often did it together, two or three huddled over a book reading and reacting to the text. That collaborative nonfiction reading seemed to slowly disappear as the readers became older.

Part of that is due to our collection. It is unusual for us to have multiple copies of a nonfiction book. The cost per book as well as our drive to have as diverse a collection as possible play a role. That is changing though with the increased number of nonfiction eBooks that we have available. Some of these titles have unlimited access so that multiple students can use them at a time. Database subscriptions also give students access to nonfiction text that multiple users can read at once.

Another factor is how students are asked to interact with nonfiction text in the classroom setting. Unlike the small groups that are seen more commonly reading and discussing fiction text, many of our older elementary students read and work with nonfiction text in isolation or, at best, in a pair. I think the reasons behind this are well-intentioned. Teachers are structuring experiences to give students a choice in topic. That choice though can sometimes isolate the learner in his or her experience and eliminate the possibility for collaborative learning.

I want to bring back that collaborative interaction with nonfiction and challenge students to take their learning even further.

The Benefits of Collaboratively Interacting with Nonfiction Text

There are a variety of benefits that come with collaboratively interacting with nonfiction text. Of course, how the librarian and/or teacher structures the collaboration plays a large role in maximizing those benefits. A collaboration's design should allow for a variety of ways for students to acquire meaning through reading nonfiction texts. There should also be opportunities to collaborate when students react to the text as they evaluate it and connect it to their own prior understandings.

Benefits of collaboration when reading nonfiction text can include:

  • Students can work together when new words or phrases specific to the topic cause confusion.
  • When students forget to use text features to support their understanding, they can have immediate support from another student. The skill is also reinforced for the student who is showing the use of nonfiction text features.
  • Students can check understanding with each other to help identify and address misconceptions independent of the librarian or teacher.
  • Talking through the text with another person can reinforce understanding.
  • Reacting to the text verbally with another student can help them fully develop a thought before sharing with a wider audience.
  • Hearing the thoughts of others through a conversation while still developing their own ideas can add depth and new ways of thinking for all students.

Roles of Librarians and Teachers in Collaborative Reading of Nonfiction Text

While I may not be front and center during an entire lesson where students are collaboratively interacting with nonfiction text, I have an important role to play in the planning and implementation of the lesson, including:

  • Planning for collaboration. I am looking for what type of student configurations are going to push my students in their understanding and thinking around the text. Since we are working towards collaboration, I may avoid whole-group interactions beyond setting the stage, but instead opt for establishing small group and paired work.
  • Helping students find working partners. This depends heavily on the class. Sometimes classroom teachers have done work with this and students have already identified partners and groups they work well with. Other times I may work with a teacher for a specific lesson to help create those collaborative learning groups to maximize learning.
  • Clearly defining tasks and engagements. Collaboration comes with an amount of independence. My role then is to be sure that the tasks and outcomes are clear to students each step of the way. I am also looking for engagement that will encourage active learning between the individuals in the collaborative group. That may be a physical task or set of discussion questions that I believe will carry them through the activity.
  • Looking for my own mistakes. My planning is never foolproof. As students are working together, I am constantly moving between groups and listening for something that may have gone astray. If a misconception has taken hold, a collaborative group is off task, or the students are disengaged, there is often something that I could have done differently in the planning or implementation. I look for what I can change at the moment to get the collaboration, thinking, and learning back on track.

The accompanying lesson, "Reading and Reacting Collaboratively to Nonfiction Text," gives an example of how these collaborative interactions between students and a nonfiction text can help students process and react to the material. Have you tried any of these strategies in your library? Share your experiences and ideas with us on Twitter @SLC_Online and @CaptainLibrary.

About the Editor

Tom Bober is a school librarian, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the book Elementary Educator's Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He is a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep, a member of the Teachers Advisory Board for the National Portrait Gallery, and a co-chair of the Education Advisory Committee of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Tom writes about student learning on AASL's Knowledge Quest blog and publications such as School Library Connection and American Libraries and has given workshops and spoken across the country. His foundation is built on over twenty years in public education, with six years as an elementary classroom teacher, seven years as a building and district instructional technology specialist, and over eight years in school libraries. Find him at and on Twitter @CaptainLibrary.

MLA Citation Bober, Tom. "Side by Side: Reading Nonfiction Together." School Library Connection, October 2019,

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Entry ID: 2226856

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