How reading nonfiction helps build stronger thinking muscles

by Karen Phillips

The pivotal moment in my writing career was in college, when my creative writing teacher reviewed one of my drafts and asked me, “How would you feel about moving your introductory paragraph onto page two, and begin with this anecdote?” I began reading different pieces of nonfiction and analyzing why an author organized his or her writing the way they did. I began noticing different techniques, unique styles and formats, but most importantly I noticed that each author had her own voice and tone to her work — nothing was generic.

I referred back to this thought process when I experienced my stint in the high school classroom. If students could learn to work on this type of thinking and this line of questioning, their creativity levels would exceed expectations when they entered their colleges of choice.

The prospective college student leaves their secondary education with a solid grasp of standard English, traditional writing formats, general knowledge in various subject areas, but that’s it — their problem is generality. Students learn functional literacy, not critical literacy, in their classrooms.

In his article Question and Answer: Reading Nonfiction to Develop the Persuasive Essay, Don Pederson discusses how during high school, students are asked to write argumentative and analytical essays, but many eleventh and twelfth graders lack the ability to support their claims with specific details or further develop them, which results in a loss of meaning for the reader. If teachers are asking students to write argumentatively and analytically, why are they reading primarily fiction? Pederson argues that nonfiction should be an integral part of the literature taught in the classroom setting so that students can become better readers, which will lead to more effective writers by helping improving their thought processes.

The reason students are lacking in their ability to elaborate on their statements and sufficiently back their claims is perhaps because their primary audience is the teacher or grader of the paper; they are rarely asked to be both the reader and writer of their own work. Pederson writes, “I needed to give the students a sense of reader so that independently they, as writers, could begin to anticipate the specifics and development needed to convince the reader of an author’s credibility and a writing’s worth.”

Reading nonfiction has been the most effective way for me to learn the correct state of mind for effective writing. It helped me in my educational career, in my short teaching career, and in my journalistic career. If students are given opportunities to read other works of nonfiction, they can learn how to ask questions such as, “How do you know?” “Why would you say that?” and “How is that important?” They begin to understand what a reader is looking for while reading, and they begin to see how the author chooses to answer those questions.

“When students experience active reading in conjunction with their own writing, a transference from one process to the other is more likely to occur,” Pederson writes.

As this process continues to unfold, students learn how to ask those critical questions to themselves as they write and consequently produce better papers.

Usually, when a writing assignment is given, the instructions will dictate the paper topic, the format, length, expectations of the paper, and the intended audience. However, it’s not until the student experiences and analyzes the paper from a reader’s perspective that he or she fully understands how to write for the reader.

Pederson argues that “we can instruct students to consider the needs of their readers when they write, but when their own experience of being readers themselves confirms it, the learning is centered.” The process of writing can’t fully transpire without switching seats and focusing on the reader’s role and line of questioning.

Throughout my internship here at YES! Weekly, one of the most important things Brian Clarey said to me was, “If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write.”

I didn’t realize how true this was until I related it back to my personal educational experience as well as how we choose to educate the students in our classrooms. We can’t possibly learn how to write well, or furthermore how to think well, without taking the time to read what other people have to say.

Too much time is spent learning “general rules” in high school, when in reality, generality doesn’t cut it in higher education, or in the workforce. Every individual is unique and has something different and special to contribute if we help nourish their thought processes. In order to help make this happen, we have to focus on critical literacy, not just functional literacy, before students enter college, or their chosen career paths.

By allowing students the opportunity to find their own style of writing through analytical and interpretive reading, we will not only be able to help build a confident and literate community, we will be able to help make a more independent society.