Years ago a workbook given to students to help them prepare for a standardized test asked them to read a piece of non-fiction called “School-Based Management.” The students in my test prep class glanced at the title, read a line or two and then quickly turned to the questions and penciled in the answers on the scantron test. Discussion ensued. I learned that the kids were certain they would do as well randomly selecting a response as they would read the material and reason through the correct answers. No way, they argued, were they going waste their time reading something so boring.

Clearly, the topic was the problem, but sometimes students need to read nonfiction whether it is boring or not. Actually, now more than ever, students need to be able to read what the 2010 Common Core State Standards (CCSS) refer to as “Informational texts.” What they’re talking about is the kind of complex, challenging nonfiction that is important for success in college, job training or in pursuit of careers.

Alas, it is the job of teachers across the curriculum to help get students ready for the fact that most of the reading they will do in postsecondary education is informational. Looks like change is afoot in the kinds of reading assignments ELA, social studies and other classes require.

Check out the following chart which shows the percentages of fictional and non-fictional reading required by the CCSS:

Distribution of Literary and Informational Passages by Grade in the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework

The above percentages suggest that ELA classes will be assigning a lot more non-fiction: more exposition, argumentation and personal essays, as well as speeches, opinion pieces, memoirs, historical, scientific, and economic texts. In elementary school, teachers can expect to assign more biographies and autobiographies, books about history, science, and the arts. Non-fiction reading skills will require students to be able to comprehend graphs, charts, directions, forms, and maps.

If teachers don’t play this right, there will be a lot of low scores on those scantron tests used to evaluate reading skills.

So what we need is a hook—something that will interest the students and get them to actually read non-fiction. This is where film comes in. The right documentary or narrative nonfiction film can be used to entice young readers to explore more depth on the topics or characters they see in the film. This means reading. Consider how a cooking show, quite popular with students, can provoke you to read ingredients on food product labels, search out new recipes on the internet or read magazine articles about the various cooks who appear on these shows. There has been a considerable increase in sales of cookbooks and biographies of great chefs, of food histories and political tracts on the food industry as well as reams of information on vegetarian and vegan diets. One must read in order to truly understand obesity and its impact on society as a whole or to know what fast food chains have done to aggravate the fat attack on the American public.

What may help move students to read more, other than interest sparked through well-done documentaries, is a process of pairing film with the books from which they were adapted. This has been commonly done with works of fiction such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Milos Forman’s film by the same title. Most films, as a matter of fact, are adapted from books and short stories. But to pair a nonfiction narrative with the film adapted from the story is not so common. Of course, no film can contain all of the information found in the book, but if the film is good enough, it can provoke viewers to read for themselves the story they enjoyed on screen.

John Krakauer’s nonfiction account of the adventure and eventual death of a young college graduate in Into the Wild was made into a fine film, directed by Sean Penn and bearing the same title. The autobiography of Li Cunxin, titled Mao’s Last Dancer was made into a film in 2009; the dance scenes and the account of the young ballet star’s defection to the U.S. easily provoke viewers to look up and read more about the life of this famous Chinese dancer.

Teachwithmovies is working on connections between non-fiction in film and the storehouse of “informational text” leading to or from these films. Click here for some ideas; stay tuned for more to come. Should you be interested in more details about the CCSS studies and recommendations, click here.

Written by Mary Redclay.