Using paired texts is a great way to boost reading comprehension. See how you can strategically pair fiction and nonfiction passages to build background knowledge.

paired texts

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: teaching language arts is not for the faint of heart. Most of us launch our career in English from a place of true love and passion for literature. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that there is so. much. to. do. in a year, and fitting it all in is truly a work of art. But one of the biggest dilemmas ELA teachers face is incorporating more nonfiction texts into their units, and a simple approach is pairing it with fiction.

Pairing fiction and nonfiction texts is one of the best, most engaging ways to hook our preteen students and boost reading comprehension.

Using paired texts allows students to build critical background knowledge about various topics, increase their vocabulary, promote deeper inquiry, and bridge the gap between literary and informational texts. 

And guess what? It’s much easier to do than you might think.

Using Paired Texts to Build Background Knowledge

When we select works of fiction for our units, we are often looking to build empathy and connections with the characters and the challenges they endure. But how many times have you come across a scene or a reference in a fictional text that goes completely over your students’ heads? 

When students miss these connections, they are missing a critical component of reading comprehension. It’s not all grim, though. The flip side of this reality is that we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to incorporate a purposeful nonfiction text that will build content knowledge.

background knowledge

Need specifics? When I taught Refugee by Alan Gratz, I knew many of my 6th graders would have limited knowledge on the Syrian refugee crisis, WWII, and Fidel Castro. Without this background, their understanding of the character’s adversity would be very surface level. I strategically incorporated nonfiction texts about these topics throughout the novel study to provide a critical context for my students. 

Next time you are reading a short story, novel, or even a poem, take a look at the setting, time period, historical events, or even challenges the character’s face. Think about the background knowledge students may not have to understand the story fully. These are the topics that lend themselves well to a paired nonfiction text! Not only will your students benefit from a deeper understanding of the topic, but they’ll also establish a deeper connection to the characters and plot.

Using Paired Texts to Spark Deeper Inquiry

Let’s be honest, as teachers, we strive to develop students’ analytical skills and build a love for reading, but what we really love to see is a spark or passion ignite. 

There isn’t anything more thrilling than seeing a student latch onto a topic and run with it. Am I right?

paired texts build background knowledge

Think about those scenes from a novel or short story that spark a student’s interest in a topic, figure, or event. These are golden opportunities to allow students the time and space to dive a bit deeper and personalize their learning. 

Case in point: middle schoolers love, and I mean love, Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. However, the ending tends to spark more questions than answers. What a perfect opportunity to allow students to research and read nonfiction texts of their own choosing (What smells like pickled walnuts? How does formaldehyde work?), or prepare for these questions in advance and read a shared nonfiction text as a group. 

If this sounds like something your students would love, consider whether you want to start with a fiction or nonfiction text. Build a Parking Lot and capture student inquiries as you read. Then, provide time to dive into the inquiries at the end of the period or end of the unit.

You’ll be amazed at how these paired text opportunities increase engagement and improve comprehension for your middle school students. 

Using Paired Texts to Differentiate

Another benefit to pairing fiction and nonfiction texts is that it provides a unique opportunity for differentiation. When we differentiate, we might adjust the reading level, the task required of the reader, the input modality, or even the topic.

If using paired texts to differentiate, try presenting information in a variety of formats such as digital articles, videos, podcasts, infographics, or even newspaper articles. The same goes for fiction. Fiction can be presented in the form of poems, dramas, plays, short stories, novels, films, or even commercials. 

There is tremendous power in giving students options in how they gain information and build understanding. It also creates a safe place that encourages them to become more inquisitive on their own.  

Using Paired Texts to See Multiple Perspectives 

Middle schoolers have a difficult time seeing any perspective but their own. Any middle school teacher or parent can attest to that! By pairing fiction and nonfiction, you create unique opportunities to present multiple perspectives on the same topic. 

background knowledge

Fiction and nonfiction are definitely the peanut butter and jelly of an English classroom. When combining the empathy we feel when we read fiction to the facts we learn from the nonfiction, the possibilities for student growth are tremendous! 

All the best, Natayle