But not every text is a story. In the past few years, I've tried to be more careful when talking about text with kids. The word "story" does slip out now and again, and I correct myself. It's important to me that kids associate the word "story" with the parts of a story grammar. Using this word to describe an article would send the total wrong message.
Part of the problem, of course, is the question of what else to call these texts. If you look at the literature, you'll see that there are many different ways to refer to texts, just adding to the confusion. Here's a quick rundown.
Fiction/Nonfiction: A Question of Content
The difference between fiction and nonfiction is easy. Fiction texts are not strictly true (while they may contain true events or real people), while nonfiction texts are based on facts. These distinctions are based on what is in the text. Sometimes, a reader has to read very carefully to figure out if something is fiction or nonfiction.
Expository/Narrative: A Matter of Organization
The differences between expository and narrative text are not as well-known (even to other teachers, I've discovered.) Narrative texts tell a story. It's easy to find a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, narrative texts have characters, settings, conflicts, and a theme.
Expository texts, on the other hand, are structured to explain information. Instead of using the narrative structure, authors of expository text use a host of other text structures. (Lots more on expository text structures here and here and here!)
The tricky part
In the classroom, it's sometimes easy to use "nonfiction" as a shorthand for "expository". It's true--most expository text is nonfiction, and most nonfiction text is expository. But biographical and autobiographical writing is a notable exception. A personal narrative, for example, is a true account of a story from someone's life--a nonfiction narrative.
At the same time, I've seen more and more expository fiction lately. Boys especially like to read the guides to comic book characters. These guides follow an expository structure, but convey fictional information.
This points to teaching students the words expository and narrative, of course. Some teachers don't like to do this because it adds to the overall vocabulary load of students, and I can understand their point. I think that fourth graders can easily handle it. Teachers in younger grades, I'd love to hear your thinking on when these terms can make their way into the language of the classroom.
So what do we call it?
Instead of using the word "story", what should we call texts? Well, I usually fall back on the word "text". (Make sure that you teach this word early in the year. If you work with ELL students, show them the difference between "text" and "test".) I also throw in the words selection and passage, as these are likely to show up on standardized tests.
And, of course, there is much to be said for sending the question back to the students. What should we call this piece of text that we're looking at? What does it remind you of? How is it similar to other texts you've read? Even if they do not know the strictly correct terms, they can often give texts names that will help them to make connections across genres.
"Can I have that book that tells you what different things are?" one kid asked when he wanted a field guide. "You know, it has pictures, and tells you names." Another student, when browsing through picture books, noticed that some had people on every page, while others didn't. Were these fiction/nonfiction? Narrative/expository? It would be interesting to find out.
As I unpack my classroom this August after another classroom move, I know that I'm going to leave my classroom library slightly disorganized. Looking at these kinds of text in the first week of school--and talking about how we can put them in categories--will be a great way to start the year.