Nonfiction and the CIA Approach: 3 Things I've Learned

by Sarah Collinge | Nov 14, 2019 12:42:59 PM

Everyone has that genre that they avoid.  For most of my life, it was the genre nonfiction.  Maybe I didn’t have a topic I was interested enough in, maybe I didn’t know how to read nonfiction well, or maybe school had spoiled the nonfiction reading experience for me (this is probably most likely).  But what I do know is that nonfiction is now one of my favorite genres, and I think writing the Read Side by Side Reading Program and the CIA, Collect-Interpret-Apply, approach to reading gave me a whole new perspective.  As we celebrate nonfiction this month, let me share 3 things I have learned.

  1. Nonfiction helps us answer questions about the world around us.

One of the first nonfiction units I wrote for my fifth grade classroom showcased the book Children of the Dust Bowl by Jerry Stanley.  This gorgeous nonfiction photo-essay captivated myself and the students in my classroom in such a profound way, that we could not stop seeking out other resources (both fiction and nonfiction) that connected to the topic.  We found other books about the dust bowl era and the great depression era and we watched documentaries.  Soon we found ourselves pouring over the life and works of Dorothea Lange.   Finally, we made connections to what was going on in the world—in real time—as people were being displaced after the hurricane in Haiti. 

When we read nonfiction for the sake of reading nonfiction—we are in a nonfiction unit—the purpose can seem arbitrary.  But when we follow our questions down a path of interest and curiosity, we find ourselves becoming the expert.  This type of reading has the power to last beyond the 1-week unit or 6-week unit.  This type of reading has the power to carry over from classroom reading to at home reading, school reading to personal reading, and reading for an assignment to reading for life.

Bulletin board created during Children of the Dust Bowl unit linking past events to current events.

  1. Nonfiction demands stopping to think about what is important.

One of the questions teachers always ask me about nonfiction is if the CIA approach (breaking the text into four quadrants) works in nonfiction.  The answer to this question is a resounding YES!  Breaking the text into four quadrants calls attention to the fact that good readers stop periodically across the reading of a text to think about what they have read and determine what is important.  In narrative texts, including narrative nonfiction, what is important is defined by the plot line.  We can expect the end of quadrant 1 to take us to the big problem, the end of quadrant 2 & 3 to take us to the author’s message, and the end of quadrant 4 to take us to the resolution.

While informational nonfiction does not follow the plot line, dividing the text into four quadrants still helps us think through similar elements of text.  Knowledge of narrative text is essential (and FOUNDATIONAL) for nonfiction reading.  Knowing how to pay attention to what is important in narrative text will help the reader grasp what is important in nonfiction.  The same strategies are easily transferred with some minor translations, such as concepts for characters and main idea for theme (see figure below).


Narrative Text (Fiction/Nonfiction)

Informational Text (Nonfiction)

Quadrant 1




Important Events

People / Concepts

Place / Location / Time

Main Idea

Important Facts

Quadrant 2

Key Repeated Words

Author’s Craft

Theme / Message

Key Repeated Vocabulary

Author’s Purpose

Main Idea / Message

Quadrant 3


Theme / Message

Turning Point


Main Idea / Message

Text Structure

Quadrant 4



Integrate Knowledge



Integrate Knowledge


  1. Text structure guides the reader to the author’s main idea or message.

In narrative text, readers pay attention to the details in order to infer.  In informational nonfiction text, readers pay attention to the details in order to sort out what is most important in the text.  If the reader is reading to determine the author’s purpose or main idea, then the reader has to determine which facts the author holds as most important. 

This is where the four-quadrant method can be useful.  Students learn to take the text and break it into four quadrants.  They simply take the number of pages in the book, divide by four, then put sticky notes in the book to mark the end of each quadrant.  In narrative text, they learn that the third sticky note marks the end of quadrant 3 and the turning point—the place where the plot changes and the author’s message is revealed.  Though this “turning point” doesn’t surface quite the same way in informational nonfiction, it is still the most important quadrant to stop and think about.  Why?  Because the author has deliberately chosen the text structure, and purposefully organized the information to draw the reader to the main idea or message. 

When readers stop at the end of quadrant 3, the key question is:  How does the structure of the text communicate the author’s main idea or message?

To further communicate this point I have selected two random titles off my home library bookshelf to use as examples.  The first is the book Guinea Pigs by Karen Bawoli and the second is Play Ball! by James Buckley, Jr.

Informational Nonfiction Example 1:

The guinea pig book was one I purchased when we began to consider guinea pig ownership and it outlines everything you need to know about owning a guinea pig.  With a quick look at the table of contents you can see that quadrant 1 tells about adopting and housing your guinea pig, quadrant 2 talks about handling and grooming, and quadrant 3 talks about health care and behavior.  Stopping at the end of quadrant 3 to determine why the author chose to put the chapters in this order sparks an interesting discussion.  Perhaps the author decided that if you’ve stuck with the book this far, you are quite serious about owning a guinea pig and now you need to know some serious facts about the responsibilities of ownership and keeping your guinea pig healthy.  The author’s main idea or message:  If you are going to own a guinea pig, you need to take full responsibility for its health and well-being.

Informational Nonfiction Example 2:

The baseball book was one I added to our library to pair with the book Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.  The book outlines the skills of a baseball player from gearing up and warming up (quadrant 1) to throwing and catching (quadrant 2), to pitching and batting (quadrant 3), and finally running bases and having fun (quadrant 4). Stopping at the end of quadrant 3 to determine why the author chose to put the chapters in this order leads to some interesting conclusions.  Most people think of batting as the most important element or most exciting element of the game of baseball—hitting that home run! But the game is about much more than hitting the winning run.  The author emphasizes this point by not leading with ‘the swing’ but by saving it for almost the end of the book.  The author’s main idea or message: To be a good baseball player, you need to be strong in all skills, not just swinging a bat.


prairie firesSo what am I reading right now?  I have been on a nonfiction kick for quite some time and I am currently reading Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Frasier.  This book is challenging me in new ways, and you better believe I have the quadrants marked!  In fact, I’ve already read ahead to the end of quadrant 3 😀.  FIN_ALT_Sara_Stack_114







Written by Sarah Collinge

Founder & President

Read Side by Side Publications, LLC.

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