Reading Nonfiction Study Guide: GED Language Arts, Reading (page 4)
Practice questions for this study guide can be found at:
Reading nonfiction will use many of the skills you developed in the last chapter on reading fiction—but there are two important differences between fiction and nonfiction. First, nonfiction is not fictional—that is, it purports to be a factual and accurate recounting of actual events involving real people and places. Note that we say it purports to be true—in other words, nonfiction writing claims to be true. This will be a very important distinction to understand in some areas of nonfiction. Nonfiction writing addresses real issues and people and events—but it may also be presenting a matter of opinion rather than simply stating a string of facts. We will discuss this more fully as we go along.
Second, nonfiction does not use a narrator in the way that fiction does. You'll remember that some fiction might be told by a first-person narrator referred to in the text as I and me. In nonfiction, however, the words are directly those of the author, not of some fictional narrator who is created for storytelling purposes.
This is an important distinction as you move from fiction into nonfiction. Keep in mind that in fiction, an author might use a narrator to say things that are directly contrary to what the author believes.
This is generally not the case in nonfiction, however. In this sense, reading nonfiction is more straightforward and less complicated than reading fiction. The exception to this, of course, is when an author uses irony to make a point, saying the opposite of what he or she means in order to underscore a point. We will discuss this further in this chapter.
There are countless types of nonfiction writing. Every time you send an e-mail or jot a note for someone, you are writing nonfiction. If you write a memo or fill out a report at your job, you are writing nonfiction. There are as many types and styles of nonfiction writing as there are people and careers in the world. But, for purposes of preparing for the GED, we will divide nonfiction literature into three broad categories: informational nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and visual communication.
The term informational nonfiction refers to written pieces whose sole purpose is to inform the reader of something. This is probably the broadest of the three categories, as it includes almost anything that is written for the purpose of passing on information. If you leave a note for your spouse or roommate saying where you've gone, you are writing informational nonfiction—assuming, of course, that you are telling the truth!
Informational nonfiction can be divided into a variety of subsections covering the sorts of nonfiction writing that you will encounter on the GED. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you a good overview of how to read and interpret informational nonfiction.
One of the most important areas of informational nonfiction that you will be called upon to understand is the type of document that you will encounter in the workplace. Understanding how to read and interpret such documents will do more than prepare you for the GED—it will also assist your career goals.
Business documents include memos, reports, proposals, employee handbooks, and many other forms of business writing. You will quickly notice that there is a key difference between most business documents and the fiction that we looked at in the last chapter: business documents come straight to the point and stick to it.
Good business writing is clear and easy to understand, and makes its point plainly and without any extra side issues. Most business documents include all the basic information that is needed right at the beginning—such as whom they are addressed to (the audience), what they're about (the subject), and what the major points include (the thesis). Consider the following memo as an example.
- TO: J. Miranda
- FROM: P. Aspensen
- SUBJECT: Tomorrow's Meeting
- DATE: January 12, 2008
The agenda for tomorrow's meeting does not include the topic of the storm drains, which we have discussed recently. Please add that to the list of things to discuss, as the problem is getting worse every day.
We hope the committee can find a quick solution to the drainage issues that are making life so difficult for our drivers.
Notice that the memo begins by stating basic information: who the recipient is (M. Miranda), who wrote it (P. Aspensen), and what it's about (tomorrow's meeting). Sometimes a memo uses RE: (which means regarding) instead of SUBJECT: at the top. This approach to writing leaves nothing to the reader to infer, as everything is clearly stated in a straightforward manner.
The category of journalism includes newspaper stories, magazine articles, radio and television news, documentaries, and so forth. This is an area where it becomes very important to understand the difference between nonfiction and matters of opinion, though these two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
A newspaper article, for example, is considered nonfiction because it addresses contemporary, real-life events and issues, but it may also be stating the author's personal opinions on those issues and events. Journalists generally put their writing into different categories, such as hard news, feature stories, editorials, and such. A hard news story supposedly presents nothing but facts, telling the reader what happened to whom at what time and how. An editorial, on the other hand, openly presents the writer's opinions on those events.
It is also important to recognize that many hard news stories are actually presenting a reporter's opinion in very subtle ways. These articles claim to be completely factual and unbiased, but in reality they often are not. This is where the skills from Chapter 3 become especially valuable to a good reader. By paying attention to word choices, what facts are included and what facts are omitted, and other details, you can frequently detect what the reporter's bias is.
Read the following news story, looking for clues to the writer's opinion.
The Groton Town Council last night failed to resolve the question of what to do with the burned-out building on Main Street. This is the fourth Council meeting in a row which has reached a non-consensus position on the question.
Peter Treychor, Town Council Chairman, called the deadlock "a travesty," and warned that, if the Council does not proceed soon with some rebuilding project, there will be "dire repercussions."
"This issue has been before the Council for over five years," Treychor stated, "and there is no excuse for it to keep dragging on. This town will face dire repercussions if we don't resolve this soon."
Other Council members did not agree with Treychor's assessment, claiming that the issue is "more complicated" than Treychor implies. But one landowner who was present expressed his concern that the hesitant members of the Council are "stonewalling."
"These people are just stonewalling the whole process," said Miklos Ververis, who owns "Painted Tiger" on Main Street. "They have no excuse to be making this take so long. That burned-out building is an eyesore and a health hazard, and we need to get rid of it."
First of all, this news article is a hard news story, which means that it is nonfiction that deals strictly with facts. But a careful reader will still be able to detect the reporter's bias, and will recognize that the reporter may not be telling both sides of the story—even though the reporter claims to be doing just that.
Notice, for example, the writer's word choices in the first paragraph. The Town Council has "failed to resolve the question" concerning the burned-out building. The writer might just as easily have said that the Town Council "did not reach a consensus" on the issue. But by using the words failed and resolve the question, the writer subtly suggests that the Town Council itself is a failure.
Consider also whom the author quotes, and whom he does not quote. Notice that he quotes two people who hold the same opinion—that the building should be torn down and rebuilt—but only summarizes the views of those with a different opinion.
These are just a few of the techniques used by journalists to present matters of opinion within nonfiction writing, and you will need to read carefully to recognize that you are being told the writer's opinion of the facts, rather than being given a purely objective presentation of all sides of an issue.
You may also be asked to address research writing on the GED. This is another area of nonfiction that can be either purely factual or a matter of opinion. In research writing, however, the author generally states quite openly whether he or she is presenting an opinion of an issue—and will use facts and figures from research to support that opinion.
A research report addresses some area of scientific study, providing many facts, figures, and statistics that were learned during the study. This type of writing can include almost any subject, from medical research to political opinion polls to a company's annual financial report. Research reports frequently also include charts and graphs that visually illustrate the study's findings—whether it's a simple chart showing a company's increased profits over a period of time, or more complex diagrams illustrating various trends in public opinion or chemical reactions under differing conditions.
Some research reports also present the author's opinions or conclusions that he or she has drawn from the facts in the study. These opinions, however, are generally clearly stated as opinions, rather than disguised as purely factual reporting, such as can be found in journalistic writing. The author may believe that a company needs to take certain steps to increase profits and decrease costs, and will use the facts from the study to demonstrate why this is so.
Another form of nonfiction writing is called literary nonfiction because it uses many of the techniques and styles that we discussed in Chapter 3 on fiction. Informational nonfiction deals with facts and figures and statistics, while literary nonfiction deals with opinions, perceptions, and ideas that are held by the author. It is still nonfiction, because the subject matter is real and not make-believe, yet it is not strictly informational, because the author is not merely trying to educate but to persuade the reader, to present an opinion and convince the reader that it is the correct opinion.
Again, there are many types of literary nonfiction, but we will examine just a few of the major types that you may encounter on the GED. These types of literary nonfiction include biographies, essays, letters, and speeches.
A biography is the story of a person's life. It is nonfiction because it deals with facts concerning a real person who really lived at some point in history. A biography is written by an author about someone else, which distinguishes it from memoirs or autobiographies (which we will discuss in a moment).
The word biography comes from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and graph, meaning writing. So a biography is literally a life writing, a story about someone's life. This could technically include the life story of a fictional character, but in general the term biography is used to refer to the story of a real person.
Once again, you will discover that biographies are factual and non-fictional—yet they may still present matters of opinion. There are many biographies written about Abraham Lincoln, for example, yet not all draw the same conclusions about his career as president of the United States. Two different writers might write biographies about the same person and address the same facts and historical events, yet the authors may use those facts and events to draw very different conclusions about the person.
Biographers (the people who write biographies) draw their information from many different sources. If the person they are writing about is still living, a biographer will base much of his or her information upon conversations with that person. Many biographies, however, are written about people who are no longer alive—and who have been dead long enough that there is nobody alive who actually knew that person. In this case, there is obviously no chance to talk with the subject or the subject's friends, and biographers must rely upon other sources of information to learn the accurate facts and dates and statistics of the person's life.
For example, an author might write a book about Julius Caesar, an emperor of Rome. Julius Caesar lived more than 2,000 years ago, so the biographer will be forced to draw information about him from other documents—books that have been written by other writers, historical documents, and similar sources.
This sort of biography is similar to research reports in one important detail: It provides the reader with many facts and dates, and it tells the readers where those facts came from. This is known as documenting one's sources-telling the reader where the author found a certain fact or figure so that the reader can verify the author's accuracy.
The word autobiography is obviously based upon the word biography—meaning "life writing"—with the extra prefix auto, which means self. Thus, an autobiography is a life writing about self, or a person's own life story. Autobiographies, therefore, are about the life of the author.
Autobiographies are similar to biographies in that they are nonfictional, dealing with a real-life person and addressing factual events, people, and places. They are different from biographies, however, in that the person who is telling the story is actually the person who lived the story.
This means that there will not be an objective viewpoint on the subject's life, because the subject is also the author. A biography, on the other hand, might present a very unbiased account of a person's life as told by someone who was not immediately involved in the events.
One key advantage that an autobiography has over a biography is the fact that a reader can gain insight into the thinking and emotions of the person who actually had the experiences. For example, you might have an interest in Ulysses S. Grant, an American president who also served as a general in the Civil War.
You could read a biography about Grant, written by a modern-day scholar. This book would give you a good knowledge of the facts and dates and important events and people in Grant's life. But if you wanted to know what it was like to be Ulysses S. Grant, you would want to read his autobiography, in which he tells you his own story from his own perspective.
Memoirs differ slightly from autobiographies, and are often confused with each other. While autobiographies tend to center on the entire life of the writer, memoirs usually focus on a particular, often defining, period of the writer's life, feelings, and emotions.
The word essay literally means a test or experiment. In literary terms, an essay is a short prose (nonpoetic) piece of writing that presents the author's views on some subject. The term suggests that the essay is the author's experiment to put forward an idea and demonstrate that it is worthwhile in some way. Obviously, this is a fairly broad category that includes a wide variety of writing.
For our purposes, we can group essays into four basic categories:
- descriptive: an essay that describes a person or event or location
- narrative: an essay that tells a story—such as something that the author has experienced
- expository: an essay that explains something, such as how to make a pizza or why water freezes
- persuasive: an essay in which the author tries to persuade the reader that his or her opinion is correct on some subject
As you can see, these four types of essays are written for very different purposes. One author might write an essay describing a trip overseas; another might write one that argues against some political issue. These two essays would have very different subjects and very different purposes—yet they would have one thing in common: a thesis statement.
We discussed the thesis statement in Chapter 2 when we learned about topic sentences. As you'll remember, a thesis is an idea or a matter of opinion that can be debated—something that one person might agree with and another person might disagree with. The sky is blue is hardly a matter of opinion, and therefore would not be a thesis statement. But blue skies are more pleasant than gray skies is a matter of opinion; there might be someone who prefers overcast days to sunny days; therefore, this could be considered a thesis statement.
An essay generally presents a thesis—an opinion that might be disagreed with—and then sets out to prove the thesis. An author proves his or her thesis by providing supporting evidence to demonstrate that the thesis is true and correct.
For example, an author might write an essay about blue skies. His thesis would be that blue skies are more pleasant than gray skies. For evidence, he might go on to explain that 1) blue skies don't bring rain; 2) blue skies allow the warmth of the sun to shine through; 3) gray skies make people depressed; and so forth. Each of those numbered ideas is a bit of supporting evidence, which the author will explain more fully, using them to prove his thesis.
Which of the following sentences could be used as a thesis statement in an essay about chocolate?
- Chocolate is high in calories.
- Hershey is one of the most popular brands of chocolate.
- Chocolate cures depression.
- Chocolate comes in many different types.
- The price of chocolate has gone up this year.
The answer is 3, that chocolate cures depression. The other answers are simple statements of fact, but chocolate cures depression is a statement that might be open to debate—it needs to be proven.
Sometimes an essay will not come out and state the author's thesis clearly. In such cases, you will need to use the many tools of reading comprehension that you have been acquiring thus far. Read the following, which is the opening of "Death of a Pig," by E.B. White.
I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting….
The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom-time, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an antique pattern. It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.
Once in a while, something slips—one of the actors goes up in his lines and the whole performance stumbles and halts. My pig simply failed to show up for a meal. The alarm spread rapidly. The classic outline of the tragedy was lost. I found myself cast suddenly in the role of pig's friend and physician—a farcical character with an enema bag for a prop. I had a presentiment, the very first afternoon, that the play would never regain its balance and that my sympathies were now wholly with the pig…. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.
White's thesis is not openly stated, but you can infer it from the context of the passage—a skill we have worked on in previous chapters. He is dealing with the irony of raising a pig with the specific intention of killing it for ham—only to find himself working long hours trying to keep it alive. His thesis is that people become instantly sympathetic towards creatures that are suffering, because we all live together in a world of suffering.
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