4 Creative Ways to Use Nonfiction Text Sets

Teacher lectures to class.

Learn how to engage your students with nonfiction

Text sets are groups of reading passages that share a common topic. Currently, we have over 60 of these sets of texts with topics ranging from Ancient Egypt to The Cold War to Psychology and the Mind. And just like our other lesson plans on CommonLit, these lessons are free for teachers.

In this post, I’ll explain a few of the ways teachers could use our nonfiction text sets to purposefully drive student achievement in both English, social studies, and science classrooms.

1. Research and Writing

Teachers can use CommonLit for an extended research unit on a topic such as The Civil Rights Movement. In a research unit, students read extensively on a single topic and then form a conclusion based upon the expertise they have gained. Our text set on the Civil Rights Movement, which includes 29 different texts (and counting) can be assigned to students strategically, or as a complete set. Below are just a few examples of writing prompts that teachers can use to drive the research unit:

  • Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, how was non-violent protest used to promote the goal of racial equality?
  • What role did the court play in the Civil Rights Movement?
  • What changes were made to America’s laws during the Civil Rights Movement? How did these changes affect the lives of African-Americans?
Martin Luther King Jr. talks to a crowd during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream Speech” by National Archives is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

2. Argumentation and Debate

CommonLit’s text sets can also be used to practice argumentative writing, which is a cornerstone of college-readiness. Argumentative prompts require that students read widely about a single debatable topic, and pick a side to defend. Students must compose an original claim, and support that claim with concrete examples from the various texts they’ve read. The final product of an argumentative unit could be a longer essay and participation in an oral class debate or discussion.

Close up of statue of Abraham Lincoln's face at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
“Abraham Lincoln Memorial 1” by Kevin Burkett is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Below are a few examples of argumentative writing prompts that teachers could assign to students based upon CommonLit’s American Civil War text set:

  • Was the result of The Civil War ever truly in question? In other words, was there any way that the South could have been victorious?
  • Was The Civil War avoidable? Was there any way that leaders could have prevented confrontation?

3. Learning Vocabulary

Texts sets are a great way for students to learn vocabulary. Within each CommonLit text set, teachers will find domain-specific vocabulary words and concepts that appear continuously throughout the texts on that given topic. Through frequent exposure to these words, students will be much more likely to retain the definition and use them in writing and speech.

For example, here are just a few domain-specific words that are repeated within our Modern Democracy in America text set:

  • “bill” — 2 times
  • “election” — 3 times
  • “right” — 3 times
  • “Supreme Court” — 4 times
  • “legislate” or “legislator” — 3 times
  • “democracy” — 3 times
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
“Washington Capitol Hill” by Arend is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

4. Differentiation and Reading Ladders

Text sets also make it extremely easy for teachers to differentiate instruction while still keeping students in the same class learning about the same topic. Using the CommonLit digital platform, teachers can assign different texts on the same topic to different students based on their ability level.

Let’s use the Native American History text set as an example:

Black and white photo of Native American chief.
“Native American in ink” by wsilver is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Another slightly different option is to use something called “reading ladders,” which a term popularized by Teri S. Lesesne. A reading ladder is a series of texts, often on the same topic or within the same genre, that become progressively more difficult. Students can move to the next text once they show mastery on the lower level text. This is a great way to help students gain a sense of confidence as they struggle with complex text.

Using CommonLit’s Native American History text set, students may begin with a text like “Red Cloud’s Speech After Wounded Knee” (950L, 7th-8th grade) and then move to a somewhat harder text like “From Resistance to Reservations” (1080L, 9th-10th) since these two texts address very similar topics.