I have been teaching children to read for around fifteen years and in that time I have seen a huge leap in the quality of reading schemes for children and young people. We have moved from tedious and formulaic material, to extraordinary schemes filled with beautiful imagery and content that is designed to engage developing readers. Sadly these schemes can be expensive and I am often asked by teachers and parents how they can use the books that they already have to support and develop young readers. As a non-fiction writer myself I also spend time thinking how I can use my books for creativity, and if they are accessible for the children who will use them.
As a children’s librarian I know that there are some children who only want to read non-fiction, but this represents a challenge to those teaching the mechanics of reading as these books do not always lend themselves to a progressive reading scheme. It is actually quite simple to choose non-fiction for teaching reading, but it takes careful selection and consideration.
So what are we looking for in a good non-fiction book for this purpose?
To successfully use a non-fiction book to teach reading we need these boxes ticked
- Clean and uncluttered fonts
Many fonts act as a blockage to developing readers and confuse the child
- Sharp and clear images with labels that link and explain
Those blurry and arty photos and illustrations are all very well in adult books, but can a child actually recognise what the picture is? This might be the first time the child has “met” this concept and the picture is an essential part of understanding what the words are saying, don’t leave them guessing.
- Good use of different colours and well sectioned
Paragraphs and sections in different colours or boxes can help a child feel a sense of achievement. If they can’t tackle the whole page, they can do one section at a time.
- A concise and readable contents, glossary and index
These are all essential parts of a great non-fiction book as it is the key to successfully navigating the text. To a child understanding these parts of a book is like being shown the secret to finding your way around a book without reading the whole thing, or asking for help.
- A good mix of language using higher level vocabulary in context
Great non-fiction isn’t afraid of adding in higher level vocabulary to drop new words and concepts into a child’s life. This should be embedded in contextualisation and surrounded by solid visual prompts. When we are teaching reading we need the child to not just struggle through a whole bunch of hard words, and so a good mix is ideal.
- Tells us something new
So many non-fiction books for children cover the same ground. I know that this is not thanks to the writers who would love to drop exciting new gems into the text, but publishers often err on the side of caution and cover familiar ground. Don’t! Each book on a subject should endeavor to tell us something that we didn’t know before.
- Is not just there to look pretty!
There is space for books that simply look beautiful and are a joy to own, but if you are trying to use them to teach reading you need a little bit more.
When we’ve chosen the books we want to use to teach reading, we need to remember a few more things to make it work.
- The child must choose the subject matter
Ownership of the task is important and enjoyment is the key to success
- Start by exploring the index, contents and glossary
Help the child to first browse what’s in the book. Show them that the contents page is a bit like a tv guide, and they can quickly see what might interest them.
- Only start reading the main body text at the very beginning if that’s where the child wants to start
Dip in and out, flick back and forth and stop at pages that catch their eye.
- Don’t quiz!
Okay, so I know that this will probably get many teachers angry here, but I hate quizzing. It works for some children, but for many it is a dreaded task and it ruins the natural flow. Use it with great care, and informally chat instead. Tell them what you have discovered, and let them tell you what they liked and discovered. Make it a two-way process.
I have mainly used non-fiction with children who are not engaging with the process of reading and who do not like fiction. These children have often decided that reading is not for them, and so I have to be extra careful how I handle them and to make sure that I first tackle their dislike, and then tackle the skills.
Let’s look a case study….
I had great success with two non-reading Autistic boys by using only the books that they loved, not an easy task as they were really only passionate about maps. They both said that they “hated” books and refused to even try to read. One angrily told me that fiction was “rubbish” and both would not even sit and look at fiction book. Using an atlas to teach reading is not exactly easy, and it took a while to find atlases that ticked all of the above boxes, but when I did it made a world of difference (no pun intended!)
I constructed a long list of place names that contained other words, and I printed off visual prompts for the words that were “hiding” in the different countries (Germany has germ, and man, and many, and any for example). We looked at the kind of things that grew in the countries (“where does your favourite food come from?”), and the dates the countries were discovered (great for showing how long numbers look when written in words). We found out about the people who discovered the countries and the ships that they sailed in. We even looked at the languages of all of the other countries and I found foreign words that were the same root origin as ours, and many strange ones that we’d never heard of before (this was great for embedding phonetic skills rather than using confusing nonsense words). I had a huge National Geographic World map that we spread out on the floor and we found the places that we’d read about in our Atlases. We “explored” the globe and the boys learnt how to read almost by accident. They were so invested in unlocking the mysteries of the text around the maps that they almost forgot they were having reading lessons.
I knew that I would probably never create in them the kind of people who would sit and read War and Peace out of choice, but that didn’t matter to me. My aim was to give them a skill that would make the rest of their lives easier and better, and we achieved that together in a way that was hugely enjoyable for all of us.
In November I was invited to hand out the awards for the ISG Reference Book of the Year and I wanted to share with you the three books that were shortlisted for the award for the best information resource for young people. These three books represent perfect examples of great books to engage children not only in the mechanics of reading, but also in the joy of reading for pleasure.
Tiny, the Invisible World Of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton explains some high-end and complex concepts with exactly the right balance of commonplace and new words. The illustrations are beautifully pitched and support the text in a way that the child can easily identify with. There is a familiarity in the friendliness of the illustrations that allows a sense of ownership over some ideas that will be very new for the developing reader.
Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through a subject matter that has not traditionally been covered for this age group. The stunning illustrations blend effortlessly with text that has been perfectly pitched for the developing reader. The balance of words and pictures is just right, and there is more than enough visual stimulation to keep the eye on the page whilst we tackle the text.
Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott (the winner of the ISG Information Resource for Children Award 2015) is a glorious trip to a Natural History Museum in book form. Its large format allows the reader to tumble into its remarkable illustrations and the accompanying text, though challenging, is great for the developing reader. The descriptive paragraphs are short, but to the point, and introduce us to all sorts of new things including Latin names.
These three books represent a small section of the very best non-fiction books for children, and they also demonstrate that some publishers are willing to take a risk and publish books that will both engage and delight. When all is said and done, one of the most important things that we need to remember is that teaching the mechanics of reading is completely different to creating an ethos of reading for pleasure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pleasurable. If a child is not enjoying the process, they are far less likely to become passionate lifelong readers and that’s a long term aim that matters to all of us.
Vice President CILIP
Children’s author and literacy consultant
CWIG Committee Member
This post was written in support of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups as part of their celebration for National Non-Fiction Month. To find out more about the excellent work of the Federation, and to support their work, please click the link below.