Teaching About Nonfiction with Picture Books

Using nonfiction picture books, a veteran teacher and author shares her strategies for building background information and helping young children synthesize words in print.

  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

This article is excerpted from Teaching About Nonfiction with Picture Books.   Picture books have been the first choice to reach the youngest learners for years. But the use of nonfiction picture books along with activities and extensions may add a new dimension to your reading program. Constance Leuenberger uses nonfiction picture books together with activities and extensions to teach young children (K-1) reading comprehension. An example of her strategies and practices using the book Biggest, Strongest, Fastest by Steve Jenkins (Tichnor and Fields. 1995) follows.

Why include nonfiction as an integral part of any primary reading program? There are many compelling reasons.

• We live in an information-based society. Adults tend to read more nonfiction than fiction. If we are to prepare our children for this world,it only makes sense to teach children the features and functions of nonfiction.

• As children progress through the grades, they will encounter more and more nonfiction texts as a primary source for learning new material.When teaching younger children nonfiction reading strategies, we are preparing them for their educational journey, and the demands of life ahead.

• Children who read nonfiction have an increased knowledge of the world.• Nonfiction text naturally lends itself to the teaching of vocabulary, extending students' language abilities.

Teaching Tip

The Internet offers access to Web sites that can enrich and enliven learning on almost any topic. Before having students access any of the Web sites referenced throughout this book, please preview them first as content and Web addresses may change over time.

There is a strong connection between classroom setup and the learning that occurs within it. When teachers fill their classrooms with rich learning opportunities and authentic items from the real world, they create an excitement for and love of learning that is contagious.

Information-rich classrooms include:

• Centers that invite exploration of items from nature, such as stones, shells, leaves, fresh flowers, and vegetables

• Pets and plants for companionship and scientific observation

• Information resources such as calendars, dictionaries, encyclopedias, magazines, catalogs, phone books, maps, globes and atlases, travel brochures and fliers about museums and attractions, and charts, graphs,and tables

• Tools such as notebooks, clipboards, highlighters, sticky notes, binoculars, microscopes, magnifying glasses, tape recorders, overhead projectors, and video and digital cameras

Teaching Tip

Classroom current-events magazines are rich sources of material for reinforcing features of nonfiction. For more practice, after a lesson on any nonfiction feature, send children on a treasure hunt to find books or articles with the same feature. In advance, make sure to have materials with the target feature on hand.

From a tiny flea to the mammoth blue whale, the animals in this book[Biggest, Strongest, Fastest] set records for being the biggest or the smallest, the fastest or the slowest, and everything in between. Each page compares the animal to a human in a small diagram, helping children to compare and contrast the unique characteristics of the animals to themselves.

Ask these questions to guide students in taking a closer look at the way these illustrations work:• In which picture is the size of the animal easier to visualize? Why?• Which picture makes it easier to visualize the physical characteristics of each animal? Why?• How do both types of illustrations help readers learn about the animal?

Teaching Tip

When children have the opportunity to observe animals for extended periods of time, they quickly learn amazing facts about the way certain animals live. If you are able, arrange for students to observe animals in the
classroom for a day, a week, or even the year!Invite families to share their pets-"borrow" a hamster,guinea pig, or another animal for the day. Ant farms are also relatively easy additions to a classroom menagerie.Encourage students to observe the animals and take notes

Use the book as inspiration for students' own nonfiction books about record-breaking animals.

• Review the record-breaking categories in the book (biggest, strongest,fastest, and so on)

• Guide students in researching animals that break records-for example,the largest insect, the smallest fish, the fastest bird, and the loudest land animal. Give each child a copy of Record Breakers (page 11). Have children complete the sentence to name their animal and tell what record it breaks. Then have them fill in three facts (size, diet, range) and draw a picture that compares their animal to something.

• Have students share their completed pages and then work together to compile them into a class book, complete with a front and back cover and a contents page, as well as any other features they are familiar with(such as a glossary or an index).

Teaching Tip

Which is the loudest animal in the sea? On land? Meet these and other animal record-holders, including mammals, birds, fish,reptiles, and invertebrates online at the National Zoo(nationalzoo.si.edu)

Students will enjoy this activity that revisits the author's use of comparisons (as a text structure), and enhances science and math skills.

Animal Chart

• Refer to the pages of Biggest, Strongest, Fastest as reference, and calculate the sizes of the featured animals.

• Use measuring tools to measure out the size of an Etruscan shrew, a bee hummingbird, a bird spider, and so on. (For the larger animals,such as a blue whale, take the measuring outside and use chalk or string to mark off how large the animal is).

Encourage conversations that involve comparisons. How does the author help readers visualize the size of a bee hummingbird? What comparisons can children make to better grasp the size of the smallest of all birds?

Teaching Tip

To take this activity further, use large art paper to create animal cutouts to scale, with the blue whale
being largest and the flea being smallest. Display in order by size.