The Skinny (or the Non-Fat) on Nonfiction
- Grades: PreK–K
Most of the reading and writing we do in life is nonfiction. Informational text helps us live, work, learn, and communicate with society. Facts and data come in an infinite variety of forms, yet most classroom libraries mainly feature fictional storybooks. Surprisingly, students actually enjoy them as much as, or even more than, fiction. Fiction is enjoyable, and can be inspirational and informative, but the ability to decode, comprehend, and analyze knowledge is all of that and one other thing — necessary.
From Fiction to Nonfiction
You could use fiction as a springboard into nonfiction. Have your students read a story and think about something in the story that they would like to know more about. Then have them search through a text set — a collection of texts about the topic in different genres and mediums ("texts" can include pictures and videos). Text sets help kids make connections to a single topic or unit of study.
To learn about Thanksgiving, my students are reading blogs and listening to podcasts. Slide shows, video documentaries, Webcasts, and photo albums all count as nonfiction, too. Check out Scholastic's Plimouth Plantation Webcast — a thirty minute online field trip — on Tuesday, November 16, 2010, at 1:00 p.m. ET.
The most powerful way you can encourage your students to read — or look at — nonfiction books is to provide interesting ones. Even reluctant readers will look at a book if it is truly interesting to them. Provide a wide range of engaging topics at all reading levels, and display them in an enticing way. Nonfiction goes beyond school-related subjects, like science or social studies. Your collection should include all kinds of factual information, including celebrity bios, sports stats, true story comic books, and magazines.
Nonfiction materials should be visually attractive, with an attention-grabbing cover and title and uncluttered illustrations or photographs. The font should be large and simple, the vocabulary should be easy (the kids will have enough work to do absorbing the information), and of course the content should be current and from a reputable source.
It is important to introduce nonfiction materials when you get them, and to use them during read-alouds, guided reading, writing, and content-area instruction. And don't forget to include them in centers and classroom displays. These things will encourage children to pick the materials up voluntarily.
A Better Reason to Read
Show your students the purposes for reading nonfiction. However it might seem sometimes, we don't just read nonfiction to memorize facts and figures, to complete assignments, or to take tests. Nonfiction tells us fascinating new things about the world — things that we need to know, that make us wonder and question, or that spark our curiosity.
To help kids understand that we read nonfiction for authentic reasons, pair the reading up with hands-on experiences and investigations. There are two ways you can do this:
- Read a nonfiction book first, then do an activity. Reading beforehand gives the activity meaning. For instance, after reading about weather or space topics, like wind, tornadoes, lightning, or stars, extend the learning by flying kites, making soda bottle tornadoes, playing with a plasma globe, or looking at stars with a planetarium projector. After reading about petroglyphs, take the students outside to make their own with sidewalk chalk.
- Set up activities or situations in which students need to read in order to obtain information. Have them read simple recipes to make food or play dough, directions to assemble a product, or information to observe caterpillars as they turn into butterflies. During election years, let them look at political ads to vote with imaginary ballots.
All students need to be taught strategies for reading and making sense of what they read, and this is especially true for nonfiction. Because texts are so varied, and because they may include a range of different features, nonfiction is harder to teach — and harder to read and understand — than fiction. Explain when and how to use strategies. Model your mental processes as you read a nonfiction book out loud. Encourage active reading, in which you pause to ask questions, summarize what you've read, make connections and predictions, and analyze, react, and form opinions. Skip around to demonstrate how you can read just the parts you want or need to.
Explain to students that good nonfiction books may include the following features to help them navigate the information they find:
- A table of contents at the front listing the sections of the book
- Headings that preview key points
- Print that is bold, italic, capitalized, underlined, highlighted, or in a different size or color to signal important words or phrases
- Pronunciation guides or diacritic marks that tell how unusual or difficult words are pronounced
- Photographs and close-ups
- Diagrams and cut-aways that show illustrations of objects
- Maps of geographic locations
- Charts and graphs to represent information visually
- Captions and labels that accompany photographs, illustrations, and other pictures
- Inserts and sidebars with additional information
- Bullets and asterisks that list important facts
- Time lines that place events in chronological order
- Comparisons of two or more elements
- Footnotes on the bottom of pages that expand on something in the text
- An alphabetical index at the back that lists important subjects in the text and their page numbers
- An alphabetical glossary at the back that lists important words in the text and their definitions
Nonfiction Strategies Toolbox
Assemble a toolbox of supplies students can use specifically for reading nonfiction. Include:
- Sticky notes for writing definitions of words
- Flags or tabs for chapters or sections, so students can easily flip forward or backward
- Paper clips, highlighters, and overhead transparencies that can be clipped onto pages to highlight important points
- Bookmarks to remember favorite pages, or pages for later reading
Teacher-Made Nonfiction Books
Don't forget to explain that nonfiction, just like fiction, is written by authors with their own views and intentions. You and your students can write your own nonfiction books. Then, in whole group, you can share your reasons for writing them.
I made two types of nonfiction books for my class. The first, pictured below, was based on the Outburst! board game. Every page has a topic, such as holidays, body parts, and farm animals, which the kids have to think about. Some of the possible answers are written on a card in light blue crayon, and obscured with dots in red marker. To see the answers, the kids have to put the cards in a special decoder, made out of an overhead transparency covered in red marker and stapled to tagboard.
The second type I made came from Hey! I Can Read This! The Interactive Book Experience by Donna Butt Sabino and Kathy Barlow Thurman. Obviously, I did not author these myself, but they are great for learning facts because they're interactive and the kids can sing the words to familiar tunes.
Make It a Mystery
Children extend their knowledge by connecting what they learn to the background knowledge they already have, and by pooling their knowledge with others in a social context. They need to reflect, to talk, and to connect new information with experiences they have actually lived through.
You should include some nonfiction titles of which you have more than one copy so students can read together. Throw in an element of mystery by telling your own story in which a group has to work together to find answers to clues. I made an interactive story for my students that involved a chain of clues in a Web site I had created with links to pages about different cities, brochures, schedules, a map, a video (with an instant chat with me telling them what to do next), a book about roller coasters, the Guinness Book of World Records, and a phone number. Eventually they figured out they were going on an imaginary trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. Loads of fun!
Nonfiction Is Nonnegotiable
Nonfiction reading is a life skill. It's something your students will need to do their whole lives. Not only that, studies have shown that nonfiction makes kids better readers. So if you don't have a good collection of informational text in your classroom, run, don't walk, to the nearest bookstore.
Have a truly good weekend!