As your child grows, nonfiction becomes the foundation of their background knowledge and, ultimately, a compass for defining their interests, pursuits, and goals.
“Nonfiction develops and extends vocabulary, builds a repertoire of background information, and helps the child make connections to the natural world,” Laminack says.
There’s no age limit for introducing your child to nonfiction; in fact, you’re probably already reading some together now.
“An adult willing to sit and read, and discuss and pore over details in the text and in the illustrations, is the source that ignites a child’s curiosity,” Laminack says.
Here are the best ways to maximize the benefits of nonfiction books.
Many of your child’s first books are nonfiction. These are concept books, which teach basics like the ABCs, colors, and shapes.
“These books focus on objects in the child’s world and give them names: ball, flower, bird, truck, baby,” Laminack says. “They introduce animals and household items and feelings and so much more.”
Concept books lay a foundation for your child’s understanding of their environment. Often these take the format of board books with thick pages your child learns to handle and turn themselves — giving your child a literal grasp on their world.
Children in preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary school will begin to explore a variety of reading materials and formats, including magazines that offer general introductions to information. Try to supply reading material that creates a curated focus for your child around a specific subject.
“Focus on the natural world that the child will encounter,” Laminack suggests. “Focus on things of interest in the child’s life, like machines or the weather.” A few more good examples: animals, plants, and insects.
Reading materials should lead with photos and illustrations and not be text-heavy.
“These will spark interest, give the reader enough information and vocabulary to think, and reflect and generate questions,” Laminack says. “Simply poring over the illustrations will lead the child to delve into a paragraph.”
If your child gets hooked on a series, they will find answers to their questions as they progress through the collection. The result is a layering of vocabulary and information that prepares them for more complex reading.
Let older readers choose their own books — and tackle the contents at their own pace.
As your child grows, their interests will develop rapidly. Letting them choose their own books gives them the chance to explore and finish books, which instills confidence.
“The child’s interest will be a gauge you can trust,” Laminack says. “If the text is too complex and heavy, they will not sit with it.”
Over time, your child will grow comfortable with navigating the factoid boxes, charts, infographics, and other interstitials that come with nonfiction reading. If you find they gravitate toward text that’s simplistic or below their reading level, don’t worry. When it comes to information-heavy reading, it’s easier for some to take small bites.
“You may find your child is interested in books that you consider ‘too easy’ for them,” Laminack says. “Remember this is about building information, not a test of one’s reading ability. All of us, adults included, seek the simple approach when delving into a new topic.”
It’s not just the facts of nonfiction that separate it from fiction. Reading nonfiction is a completely different experience.
While fiction asks us to question the literary components of a story (like the characters, setting, and plot), nonfiction requires us to synthesize information using an existing framework of knowledge. For instance, when you read fiction with your child, you may ask each other what you like about the main character or what you think will happen next.
Reading nonfiction is about taking in new information, layering it on top of what you already know, and drawing insights from the connections you make to the new information. In other words, intake is proportionate to existing knowledge.
“If your child has knowledge, vocabulary, and a conceptual understanding of the topic, they’ll likely find it much easier to take in the new information,” Laminack says. “If they have no prior knowledge, little or no conceptual frame, and the vocabulary is new to them, then they will likely find the new information more challenging.”
Nonfiction offers a great opportunity for children to summarize what they are reading and to form opinions. In many ways, nonfiction is the ultimate test of a reader’s comprehension, because it constantly tests the information already committed to memory.
“Our existing knowledge positions us to question what the nonfiction writer presents, to push back or accept what is presented,” Laminack says. “The information may add to our existing repertoire, or it may challenge it.”
During the course of reading nonfiction, you and your child are sure to encounter dismaying parts of history. Your child may be confused or have questions about the “why” behind specific events.
While each parent will handle these conversations differently, Laminack says his general approach to such interactions is to “focus on the truth.”
“Even if it challenges a ‘current understanding’ or ‘long-held belief,’” he says. “That is the nature of learning.”
If the truth does come up against what the parent has been taught, or offer a perspective unpopular in the household, Laminack says these uncomfortable moments are actually an opportunity to host important conversations.
“The adult can explain how the new information is different from what they have known and use that difference to model how, in these circumstances, one asks new questions and seeks out additional information,” he says. “That sets us off on a search for more information from as many perspectives as possible.”
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