Teaching non-fiction reading is a key literacy skill in the younger grades. Students need to understand that there are different kinds of books and that some books are teaching books. Children should be exposed to non-fiction books, and most likely already are, long before explicitly teaching non-fiction reading strategies.
What are Non-Fiction books
The first thing students need to know is what even is non-fiction books. I tend to use this terminology very early on in the year when introducing a non-fiction book. I might say, “This book is a non-fiction book – it’s teaching us about _____”. I also clarify that the non-fiction book is different than a story book. Sometimes I will ask my students, after sharing with them the title and cover of the book, if they think the book is a teaching book or if it is a story book. This gives them exposure to comparing the two main genres of reading – fiction and non-fiction.
When starting a unit on non-fiction books, I place a bunch of non-fiction books in the middle of the rug and I ask the students what they notice and what they wonder. After they have a chance to look through some of the books and share some noticing and wonderings, I tell them that all these books have something in common and I ask if they can figure out what that might be. When planning for this, I purposefully choose some books with photographs and drawings, some books with diagrams, tables of contents, and glossaries and some without. I want my students to see that non-fiction books have a lot of text features, but you can’t’ only depend on these features because some books don’t have them at all. I want my students to know that the key feature of a non-fiction book is the author’s purpose – to teach the reader.
Why do we read Non-Fiction books?
Throughout the year, I try and use non-fiction books in realistic, authentic, and purposeful ways. Whenever we are learning about a new topic, especially in science, I try to put out a question and a mystery for my students, thus sparking interest. Then, when they have shared some ideas, I direct them to non-fiction books to learn more. Students need to know that non-fiction books teach us and give us information. So when students are curious about something and want to learn more, non-fiction books are the best way to do that.
Teaching Key Non-Fiction Strategies
Readers ask questions
An important reading strategy for all books, but especially non-fiction books, is to ask questions while reading. Children need to learn that it is good for reading spark new questions. Questions are how we learn. When we read a new piece of information, we should want to know more. Then it is important to figure out if the questions we have will be answered in the text or if we will need another book. One way to figure it out is with the table of contents to see what the book will teach us about. I try to teach the text features in this authentic context. I want my students to know how and why we use these features, not just memorize what they are called and what they should look like.
Readers compare and contrast books
Another important skill that my students need to learn about all books, but especially non-fiction books, is to compare and contrast books. There are many different non-fiction books about the same topic, and I want them to understand that a good reader sees what is the same and what is different. They need to know that not every book about a topic will have the same information covered in it, so they might learn different aspects of the topic. For example, one book on birds might focus on their homes – the types of nests – whereas another book might focus on the life cycle of birds.
It is also important to note when they do talk about the same information, but the information differs – does one have more recent information? Is the information close – like a bird lays an average of 5 eggs or a bird lays 3 – 7 eggs each. I want my students to be critical of the books they read and to compare and contrast books on the same topic.
Non-fiction readers read expert words
A tricky thing about non-fiction books is that there are often “expert words” that are quite difficult to decode for younger readers, especially if they don’t have much background knowledge about the topic. I teach my students to be on the lookout for these expert words and to do their best to sound them out. While they might not be able to decode them correctly, the books usually do a good job of explaining what the word means (and if not they can check the glossary). I like to use this PowerPoint to practice identifying which words are the expert words in a non-fiction text. (I write about it and other reading PowerPoints in this blog post.)
Non-Fiction books are so much fun to teach to young readers. Young students should be exposed to non-fiction books well before they are taught about them. Teachers should try to be as authentic and purposeful in how and why non-fiction books are used.