learning during read-alouds: non-fiction that WORKS
His first book was an Arthur book that we already have here at home. Then he came home with a non-fiction book about Chihuahuas.
The next week, he picked yet another book that we have here at home. Then came another from the same dog series as before about this time about labradoodles, which makes some sense because we have a labradoodle ourselves. But the following week, when he pulled a book from the same dog series about collies, I thought it was time for a media-book intervention.
It would be one thing if he was genuinely interested in dogs and read these books he chose, but the books sat in his backpack for a day or two and then he brought them back to school.
If he was going to spend one period a week at the media center–which I know is packed with some really incredible books–he was going to make it work for him.
And in the process of getting Owen to use his media time more wisely, we all learned a little about making non-fiction books work for us.
Here’s the skinny:
- Non-fiction books that work: Non-fiction texts are texts that are real, true, and factual; fiction texts are stories created by an author which are not real, true, or factual.
Most of us reach for fiction when it comes to reading aloud with our kids, and it makes perfect sense–fiction is often easier to read and follow for because we are more familiar with the genre. Period.
But as our little ones get older, it’s important that we begin to pull out some non-fiction books to read as well. Today, we’re really lucky in that many of the best publishers for children are making a concerted effort to add non-fiction titles to their lists. These books are far from what we may perceive non-fiction to be; they’re far from boring, plain, and sterile and are instead filled with photographs, colorful captions, and are written in an age-appropriate voice.
Through big bites of cereal: Um, I don’t know.
What do you feel like reading?
Um, I don’t really know.
Is there anything you want to read about or learn about?
Through more big bites of cereal: Um, I don’t really know.
Okay, how about you search for a book that I think you’ll like if your teacher can help you find it? How about a book about how people celebrate Christmas in other countries? I’m curious about how people celebrate around the world. Maybe it will be interesting.
Um, I don’t know. . .
Hours later, Owen bounded out of the school building waving to me and screaming Mommy! I found an awesome book!! As he unpacked his backpack in the middle of school dismissal, he dug through his folders and pulled out a book. Look! It’s Christmas Around the World! I love it!
And that was just the beginning. He’s taken the book out of the school library for two straight weeks, but it doesn’t sit safely in his backpack, waiting to return to the shelves.
He reads this book all. the. time.
He hides this book under the covers of his bed so he can find it at bedtime every night. My husband or I have read this book with the kids probably a dozen times.
I wondered, as I read it for the tenth time and as Maddy, Owen, and Cora raced to point out the countries they could identify using the colors on the map key, What is it about this book that my kids have gone nutty for it? Why do they love it so much? What’s the formula for a non-fiction text that works, and how–and where–can I find another one?
As we read, we do a few things–not every single thing, every single time, because I love to mix it up:
- We give choices. We sometimes allow each kiddo to choose one chapter–one country–to read about. I think they like the ‘ownership’ and choice.
- We make connections. Between what we do and what people in other countries do. Between what their friends do and what we do.
- We ask questions. Sometimes I’ll ask them, and sometimes they ask them.
- I do think alouds. Hmmm, so in Sweden the oldest daughter dresses up as St. Lucia. I wonder how the other kids feel about that? In Australia they go to the beach for Christmas picnic? Wow. That would be so different for us!
- We do ‘quizzes’. With identifying countries on the map, with fun facts about Christmas, with tongue twisters.
- We talk about text features. We use the table of contents to locate chapters, and we talk about the new-for-us words from other languages in italics. We chat about the map and the map key.
So I did some reading and I did some researching, and it seems as though this book that Owen picked up–with the help of his mom and with the help of his school media specialist–almost 100% fits the bill for a ‘great’ informational text for young readers.
From March 2008′s The Reading Teacher, I found an article by Kathy E. Stephens, “A Quick Guide for Selecting Great Informational Books for Young Children,” and Christmas around the World almost completely, perfectly qualifies as ‘great’.
the checklist: Kathy E. Stephens’ formula for great informational books for kids
I like this checklist because it’s easy. I like it because it’s to the point. And I like it because it touches on elements I hadn’t considered, like the title being ‘short enough to entice interest’ or the ‘intriguing facts’ or the ‘inviting’ photographs and illustrations. It makes total sense to me.
And if you want to download this super-awesome list, the Non-Fiction Checklist for Young Readers is here as a pdf if you’d like.
Christmas around the World, by Emily Kelly and illustrated by Joni Oeltjenbrums, is an On My Own: Holidays book by Lerner Books. It’s a quick trip around the world with stops in Mexico, Austrailia, Lebanon, Germany, and more, where readers learn a little bit about how each country celebrates Christmas.
It’s written at about a 2-3rd grade level (Guided Reading N) , so it works well as a read-aloud for both Maddy and Owen and for Cora with extra support. It has the typical non-fiction text features, like a table of contents, chapter titles, illustrations and color-coded map, but I do wish it included an index and some actual photographs with captions. There’s even a few Christmas jokes and Christmas tongue twisters thrown in at the end, and I’m sure that they love those, too. In fact, I know they do.
I also know that for Maddy, Owen, and Cora, the awesomeness of this non-fiction text had a lot to do with timing. It’s almost Christmas. They’re interested in Christmas. They’re all about Christmas. And Christmas is probably just about all they have thought about for the last 45 days, and it’s probably all they will think about for the next 13 days.
It’s all working to make the non-fiction read-aloud a smashing success, and I’ll take it.
I’m hoping that we can replicate this non-fiction love with another book in the near future, since now I’m pretty sure I’ve got the formula for a definite hit. And that’s it for some sneaky learning during read-alouds for now. More from the learning during read-alouds series next week!
Many thanks to the following sources for information and guidance in writing this post:
- Gill, S. R. (2009), What Teachers Need to Know About the “New” Nonfiction. The Reading Teacher, 63: 260–267. doi: 10.1598/RT.63.4.1
- Kurkjian, C., Livingston, N. and Cobb, V. (2006), Inquiring Minds Want to Learn: The Info on Nonfiction and Informational Series Books. The Reading Teacher, 60: 86–96. doi: 10.1598/RT.60.1.10
- Lerner Publishing, Inc. https://www.lernerbooks.com/Pages/Home.aspx
- Palmer, R. G. and Stewart, R. A. (2005), Models for Using Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. The Reading Teacher, 58: 426–434. doi: 10.1598/RT.58.5.2