It might be tricky to spot potential novelists in a primary class, but one thing is certain: every child will grow up to be a non-fiction writer. From emails, blogs and reviews to reports, articles and proposals, factual writing is a key communication tool in every line of work.
Information books are often used in the classroom to exemplify text types, but they can also demonstrate how non-fiction writers draw on the same creative thinking and rich language used by writers of fiction. Here are some ideas to get even the most reluctant writers fired up about non-fiction.
- Write what you want to know
When I ask children what they’d most like to write about, one often says ‘Minecraft™’ with a slightly guilty look, certain it’s the wrong answer.
But just as aspiring fiction authors are advised to ‘write what you know’, write what you want to know is great advice for non-fiction. Letting children select their own focus for factual writing gives them permission to indulge real-life passions.
Need to write a report on Ancient Greece but daydreaming about skateboarding? Explore the history of extreme sports. Studying biography and into gaming? Research the lives of the first coders. No topic is off-limits (and that goes for grown-up authors too, with Minecraft ™ non-fiction books unexpectedly topping the bestseller charts in 2014).
- There’s no such thing as boring
It’s hard to get your audience excited about a topic unless you’re excited yourself. This activity helps children to develop their research skills, and find an angle that interests them.
Ask the class to suggest the most boring topics they can think of – something as dull as ditchwater, perhaps, or as dry as dust. Could they write a book about dust?
Encourage them to get hands-on with their research, and find three fascinating facts about the topic. Watching clips, arranging mini field trips, trying out activities and interviewing experts will help children to explore a subject in depth and make their writing richer.
They might swipe a magnet through garden dust to collect micrometeorites, or discover that dust is a vital component of snow. They might find out that the dust in their houses is mostly made up of their family’s skin, or have a microscopic encounter with the mites that feast on it! Any of these would make a good starting point for extended writing.
- Surprising structures
Ask children to imagine that each fact they’ve researched is a Lego brick. Simply scooping up all this colourful information and dropping it onto the page would make a confusing mess. They could stack all the facts in a nice, neat list but it would be a bit boring.
The best non-fiction writing uses nuggets of information to build something unique.
Instead of listing facts about space, why not write a travel guide to the solar system, instructions for building a rocket, or an astronaut’s biography?
Facts about life cycles in the savannah could become instructions for looking after a lion, or a discursive text about which predator would prevail in a hypothetical fight.
Get creative, make connections, and take your readers on a journey.
- Hook your audience
Hooking the audience doesn’t end with a creative angle. Each paragraph and sentence must work hard to keep readers engaged.
This fishing game demonstrates what we mean by engaging text. Print the first sentences from a range of non-fiction texts. Attach a paper clip to each one, and a magnet to a string. Ask volunteers to fish for sentences, and read them aloud. Then hold a class vote – are they hooked, or will they throw their catch back in?
Challenge children to come up with attention-grabbing first sentences of their own, and repeat the game.
- Make comparisons
Some of the world’s most famous non-fiction texts were by early explorers, describing places, people, plants and animals for the first time.
Can you guess what these writers were describing?
1. They are bulkier than horses, have manes and tails, and their heads are like horses’ heads, but their feet like elephants’ feet.
2. They darted tail first, with the rapidity of an arrow, from one side of the pool to the other, discolouring the water with a dark chestnut-brown ink. These animals also escape detection by a very extraordinary, chameleon-like, power of changing their colour.
3. It resembled in size, and in its white woolly covering, a small fat lamb, but had short legs, hand-like feet with large claws, and a long prehensile tail.
1. 14th Century explorer Ibn Battuta, describing a hippo in the Rihla
2. Charles Darwin, describing a cuttle-fish in The Voyage of HMS Beagle
3. Alfred Russel Wallace, describing a cuscus in The Malay Archipelago
Try passing something unusual around the room (though probably not a hippo). Challenge children to write descriptions for different audiences. They should use all of their senses to come up with the best comparisons. Each group could be challenged to draw an object they have never seen before, based on another group’s description. Who has done the best job?Analyzing the way non-fiction writers use comparisons can help children develop the use of metaphor and simile in their own writing.
Isabel Thomas is a science writer, specialising in books and outreach resources for children and young people. She runs non-fiction writing workshops in schools. Her books for Oxford University Press include The Misadventures of Charles Darwin and How to Change the World (Oxford Reading Tree inFact, 2015). Try free inFact eBooks on Oxford Owl, and find free teaching notes.
Find Isabel on Twitter @raisingchimps