November is National Non-fiction month and is the ideal time for us to consider how to provide rich reading experiences with non-fiction texts.
To begin, it’s important that good non-fiction writing does more than convey information. We can distinguish between factual literature and information text. While information text is solely for conveying information, factual literature seeks to engage readers emotionally as well as intellectually and it can include narrative and poetic writing as well as explanatory text. It is important to encourage non-fiction reading for a range of purposes, not just for fact finding in order to write about a topic. The digital revolution has made it possible to retrieve ‘facts’ with ease when we need to locate them quickly and efficiently. However, non-fiction books give a different reading experience with the capacity to facilitate deeper, more reflective reading – which ultimately results in improved comprehension.
Here are some practical suggestions for helping primary pupils read non-fiction at a deeper level using pre- and post-reading activities that are designed to delve below the surface.
Before Reading – Making Connections
Non-fiction and fiction make different demands on the reader. While stories invite the reader to co-create an imaginary world, non-fiction books seek to convey knowledge of the world, albeit viewed through a writer’s lens. Whether reading fiction or non-fiction, readers need to make connections between their existing knowledge (textual, content, cultural and linguistic) for comprehension to take place. Providing explicit guidance on how to activate prior knowledge before reading will help children develop an understanding that comprehension is built on experience and is not simply achieved as a result of decoding words on the page.
One technique is to use the Circle Thinking Map (one of a set of thinking tools devised by David Hyerle). The intention is to teach children to use these maps so they can utilise them independently. Show the children how to use the map to demonstrate what they already know about a topic.
First, write the title of the book or the subject in the inner circle. Ask the children to share in pairs or small groups what they already know about the topic. Gather together and write their suggestions in the large circle.
Then ask them where this knowledge comes from. Is it something that happened to them? Did someone tell them about it? Did they read about it in a book? Write these sources in the rectangle around the large circle. This is called the frame of reference. As children become more experienced they can learn to evaluate the sources. For example, is a non-fiction book more or less reliable than being told something by a friend or a fictional film?
When you have recorded the ideas, read them back to the group. ‘So this is what we already know about Dinosaur Hunters … and this is how we know it…’ Then ask the children what they think they might find out from reading the book. Rephrase their suggestions as questions and make a list, e.g. How long ago did the dinosaurs live?
This completed Circle Thinking Map for The Dinosaur Hunter (Oxford Reading Tree inFact, Level 10) shows that the children have interpreted the title in a way that leads them to think that the book is going to be about dinosaurs that hunt. In this instance the teacher also drew attention to the determiner in the title and asked, ‘does the ‘The’ make it possible for this book to be about something other than dinosaurs that hunt? What could The Dinosaur Hunter be?’ The children can then add further ideas to the Circle Thinking Map.
After reading the book, return to the map and consider what new information has been learnt. Have the questions been answered? If not, where would you be likely to find that information?
This ‘thinking prior to reading’ strategy uses key vocabulary from the text to guide predictions. Select about five words from the book you are going to read. Introduce them one-by-one, pausing to ask questions about each word such as, ‘What do you know about this word?’ ‘How do you know that?’ As you introduce each word the children’s predictions should start to crystallize around a main idea. Keep notes about the predictions and any observations about vocabulary that is either unknown or challenging. If any technical or subject specific vocabulary is unknown, these definitions can be provided prior to reading. The words should remain visible during reading.
Here are some examples taken from a spread from the book Explorers Then and Now (TreeTops inFact, Level 14):
Read the text together, and where appropriate, pause to reflect on the way the author has used the words and the accuracy of the predictions. It doesn’t matter if their predictions don’t match the text as long as the children can give plausible reasons for their initial predictions. Make this clear so they don’t feel that they have failed to provide the ‘correct’ answers.
After Reading – Digging Deeper
Deeper reading can be achieved by modelling ‘close reading’ strategies after the initial reading of the text. You will notice that these strategies require time. Rather than moving too quickly from one book to the next, the text is revisited. Children are equipped with the strategies that lead to deeper comprehension and independent learning.
Close reading involves working in depth on a short passage to help children understand more complex text and passages and is appropriate from year 2 upwards. The goal is to use close reading to teach strategies that the children will be able to use independently once they have gained sufficient experience. It should be used sparingly and with short passages.
After an initial reading, have the children discuss the text in pairs, then ask the opening question, ‘What is this text about?’ Encourage them to relate the text to their own knowledge and experiences (see Before Reading). Share and note ideas.
Next, explain that you are going to read the text a second time but this time you are going to read more closely in order to find the topic sentence and some key words. Explain that key words are essential to the topic. Show how to mark them on the text using a box for the topic sentence and underlining for key words.
Now ask the children a question about the text that they have just read and ask them to answer it using the information that they have marked.
As pupils become more experienced at text marking, you can introduce new marks to add to their repertoire. For instance, when introducing comparing and contrasting, you can use a pink high lighter for similarities and a yellow highlighter for differences before transferring the information to a Double Bubble Thinking Map, where the similarities are recorded in the central bubbles and the differences are recorded in the outer bubbles
Double Bubble Map for Compare and Contrast Thinking
And for identifying cause and effect, you might use squiggly underline for cause and a cloud around the word for effect before transferring the information to a Multi-flow Thinking Map.
Multi-flow Map for Cause and Effect Thinking
N Gamble (2008) ‘More than Information’ in Goodwin, P. Understanding Children’s Books (2008) London: Sage
D Hyerele (2011) Thinking Maps (2nd edition) Cailfornia: Corwin
About the Author
Nikki Gamble is the Series Editor of Oxford University Press’s Oxford Reading Tree inFact series which has been created to provide children with an engaging reading experience as well as to develop and deepen their comprehension skills. High interest topics are presented in lively and interesting ways, to extend children’s knowledge of the world.