Jenny Monk, Pat Davies and Sylvia Karavis, Primary Advisory Teachers for English for Oxfordshire Education Authority
Many teachers feel that the books in their classrooms frustrate children’s attempts at research. Close scrutiny of the bookshelves reveal that many books are not only densely packed with detail but are outdated and contain inaccuracies. Children wade through shelves in order to find anything that will assist their work. They frequently collect a pile of books that are tenuously linked to a topic – more for security than for information.
However, in times of financial constraint it is difficult to cull books and throw away out-dated stock.
We therefore need to consider how to:
i) evaluate existing book resources and develop criteria for selecting new books
ii) help children to find, read and use information texts
On a recent Library Resources course in Oxfordshire, teachers and librarians together considered the criteria for purchasing new books and culling existing stock and the following framework incorporates points discussed on that occasion with those we have used with teachers in the county.
Readership – the book’s intention
Is it for the beginner, the enthusiast or the expert? What existing knowledge is assumed by the author?
Is the book attractive with visual impact?
From where is most information obtained – pictures or text?
Are the illustrations, diagrams, charts relevant and complementary to the text?
Is anything particularly helpful/unhelpful about the way information is presented?
Could part or all of the information be presented in any other way?
How is the information in the book organised?
Are there any organisational devices to help the reader?
e.g. chapters and sub headings
How is information presented on any one page?
Does the use of text and graphics in the layout actually make the information easier to follow or is it more for visual effect?
Are the illustration captions or written explanations clear, accurate and unambiguous? Are they positioned correctly?
What type of language is being used?
Does the written text present the information in an accessible way? Is the technical language explained?
If the book is not a new publication, has it been revised or reprinted?
Is there any evidence of bias, intentional or unintentional, both generally in terms of race, class or gender, and particularly in controversial areas such as politics, history, environmental issues?
How many of the following does the book have? Are they helpful to the reader?
- Chapter and page headings
- Paragraph headings and sub-titles
- Suggestions for further readings
HELPING CHILDREN TO FIND, READ AND USE INFORMATION BOOKS
The process of selection and evaluation can be carried out with children to enable them to become more aware and critical. The following are examples of projects we have undertaken in local schools.
* Pairs of children aged 5-7 were asked to sort a mixed selection of fiction and non-fiction. They gave reasons for their decisions and explained how they knew the differences between the two. This activity helped some children make explicit what they implicitly knew, and helped others begin to understand the differences between stories and factual books.
One child engaged in this activity had some difficulty in deciding where to place a book from the `Jump’ Series. These books often include a mixture of information text and imaginative writing. After much deliberation he announced that the first part of the book was ,more important’ and assigned the book to the non-fiction pile. He explained his decision by referring, to the layout and ways in which illustrations are used in each section. Photographs and diagrams are `real’, but those in the story are `only drawings’.
* Groups of 9-11 year old children were asked to consider the differences between fiction and non-fiction texts and their teacher listed their responses. The children observed that:
- contain factual information
- tell you about things
- contain pictures and photographs with captions
- include paintings, diagrams and drawings
- use main headings and sub-headings to tell the reader where to find the information
- sometimes use different fonts on the same page
- use topic sentences
- contain an index, a contents page and a glossary
- can be possible, or not true
- are made to amuse and entertain
- have covers with drawn pictures
- have imaginative drawings and illustrations
- have chapters and paragraphs that follow on
- use the same font throughout except for chapter headings
Involvement in this activity helped the children appreciate the continuous nature of factual information although, as one child observed, `Nothing is constant; science is discovering new things all the time’.
The Teacher’s Role
– using Big Books to make explicit the structure and organisation of information texts
Traditionally teachers have helped children develop an understanding of story structure and rhyme. In many cases this has been achieved through story telling and discussion. Pleasure has been an important part of this shared experience. Alas, few information texts readily lend themselves to being read aloud, consequently this area of the reading curriculum has been largely ignored. Large format books provide a means of sharing information texts with children. The `Magic Bean’ series gives teachers the opportunity to make explicit to children the structure and organisation of information texts. It is possible for this series to be used with whole classes or small groups to demonstrate text organisation, page layout and use of illustrations, such as photographs and diagrams.
By comparing this structural organisation with passages of unbroken narrative and discussing how texts may be read, children can be helped to understand that different kinds of writing require different ways of reading.
Looking at a page
Activities that require close attention to particular texts help children to develop the ability to select and read purposefully. We have found that by encouraging critical examination and discussion of information books, children have been helped to recognise that information is often embedded in complex paragraphs and convoluted sentences.
Children can be shown how to find the main points in a series-of paragraphs. By making an overhead of a particular page and giving photocopies of the same page to pairs or small groups of children, the teacher can demonstrate that paragraphs have a main idea which may not be immediately apparent. By reading the text aloud to the group, and underlining topic sentences, the teacher encourages the children to make decisions as to the central point of the paragraph. Children can be hesitant and somewhat puzzled by this task but practice at this activity helps them become more adept at information retrieval.
Activities which encourage discussion and identification of central points of paragraphs, help children to understand how information is organised. Once they are able to recognise that main ideas can be separated by the inclusion of additional information, they become more confident about which information is essential to their research and which may be disregarded. We have noticed that it is when children have been actively involved in marking a text in this way, that they are then able to put the book away and feel that the information is their own. From this point it then becomes far more rewarding to represent what has been found out. They truly become researchers, rather than regulators of little understood facts.
Looking at the language of information texts
It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to explore with children the language of the text. It is the essential differences in the language structures of fiction and non-fiction texts that can make for difficulty in comprehension. Information texts frequently use constructions which are unknown to young children. The reader is not propelled forward by the sequence of events. There is frequent use of the passive tense, subordinate clauses and extended noun phrases.
We decided to examine the language of information texts with a group of 7-9 year olds who were working on the topic `Snakes’. Starting from what they already knew the children listed everything they could remember about the eating habits of snakes, then added to their lists using information from a book on Snakes in the `Jump’ series. The appeal of this series lies in the quality of the photographs and well laid out information. The challenge lies in the language itself.
In order to obtain further information to add to their lists, the children were faced with a vocabulary and language that needed further explanation. The group underlined any words in the text that they did not immediately understand. These were mainly scientific or technical and included words such as particle, rodents, vibrations, digest. The children then referred to the glossary, but in many cases still needed help from an adult to understand the technical explanations.
It is not only vocabulary that confuses children. The sentence, `Despite poor hearing and sight, snakes are efficient hunters even in the dark’, was interpreted by some as meaning that snakes can see in the dark. The sentence, `Snakes can digest everything except hair and feathers, even bones’, was rephrased by children to avoid the ambiguity it holds for them. One child wrote `Snakes can digest most of what they eat including bones, but not hair and feathers’.
If teachers recognise and discuss the confusion such texts produce, children’s awareness of the meaning of the text is raised and the pitfalls of merely copying out chunks of misunderstood texts can be avoided.
Having all worked with the text from the `Jump’ book on Snakes, the group then researched the eating habits of their chosen snake, working in pairs and using a wide range of resources.
* focussed questions
- What does the snake eat?
- How does it catch its prey?
- How does it eat and digest its prey?
* the use of contents pages
* skimming to find references
* the use of diagrams and captions
It became clear that the children needed an outcome, so we decided that each group would represent their findings in the form of a TV documentary lasting no more than one and a half minutes. What followed was purposeful and exciting. The morning culminated in a presentation of the documentaries; they included child-made charts, interviews with experts, and Did-You-Know facts.
The great value of these collaborative sessions has been the ways in which children have attempted to define and clarify language. As in Booktalk (the discussion of fiction), discussion of non-fiction texts allows for interpretation, the sharing of existing and additional knowledge, and the questioning of factual information.
The work described here has helped children become active interrogators of texts and supportive of each other in the quest for information. Several schools, having bravely culled their stock and involved children in the process, are now noticing a marked improvement in the ways children use and write information.
The `Magic Bean’ series is published by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich and is available in large and standard format.
Snakes, `Jump Animal Books’, Franklin Watts, 0 7496 0354 2, £6.99; Two-Can, 1 85434 041 7, £2.99 pbk