Texts and choices: reading non-fiction in the middle years
The range of reading material that children meet in the middle years includes non-fiction texts. What is the role of non-fiction and what motivates young readers to choose it? Suzanne Maile discusses.
This series of articles about reading in the middle years opened with a profile of Malik – an experienced and fluent Year 6 reader. ‘I read’ he asserted, ‘not only fiction and non-fiction but the Qur’an and music’ (see BfK No. 165) and it is the range of reading material for children in the middle years that has been at the heart of the articles thus far. My focus in this piece is on the role of non-fiction in children’s reading lives, both in school and at home. As a teacher, I have a particular interest in what motivates and drives children’s reading choices and I include my findings from discussions with children about this.
Reading for life
With the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in 1988, came a new emphasis on the importance of non-fiction for both reading and writing. Six non-fiction text types were identified – recount, report, explanation, persuasion, discussion and instruction – with the expectation that children would become familiar with the generic and linguistic features of each of these by the end of Key Stage 2. Driven by arguments about entitlement that came from the genre theory movement pioneered in Australia the inclusion of these non-fiction types was intended to ensure that children have access to powerful genres that are necessary for adult life.
In the early days of the NLS, these text types were taught as discrete extracts with many schools delivering the curriculum through textbooks that clearly identified the required word, sentence and text level expectations. Thus many children encountered a watered-down version of the text type that had little to do with their experiences, interests or indeed the real world purposes for which these texts were intended to prepare children.
Thankfully, the renewed Primary National Strategy has brought a more enlightened perspective with teachers being encouraged to teach literacy through a broader lens, making cross-curricular connections that establish much clearer links between non-fiction skills and everyday life.
Non-fiction reading material in school
To a degree, it could be argued that non-fiction has always been the ‘poor relation’ to fiction; many reading schemes include non-fiction texts that are banded into reading levels, to support the fiction strand. However, in response to the demands that different genres be taught, schools are duty bound to provide a broader range of non-fiction texts. The Primary National Strategy places emphasis on children reading widely and each unit begins with immersion in a specific text type. However, for many classrooms, wide reading from non-fiction still often resides in the form of published texts containing extracts organised into year groups. Whilst these provide a time-saving short cut for the hard pressed teacher, most teachers agree that children need a richer experience of non-fiction than can be taught through extracts.
With this in mind, schools have sought out more authentic reading material for their classes such as diaries and the memoirs of memorable individuals, Anne Frank and Livia Bitton-Jackson to name just two. There are many wonderful cookery and craft books (such as The Usborne Art Treasury) that provide sources of instructional texts, while the incredibly popular Horrible History series is packed with reports, explanations and instructions.
Schools themselves are a ready made resource for leaflets, flyers and newsletters as well as more formal styles of letter writing. Schools committed to children reading and writing for authentic purposes will enlist their help in contributing articles for weekly bulletins or even producing their own.
With the return to cross-curricular teaching, there is room for even greater investment in topic-based texts so that children can be taught the skills of skimming and scanning when learning about the Romans, the Victorians or the Ancient Greeks. Also popular are weekly publications specially designed for the Key Stage 2 reader. Take First Choice: this weekly children’s newspaper provides examples of child-friendly journalistic writing. Over time, a compilation can be made of the articles into subject areas providing a useful resource bank for the future. First Choice provides a very useful context for helping children address the commonly held misconception that newspapers are genres in their own right, rather than being containers for different genres. One child’s question – ‘Are newspapers non-fiction Miss?’ articulated this confusion and prompted us to explore the many different types of writing contained in First Choice and other daily papers.
The school library
The school library has such an important role to play in guiding children’s books choices, particularly if opportunities to read at home are few and far between. With a far wider range of books on offer than classroom collections can hold, it can provide the greatest selection of reading material that children are likely to meet. Carefully planned, stimulating library sessions are necessary to gain and maintain the children’s attention. Lessons on how to locate information both on the shelf and within the books themselves are essential if the children are to be able to make the best use of the library. Local school librarians are a superb source of ideas, energy and enthusiasm; they will give advice on book stock and how to introduce the children to the Dewey System. Several schools have taken the decision to devote their library space entirely to non-fiction, making a complete distinction between the two styles, and creating a rich reference resource. This has the added benefit of boosting the fiction bookshelves within each classroom.
As Prue Goodwin explained in an earlier article in this series (see BfK No. 166), this is the era of digikids. Her examples of children engaging with narrative texts in multimodal and digitally proficient ways have lessons for the potential of such engagement with non-fiction as well. The majority of classrooms now make daily use of interactive whiteboards and children have easy – and safe – access to the internet through specialist, educational sites. The BBC website is a secure and reliable source for news and historical writing whilst the British Museum’s website offers such riches as an excellent explanation of mummification, complete with diagrams. But there are new skills to be learnt here: skimming and scanning alone will not be enough to help children navigate their way through the myriad of hyperlinks and multiple forms of presentation that characterise the internet. Specialist search engines such as Ask Jeeves Kids allow quicker access to suitable sites, whilst the BBC encourages children to access its website through CeeBeebies. In some cases teachers research the subject beforehand and make hyperlinks to suitable sites. This allows the children to practise their ICT skills without having to wade through irrelevant or inappropriate material.
In the third article in this series (see BfK No. 167) Fiona Collins highlighted the significance of friends and family when children make fiction reading choices. In particular, the influence of the mother was noted as was the practice of selecting a book by its cover. Whether these findings extend to non-fiction was a question that interested me and formed the basis of a survey carried out with Year 4 and Year 6 pupils in a Surrey primary school. Several points of interest emerged from this.
Who chooses the books?
Many children told me that they had acquired non-fiction books as presents, generally given to them by well-meaning relatives rather than friends. Sadly, such books were not always welcome as the subject matter was typically what the relative judged to be appropriate rather than anything that chimed with their own interests. One Year 4 child confessed, ‘My granny thinks I like rugby just because I play it at school. I don’t like to tell her I never read the books.’ Typically, the books were gender specific, with boys receiving books on sport and transport and girls reporting that their books were usually about animals or crafts. Maybe this is unsurprising, given the ways that bookshops organise their displays thus inviting the present-seeking auntie or uncle to make their choices accordingly!
Books or gadgets?
The survey also revealed the influence of mothers because, in many cases, they are the ones who take their children to museums and galleries in the school holidays. The choice of museum was influenced, more often than not, by the humanities curriculum that the children were currently following so children reported that they had visited the Imperial War Museum after studying World War 2 and the British Museum following a topic on the Greeks and Egyptians. When asked how they decided which book to buy, one child confessed, ‘I don’t take much notice of the books because I would rather have a toy or model but my mum says I have to get a book so I just choose any one.’
With this revelation ringing in my ears, I visited the British Museum to witness what was happening for myself. The book/gift shop was packed with families and, whilst a few children were browsing through the books, the vast majority were gathered at the display of gadgets. However, just as I had been told, it was the mothers who were choosing and buying books for their unenthusiastic offspring. Are they wasting their money I wondered?
Back in school
Back at school, I posed this question to the children and discovered that, once the lure of the toys had worn off, many children did in fact read the books and often took them to school to show their teachers and friends. Curious to know the implications of this for school, I asked the children how they went about choosing non-fiction books in class. ‘We have lots of non-fiction and I like the science books about humans because the pictures are great,’ said one Y4 girl, giving a clear insight into how she makes her choice. Indeed, all the children agreed that they were heavily influenced by the illustrations. The title was unimportant ‘because it only tells you what the subject is, it’s not like a story book.’ I then asked whether the blurb was a help. This caused a certain amount of confusion and the children debated whether non-fiction books did in fact have a blurb. Some thought not, as it had a contents page and index page instead. Others said it did, because the authors would still want people to know how good the book was. During the discussion it became clear that the children were making their non-fiction choices in different ways from their choices about fiction. The cover was important because it signalled whether the book had good quality illustrations – ‘an important part of a good book’. They also took little or no notice of the blurb and did not read the opening. Primary non-fiction was chosen because it fitted the subject they were interested in and had good illustrations.
Reading non-fiction is important and, crucially, different from reading fiction. Some children are ill at ease when confronted with the dense pages of fiction but find the layout of non-fiction books much less threatening with its invitation to read more challenging material in bite-size chunks. We need to find out what children know about reading non-fiction and what determines their choices. We need to know about their personal interests so that, as well as building up a book stock that meets the demands of the curriculum, we also can be sure that children will encounter books that speak to them of their interests and preoccupations.
Frank, Anne, The Diary of a Young Girl, Penguin
Bitton-Jackson, L, I Have Lived a Thousand Years, Pocket Books
Deary, T, Horrible Histories, Scholastic
Dickins, R, The Usborne Art Treasury, Usborne Books
Children’s Newspaper, http://www.firstnews.co.uk/
Suzanne Maile is Assistant Headteacher, Sheen Mount Primary School, London.
In the next instalment of ‘Reading in the Middle Years’ in BfK No. 169, Andrew Lambirth will explore the ‘uses of laughter’ in examples of humorous poetry written for children in the middle years of primary school.