Understanding nonfiction and informational writing is essential to our survival in adulthood. We need to discern the dosage for medications, criteria for job applications, ingredients to avoid for allergies, and many other things. In terms of social interaction and thought development, comprehending nonfiction texts means being able to analyze and evaluate the validity of different concepts.
A while back I wrote about the U.S. adult literacy rates and the implications for K-12 reading instruction. It’s even more important now that we’ve reached the age of #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts. Every day, millions of American adults fall prey to dubious writing because they lack the skills to be critical analyzers of nonfiction/informational writing. One way that parents can combat this in their children is consistent exposure to quality nonfiction writing in childhood.
One of the areas students struggle with the most is understanding nonfiction texts. Whether it is basic comprehension questions or open-ended responses requiring depth, many students aren’t confident in their ability to give accurate answers or select relevant evidence from the text to support themselves. When I was teaching, we worked diligently throughout the year learning strategies specifically for nonfiction texts. We spent countless hours deconstructing articles for organizational patterns, tone, rhetorical strategies, use of evidence etc. I knew that they would be required to
read, analyze, and write nonfiction on their state and college entrance exams, so there was some added urgency there. Elementary students must do the same these days on state tests, so it’s imperative that children gain exposure to informational texts earlier.
Over the course of the school year, my students became more fluent in written and verbal communication. I marveled at how they began to analyze texts without receiving directions from me. By the end of the school year, their confidence and ability to critique nonfiction writing were mountains higher than before, and I heard a lot less sighing when it was time to read the real stuff. Moreover, students started mentioning articles and books they’d read on their own time. It was indeed a wonderful thing to witness.
That’s at school though, so the question is how can parents support nonfiction reading at home? Well, I recognize that not every child has access to unlimited resources, so I’d like to offer some options in hopes that parents can try at least one of them in the near future.
Read interesting nonfiction books together.
One of the most common reasons children don’t read nonfiction books is they tend to be dense and uninteresting. Sometimes it’s a matter of preference. Other times, adults have done a terrible job at writing with kids in mind. Think about what your child loves to do. That could be sports, dance, video games, or something else. Then, find kid-friendly nonfiction books about those topics. Your local public library, your child’s school library, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, local 1/2 price bookstores, and others can help you locate exactly what you need. Here are some book series to get you started:
- National Geographic Kids (There’s a wide selection of informational texts here.)
- I Spy for beginning readers (There are I Spy books for every stage as well.)
- I Can Read readers (You can search by interest and reading level.)
- Step into Reading (You can search for general nonfiction by reading level.)
Read cool nonfiction articles together.
I understand that purchasing books isn’t always an option. You can also help your child develop their nonfiction reading skills through articles. There are a number of sources that write informational texts with student interest and reading ability in mind. Many of them offer some or all of their services free of charge. I tutor children every Saturday, and it has been so refreshing to read books about snakes and articles about genes & DNA (written at grade 3 level). The children were enthralled in the texts and had so much fun learning about “older kid” concepts. Use these resources to begin your quest:
- National Geographic Kids website (There are many articles, videos, games etc. available without cost.)
- Newsela (This is a free app that allows you to change the reading level of articles from publications like The Guardian, The New York Times etc. There are also quizzes you can do with your child. I wrote about this app more in-depth here.)
- National Geographic Kids Magazine ($15 per year gets you a year’s subscription to print and digital.)
- Time for Kids (You can access free digital articles, and there’s a section on kids as reporters. Subscriptions appear to be for larger quantities, but there’s enough available for free to get you going.)
- Kids Discover (This is a collection of short, informational texts.)
Talk about the nonfiction texts you read.
Children want to talk to their parents, so why not strike up a conversation about that neat little article you both read? You’d be surprised how much it helps your child to simply hear and practice using the vocabulary. When my son and I are shooting the breeze, we can end up going down a rabbit hole together just from sharing our thoughts on a piece we both read. While it’s great to have some outlining comprehension questions ready to guide your child, you can just talk about what they recall, what it might mean, and how it’s relevant to our world. If you want an example on how to use the articles for a supplemental reading & questioning activity, check out my article, “How to Check Reading Comprehension at Home,” that walks you through the process.
Remember, I’m not asking you to get into the nitty gritty of critical analysis with your child. Teachers should be handling that part. Instead, consider the types of reading material currently available in your home. How much of it is fiction? How much is nonfiction? To what extent do you encourage and facilitate your child reading informational texts? While we want to encourage reading in general, at some point we want to evaluate what kind(s) of reading our children are doing and whether there’s a more strategic way to invest in their literacy.
Featured photo credit Penn State, Flickr