Most of my own nonfiction reading is connected to my life as a teacher. My professional reading of books and magazines about literacy education takes up much of my nonfiction reading life. Last week when I was talking to students about the ways they choose nonfiction, I realized that I preview nonfiction in different ways than I preview fiction books. There are so many books on teaching that I have to think long and hard before I choose to read a professional title in this area. I spend a great deal of time previewing the book before I decide it is one that I want to buy.
Unlike fiction, I am not interested in characters or theme when I preview nonfiction. Instead, I want to know if the book will have the information I need and whether it is written in a way that will keep me engaged through the end — whether it is a book I can believe in. I often ask myself these and other questions as I preview nonfiction:
- Do I want a book that I will read from cover to cover or one that reads more like a magazine?
- Is there specific information I am trying to find?
- How are the pages laid out? Are they easy to navigate?
- Is the writing a kind of writing I can follow?
- How does the author combine text and visuals?
- Is there a certain format that I enjoy?
- Is this someone whose work I know to be credible and aligned with my beliefs about teaching?
My students will need nonfiction previewing skills so that they leave with the right book in their hands — one that will best meet their needs. Since most people choose nonfiction based on topic, we want students to be able to use the Dewey Decimal Classifications to locate most of the nonfiction titles they might want to read in the library. However, I also want my students to do more than find a book on a certain topic. I want them to preview many of the books on the same topic to determine which one matches their specific need and purpose. This is a key to using the library well — what good is finding a book if students are not engaged in nonfiction reading?
I have found that students don’t always see the differences in the nonfiction titles they encounter. They often browse nonfiction without actually reading any of the text in these books or magazines. I have noticed that many of the students check out nonfiction books that they enjoy because of the great photos or illustrations, but they very seldom read much of the accompanying text. They aren’t sure of what they are looking for. When I talk to students about the book that they might want to read about dogs, they often decide based on the front cover alone. The first impression of visuals is key in their choices.
Teaching Previewing Skills
I have found that students don’t always know the possibilities in nonfiction text. Learning to preview nonfiction can also help them see the different types of nonfiction available to them. When our students preview fiction, they are using all they know about the many fiction books they have heard read aloud. Since nonfiction is usually read aloud less frequently, students don’t have the same knowledge of the genre, so they aren’t quite sure what to look for when they are previewing.
The best way for me to begin conversations with students about how and where to find books in the library is to read books with them and give them lots of options for browsing. When I do these things, integrating nonfiction previewing skills into the mix becomes a natural process. Last week in the library, I set up baskets of nonfiction for students to preview. I organized each basket around a certain type of nonfiction-books written by a particular author or books dealing with a similar topic. I organize my baskets so that students put their hands on a variety of nonfiction books, and they see possibilities for their nonfiction reading that they hadn’t seen before.
I have found that most students are comfortable browsing nonfiction text that is set up like a magazine — with lots of information spread out across a page. I knew that my students had seen many magazines, but they have spent less time with nonfiction books that were meant to be read from cover to cover. I know that if I want my students to become proficient readers of nonfiction, they must read a variety of nonfiction. The baskets were organized into the following categories:
I chose Steve Jenkins for several reasons. His art is unique and easy to spot. He uses torn paper to create amazing illustrations. Jenkins also writes about topics that are interesting to children. Although many of his books focus on animals, he structures his writing in interesting ways. Living Color is organized by color and teaches readers different reasons animals need color. Actual Size shows animals or parts of animals at actual size. And Biggest, Strongest, Fastest compares animals’ characteristics to other things.
Gail Gibbons’ books are easily identifiable by the font and the art. Her texts cover a huge range of topics — she seems to have written a great book about anything a child may be interested in learning about. Gibbon packs a great deal of information into each book and includes many engaging nonfiction features such as diagrams. Although there is not much text on each page, the text that is there communicates information that is easily accessible to young readers.
The first things most people notice about Seymour Simon’s books are the gorgeous photographs. His full page photos draw you into his books. Simon’s books have quite a bit of text on each page and a book would most likely take more than one sitting to read. Because his topics are so compelling (space, animals), he is a popular children’s author.
I chose to pull together several nonfiction titles such as ABC Dentist: Healthy Teeth from A to Z by Harriet Ziefert and A Is for Astronaut: Exploring Space from A to Z by Traci N. Todd. I want students to start noticing the different formats of nonfiction text and to see that they can gain new information from a variety of formats. Students are often surprised at how much information they can learn from an ABC book. I want them to begin to think about other formats such as Question/Answer books and the ways that they read each. ABC books are a great introduction to this type of thinking.
I used several wordless drawing books for this basket. Students don’t often realize that How-To writing is a form of nonfiction. Learning how to knit, draw a picture or bake cookies are all examples of this, and I want students to begin to think about adding these books to their reading lives. I decided on wordless books as the introduction to this type of book so students might begin to realize the power of visuals in this type of nonfiction.
Biographies are a big part of our library and students often check these out for school projects. I have always collected interesting picture books about people and I wanted students to realize that they could learn a lot about a person from a very short picture book. Some favorites in this basket include You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer by Shana Corey and Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, a graphic novel by James Strum.
After this exploration activity, we talked about the kinds of books they were drawn to and the kinds of books that might serve different purposes. In the coming weeks and months, we will build on this common experience to think about finding the right books for specific needs. Through this shared experience, students can start reflecting on their own needs and tastes as nonfiction readers.