2. Using non-fiction in the classroom
by John Malam
Article for schools with ideas for non-fiction events, published in the Schools Pack Ideas for School Events on World Book Day, (Publishers Association/Booksellers Association, 2002).
We are living in an increasingly information-rich, information-dependent society, and access to information of every imaginable kind is coming to us through a diverse range of channels. Of the 10,000 or so children's books published each year in the UK, a good proportion fall into the category of non-fiction – anything from a pre-school home-learning workbook to a multi-volume encyclopedia. The one thing they all have in common is they give the user (it would be inaccurate to say reader) information in the form of facts, or skills in the form of methods.
The over-arching aim of children's non-fiction is to inform clearly, accurately, and, hopefully, interestingly. Some books achieve this through light-hearted text and illustrations, others adopt a more serious approach. The bottom line is, if it's been well researched, has a logical, user-friendly structure, and is attractively designed, then it should achieve its purpose, and the learning experience will be both painless and enjoyable.
Turning young people on to the value, pleasure and fun of non-fiction is a major classroom challenge. Here are some suggestions for practical activities, designed to encourage children to become familiar with, and to use, non-fiction books in the classroom.
Use your library
Start at the beginning. Focus children's attention on what non-fiction books are, and what they are not. Even if your class is already familiar with the school library, or junior section of the local public library, it'll be worthwhile reminding them that library books are shelved according to their content, and that UK children's libraries clearly distinguish between fiction and non-fiction.
Set the children a task: ask them to bring in a non-fiction book of their choice from a library. Then, when all the books are in class, begin a discussion. Ask the children to sort the books into topics or themes – all the football books in one pile, transport titles in another, and so on. Can further divisions be made within the piles? Maybe the transport books can be sub-divided into books about planes, cars, rollerblading, and so on. Or should the rollerblading title be moved into the sports pile? Or even the hobbies pile? The idea is for children to realise that non-fiction covers a wide range of information-based subjects, and sometimes it's not that easy to pigeonhole a book into a specific subject area.
Looking things up
Non-fiction books are tools for research, and the user needs to be able to navigate their pages with ease. Quality non-fiction books have to work for their living, from front to back, and from back to front.
Ask children to think why the pages in non-fiction books are numbered. This should lead on to a class discussion about the purpose of a book's contents list and its index. You could work with small groups of children, encouraging them to test out the usefulness of both a contents page and index. Are they able to look things up from the index, turn to the indicated page, then locate the word? Emphasise that speed is not the important skill here, but accuracy is. Attention to detail will meet with success – the hasty user might look up an index entry for Henry VII, when they should have been looking for Henry VIII.
In non-fiction books a picture really can be worth a thousand words, imparting information that would be difficult to convey in the text or a caption. That said, quality non-fiction books make full use of extended captions (as opposed to labels), detailing key points to note in photos and illustrations.
Show the class examples of non-fiction books where images and captions are used to good effect. Then, using images torn from newspapers and magazines (pictures of celebrities, cars, animals, buildings, space objects, and so on), ask children to write extended captions for them (set a limit of, say, 50 words). Compare different captions for the same image. What are the similarities and differences? An exercise in observation and literacy.
Narrative non-fiction is well-established in books for adults, and is now available in children's texts, particularly in books that have historical themes as their subjects.
Choose a suitable narrative non-fiction text. Read an extract to the class. This could form the basis of a class discussion about the time, place, events, and personalities of the book: the who? what? when? why? and how? of non-fiction. Perhaps you could ask children to research one feature of the story by using other non-fiction books as sources, enabling them to build a self-informed bigger picture.
Publishers have few rules when it comes to using novelties in children's books, apart from the obvious ones about safety. Dont dismiss books with flaps to lift, pop-ups, mirrors and other devices as mere gimmicks. True, they might not withstand a lot of handling, libraries might be reluctant to stock them, and they might be pricey, but children love them. One or two well-chosen examples in the classroom might be all that's needed to encourage reluctant bookworms to get into the page-turning habit. Science-based themes have been particularly well served by hands-on books in recent years.
The Non-Fiction News
One trick used by several non-fiction publishers has been to present information in the style of a newspaper. Something similar could be the basis of an on-going class project.
Choose a fact-filled topic – our town, space travel, horses and ponies, a famous person, or something topical – the list is endless. Assign reporting roles to the children, giving them topics to research in a selected group of non-fiction books, and not forgetting to ask them to look out for relevant images. They could work as individuals or in groups. The aim is for the whole class to create an A3-sized newspaper, filled with headlined reports written by the children, and with copies of images they've sourced – with captions, of course!
Text © John Malam 2002. Illustrations © Lauren Child 2002.