There’s something magical about cuddling up with a good story book, entering an imaginary world and taking a journey with a vibrant character. However, nonfiction books for kids can also bring about memorable conversations and can reveal some of the magic in our own world.
With nonfiction we are invited to marvel at the massive size of prehistoric creatures that once roamed our planet, admire colorful life beneath our world’s oceans, learn how an inventor came up with an interesting new product like the slinky, or uncover stories about the courageous acts of women and men who have changed the course of history.
Do kids read enough nonfiction?
Back in 2000 an education researcher in the United States discovered that first grade classrooms across the country spent about 3.6 minutes per day with nonfiction text, and about 10% of classroom books were “informational.” The researcher, Nell Duke, felt this was insufficient, and according to Global Reading Network, her call for more nonfiction in early grades was heard.
The Common Core State Standards, which most states adhere to, calls for an even split between nonfiction and fiction text in classroom reading. I will personally have to admit that the bookshelves in my children’s bedrooms do not reflect this split at the moment.
While the United States has made strides in providing and encouraging nonfiction reading for young children, Room to Read, an organization dedicated to “filling gaps in global education,” has noted that in many countries where they work, nonfiction still lags behind fiction text in schools. In fact, nonfiction makes up just 7 percent of text available to students in first through third grades in the schools Room to Read observed. (You can visit their website and support their mission here.)
Why We Should Read Nonfiction Books with Kids
Fiction books are fun, engaging, often come with beautiful illustrations, and have been shown to help develop empathy while helping encourage a love of reading. So why the big push for nonfiction? And should we stick more with fiction for reluctant readers?
For those who haven’t trodden very far into the world of children’s nonfiction, perhaps we just need to reframe what nonfiction is and think about how children can relate to it. First, as James Clements wrote for the Oxford Owl blog, “non-fiction is far more than simply an absence of fiction.” Nonfiction “is a vital part of children’s reading experience” and provides an avenue for children to “follow their interests.”
The incessant “why’s” of a three-year-old, the questions about how the car works, the mischievous fingers that push all the buttons on the washing machine are all signs of curiosity about how the world works. This curiosity is inherent, and nonfiction books for kids are a great way to help children process some of the world around them and further develop their own interests.
Nonfiction books for kids teach children about their world.
Nonfiction books can teach children about how things work, how things are made, how people live in different parts of the world. When a child learns about a real-world inventor, they may be inspired to invent something of their own. When they learn about other cultures or where things come from, their world view broadens and they may be more understanding of other people or of their impact on the environment.
Nonfiction reading augments children’s vocabulary.
Fiction can certainly grow a child’s vocabulary, but nonfiction can open up a whole new type of vocabulary not generally seen in fiction stories. The language patterns used in some nonfiction also serve as a great example for children as they begin to write themselves. Much of the writing they will do throughout their lives will be nonfiction, and so exposure to nonfiction sentence structures and well-organized information can help them as they develop their own writing skills.
Nonfiction teaches us another very important way to read and gather information.
When we read fiction, we start at the beginning of the book and read through to the end. We never read chapter 5 before reading chapter 1. In nonfiction, we might peruse the chapter titles and start with the one we’re most interested in. We might read only part of a book and then move on to another book that answers our question. When we look at National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of the Ocean, we can flip through and look at the pictures. Then we can decide whether we are more interested in reading about dolphins or angler fish today. This is great practice for doing research, which we do throughout life—whether for work or for our personal lives. Whether searching for a particular type of recipe or looking for parenting advice, we as parents and caregivers regularly search for information online. We scan titles and subheads to decide whether a particular article or post is worth digging into, whether it has the information we seek.
Nonfiction can lure in the reluctant reader.
We may think of nonfiction as dry. We may be trying to find the silliest most entertaining books for our reluctant readers, but sometimes (not always) nonfiction may entice them. A child who struggles to read may be inspired to learn things about their own world—things that are real. Also, they may actually feel more at ease with an informational book they can flip through, perusing a page here or there, than a story they must read straight through relying on their understanding of page one when they’re on page three. For the truly reluctant reader, perhaps the seemingly most bland reading of all will be good practice—a recipe in a cookbook, instructions on how to do an experiment. Reading lists and phrases is still reading and can get a struggling reader to practice reading without really focusing on the daunting task of “reading.”
5 Tips for Reading Nonfiction with Kids
If you’re introducing nonfiction books to your child, or if they’re bringing them to you to read, here are a few tips to make the experience fun and engaging for you and your child:
Let your child take the lead.
If you visit a library or bookstore, introduce your child to the nonfiction section, and let them peruse the books there. Let them see which topics suit them, which images jump out and make them curious. Also, when you sit down to dive into a nonfiction book, let your child drive the reading, page-turning, and conversation. You will quickly learn where their interests lie and can help navigate them to more nonfiction books, articles, magazines and more on the subjects of their interest.
Try out different nonfiction formats and subjects.
Let your child start with a subject of interest to them, but don’t be afraid to explore more. You can try some nonfiction books that compare and contrast such as the Who Would Win series. You can try some of the National Geographic Little Kids First Big Books that lay out some interesting facts, illustrations, and maps. Also, don’t forget biographies. Introduce your children to some historical figures. It never crossed my mind to think my daughter is interested in history, but she is fascinated by some of the Little People Big Dreams books.
Dive into a particular topic. Become and expert.
If you find a topic that piques your child’s interest, don’t stop at one book. Browse online for additional facts. Look for a YouTube video on the same topic. Look for several books that explore the topic in different ways. We’ve watched YouTube videos that illustrate how a steam engine works and show us the fastest trains in the world and how they work. We’ve also read books about trains and how they’ve changed over the years. If your child finds a passion, help them become an expert!
Have a conversation.
As you read nonfiction with your child, have a conversation. Let them ask questions. Tell them what new fact surprised you. Try to relate what you are reading to things you and your child have experienced. When you’re reading a historical biography, you can tell your child about when it happened in relation to your own family tree. Maybe it’s something that happened when your grandmother was alive. Maybe there’s a family story to share alongside a historical event. You might also try reading a picture book biography of an artist or architect whose work you have seen in a museum.
Don’t replace the bedtime story.
We read every night before bed in our house. It’s a nice way to end the day calmly together and to make reading part of our daily life. I enjoy using this time to get into a good story. Depending on the topic though, sometimes our nonfiction reading is better suited for a different time of day when we are more energetic and have time to go down a rabbit hole of new information. We might read about a sea creature and then look for a video of it to see how it moves through the water. Then we might talk about how Grandpa saw a hammerhead shark on a fishing trip or reminisce about a trip to the aquarium. We may not always have the time (and we parents/caregivers may not always have the energy and patience) for these idea excursions at bedtime. Also, some of our nonfiction may invite images that are not bedtime-friendly. My son took an interest in the Titanic, which was great; but it wasn’t necessarily the story I wanted to send him off to dreamland with. Try out some nonfiction, but keep your bedtime story rituals.