Reading Non-fiction with Children

Tips for Reading Non-Fiction With Children – using Under the Ocean as an example

  1. It’s okay to read a book just the way it’s written cover to cover!
  2. On the second (third or fourth!) read, or the first if the child needs a bit of encouragement to stick with a book, get them to look a bit closer at the pictures and talk about what you’re reading.
  3. It’s great to get them showing you things, “where is the octopus?” Also ask open questions, ones that don’t have right or wrong answers “What would it be like to be swimming through this reef?”.
  4. Think aloud as you read, “I wonder what will be hiding in the rocky reefs?”
  5. Show them how to use features like the glossary or index. “I wonder what ‘echolocation’ means? Let’s look it up in the glossary.” “Shall we see what other pages have information about penguins? Let’s look in the index.”
  6. Follow up reading the book to find out more about something that interested them, see ideas blog below for how you might do this.

Can they read it? – quality online content for young children

It had to happen! While I was busily writing away about the School Library service changes, a press release was doing the rounds, showing that the National Library had responded to schools concerns, and rather than suddenly stopping the service, were prepared to provide a transition over several years. This will be a big help for concerns around budgets and helping people better understand the purpose behind the proposed changes.

The transition plan digram shows the growth of ‘online resources’ described as “quality, curated content and guides for content use”.  So the issue I had planned to address continues to be key. What are online resources are available for children? and can they take the place of books? 

First let’s look at what digital resources are suitable for younger students, say 5 to 8 year olds?

When I’m researching in preparation to write one of my books (designed to be of interest to 4-8 year olds), about half of my sources are books and half digital. I look for multiple sources of information so I can cross check information, and of course I look for sources I believe to be credible. I’m also looking for up-to-date information and online sources are particularly useful for new research on a topic and for scientific papers that might not be available in print. But here’s the thing, I’m not limited by a ‘reading age’. And because I also prepare bibliographies and lists of suggested websites on my topics, I know how little is out there for young readers particularly on New Zealand topics.

Access a School Library Service list of recommended sites for one of my favourite topics – the Rocky Shore and you’ll see how few resources there are suitable for primary age students. The best of these are the excellent Otago University Marine Studies site;  Te Ara: the encyclopaedia of New Zealand which has tried hard with its short and long stories, to meet different reading levels; and Science Learn which is a great source for teachers of curriculum material, students will need guidance to use this site; and they are all most suitable for eight year olds and up. The best are of course all publicly funded, because how else can free websites be both comprehensive and research-based? Note: not on this list are a couple of other goodies – see my blogs  Top 2 Sea Life Apps, Sea week resources – an update  and 3 Top Nature Websites for Kiwikids.

The biggest challenge is reading levels – writing easy to read text and yet still providing ideas and information that fits with a young child’s developing knowledge of the world around them. This is specialised stuff and few websites are prepare to limit their audience by aiming their information at the very young, in the way an author, illustrator and publisher of a picture book is prepared to do. Let’s hope that the transitional plan allows for the development of high quality New Zealand resources that are designed specifically for the very young.


School Library Services changes – high-interest reading?

This year the School Library Curriculum Service is controversially coming to an end, replaced by loans to schools of general high-interest reading collections. Teachers and students are to go online to access all they might need to support the curriculum. At first glance that might seem reasonable, after all we are turning to online sources for information more and more – ‘googling’ has become a verb – it’s what we do when we want to answer a query quickly. Searching multiple sites can help us build up considerable knowledge on a particular topic, getting contrasting views and up-to-date research.


And yet despite this trend I persist in writing non-fiction books for children (those very books that are to be no longer delivered as part of a curriculum service, although hopefully still included in the ‘high-interest’ collection and considered a ‘must’ for school collections). I write books for two reasons. First, this is still the only viable commercial model open to most authors. But more importantly, because the form of a book allows for the development of an idea, to take the children on a journey through the beach habitat, the garden environment or under the ocean. NZ Children’s book judge Annemarie Florian describes books as Mindfood “something substantial to chew on and digest” – I wonder how many digital resources meet this criteria?

In my next blogs I’ll be addressing the assumption that there are enough digital resources that can meet children’s curriculum needs, and looking at what it takes for a digital resource to be truly substantial enough to chew on.

If, for a moment, we assume that digital resources exist in the same quantity and quality as children’s non-fiction books, there is the issue of equality to consider. The School Library Association SLANZA have raised the problem of access to digital resources for different schools – rural schools, low decile schools. Add to this the problem of what access students have in the home. A library book can be sent home for parents and children to read together – sending home a list of websites or links relies on equality of technology in the home.

Schools can be forgiven for feeling they’ve had the rug pulled out from beneath them. Knowing what services School Library Services provided, schools could budget (and most did) to build collections aimed at high-interest, reading engagement, because special curriculum requirements could be met through the curriculum service. Now they must reconsider their collections and budgets.

Bernard Beckett blogging on the School Library Service transformation sums up the situation well – “This is one of those areas where we are asked to judge a current service we know well against a proposed service which may or may not work in practice.”


In Praise of Picture Books

An extraordinary newspaper headline this week, caused me to choke on my muesli, and no doubt a few coffee cups were spilled in cafes around the capital as readers took in the implications of the story. Picture Books Hurt Reading – has created a commotion in children’s bookshops, schools, libraries and families. After all, we all have our favourite picture books. As I write this, dozens of people are casting votes for Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Diary by Lynley Dodd to be named a Great Kiwi Classic.

According to the article the linguist who has done the research found ‘picture books stunted imagination’. That’ll be news to children’s book fans, whose imagination has been stretched and kindled by beautiful and intriguing illustrations in fiction and non-fiction. In fact we’d be hard put to put together a non-fiction book for early readers that didn’t have pictures. Can you conceive of a book for young children about the ocean without illustrations of dolphins, whales, octopus etc?

I can only hope that the headline and the quotes are out of context.

Picture books bring children to reading by engaging and delighting them with images that complement and elaborate on stories, and informing them and arousing their curiosity about the world.

Summer Non-Fiction

Before the summer holiday, I’d stocked up on a pile of non-fiction books from Craig Potton Publishing. My pick of these for an informative and entertaining read is: Tramping – a New Zealand history by Shaun Barnett and Chris Maclean.

There is the pleasure of course of dipping in to a bookshop or two while on holiday. I first visited Alice and Gertrude bookstore and cafe in Sydney and only wished it hadn’t been quite so crowded and that I’d had more time. I’ll be back next time I’m there to enjoy the combination of good food and browsing a wide range of second hand books. Later in Bowral, NSW I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the beautifully presented Latin for Birdwatchers in a shop window. It lured me into the shop, and to make a purchase. I think this is just a perfect gift book. I was really pleased to find Mapping our World here, which sits on the coffee table of my hosts in Sydney. I couldn’t leave Australia without my own copy and only wish I’d been in Canberra for the exhibition that it’s based on.