Many young readers love stories, gobbling up picture books and chapter books in genres ranging from fantasy to contemporary children’s literature. They are eager to learn how the hero saves his puppy or the heroine slays the dragon.
But give the same child a book of nonfiction, and their eyes glaze over. They stumble over the dates and figures, or flip through the pages only to glance at the pictures.
We know that reading fiction is an invaluable skill. Research shows that it develops empathy, builds critical thinking skills, promotes creativity, and provides safe spaces for children to explore difficult subjects.
But did you know that reading nonfiction is just as crucial, and there is evidence that children aren’t reading enough of it? Students from low socio-economic backgrounds in particular are underexposed to nonfiction, but across the US, students often read more fiction than nonfiction. Many schools still do not meet the Common Core Standards’ goal of equal exposure to fiction and nonfiction. In the Age of Information, this lack of exposure to and engagement with nonfiction can seriously hobble our students.
This is especially significant, given that the benefits of reading nonfiction include vocabulary expansion, access to essential information, and a deeper understanding of how the world works. Nonfiction exposes readers to a depth of rich technical vocabulary that they will rarely see elsewhere. It can provide information on everything from how to pass a driving test to maintaining a healthy diet. Clearly, we want our students to not only read nonfiction but enjoy it and apply its lessons to their lives.
So how can you encourage your child to delve deep into the rich world of nonfiction? Here are five easy steps to encourage a live-long love of all that history, science, and information has to offer.
#1: Follow Their Interests
The easiest way to encourage nonfiction reading is to start with what your child already loves! There’s no such thing as too much knowledge about dinosaurs, food, weather patterns, how spaghetti is made - or whatever else it is that catches your child’s fancy.
If your child loves a good story, biography might be the best nonfiction to start with. Following a real-life character’s exploits has all the advantages of a novel with the added bonus of being true.
If your child is not an avid fiction reader, nonfiction on their favorite topic can be an excellent gateway to reading. Start with a text that is not challenging, and ease into deeper explorations of their favorite interests.
Through our Boost Your Reading IQ programs, we allow parents to customize the topics their children read, intentionally creating programs that start with the student’s interest areas and then encouraging them to expand into related topics.
#2: Teach Them to Navigate Nonfiction
When you pick up a storybook, you generally read it from front cover to back cover. Reading out of order ruins the plot. But we can break all those rules when we read nonfiction! Especially for encyclopedias or compendiums, browsing is the way to start.
Open up a book like Snowboarding is Extreme with your child and show them the Table of Contents and Glossary. Ask them what section sounds most interesting, and help them find that section in the book. If your child is competitive, make it a game! How quickly can they find a bolded word on a page and look it up in the glossary? Can they guess what kind of information will be under the section “Snowboarding Gear”?
As a bonus, guessing what they’ll find in a section and looking up words will exercise their inferencing and vocabulary skills.
#3: Choose Appealing Nonfiction
Even young readers have an innate appreciation of good writing and quality illustrations. Pick up books that you yourself would find interesting. If it reads like a dry list of facts, chances are your child doesn’t want to read it. Opt for books that present the information in appealing ways, by asking questions, digging deep, and connecting the facts they share to your child’s everyday life.
Most children also have a soft spot for fun facts they can share with friends and family. Did you know that there are microscopic mites living in your eyelashes? Or that there are 2,000 thunderstorms happening on Earth at any given minute? Books that highlight the extraordinary are excellent gateways into more serious studies of science and history.
#4: Let Them Teach YOU
Once your child has read a book (or even the first few pages!), let them teach you. The best learning happens through teaching, and nothing will empower your child like the knowledge that they are the experts on a subject.
Research shows that when students teach others, they learn more deeply. The act of retelling information solidifies the knowledge, helping to store it in long-term memories. Students also develop their sense of autonomy and competence when they get to teach, encouraging further learning.
Avoid asking generic questions like “What did you learn?” or “How many pages did you read?” as these can feel more like quizzes than teaching opportunities. Instead, ask questions that allow their inner experts to shine. For example, if your daughter has read a book on Amelia Earhart, ask questions like “How did Amelia become famous?” “Why was she interested in flying?” and even, “Do you think I would enjoy reading that book?”
Asking questions after reading is a crucial way of engaging with and fostering your child’s reading habits whatever they read. But with nonfiction in particular, it will allow them to draw connections between the text and real life and realize how empowering knowledge can be.
#5: Model an Appreciation of Science and Research!
In reading as in every other area of your life, you are your child’s main role model. If you demonstrate an appreciation for learning and facts, this will inspire their curiosity.
This doesn’t mean you have to read a history book with your child every night. Instead, start small. Aim to share an interesting fact with your child each day. If you come across an article on a new scientific discovery, mention it to your child. Buy a nonfiction book that interests you and share what you learn.
If your child makes a statement, ask them why they think that. Model how you research your ideas and where you get your information from. Ask a question, like “How do bats find their way around in the dark?” and then look up the answer together. Explain what sources of information you value and which ones might be spurious.
In summary, there’s a lot you can do to make nonfiction appealing and accessible to your child! Don’t worry about doing everything at once. Instead, incorporate an appreciation of nonfiction into your daily lives. Encourage their interest in the natural world, history, and scientific inquiry. Invest in quality nonfiction. A few small changes could give them the impetus they need for a life of deep learning.
And if you’re having trouble finding quality nonfiction, consider Boost Your Reading IQ’s nonfiction reading program. We thoughtfully curate nonfiction reading passages that spark young reader’s interests and reward the work of reading. Our reading comprehension questions encourage critical analysis and application. And the bite-sized nature of a passage a day makes nonfiction approachable.