by Anjali Patel
Our Non-fiction in the Primary School webinar is part of the CLPE Research Series. Each of the webinars in this series touches on an aspect explored in our Power of a Rich Reading Classroom (Sage, 2020) which embodies the CLPE approach to literacy, providing guidance and insights in developing best practice in all areas of literacy teaching and learning drawn from our 50 years of working with schools both nationally and internationally, as well as our evolving body of research.
The two hours will fly by as teachers are taken through a range of practical activities and — as always with CLPE — some of the most engaging books out there. By the time we’re done, we want teachers to feel confident in recognising the place of quality non-fiction texts as part of a classroom culture of reading for interest and pleasure in a broad, rich English curriculum; reading for purpose through cross-curricular study; appreciating the demands of non-fiction and the specific reading skills and strategies that non-fiction texts require; and building understanding of the voice, tone, language and grammatical structure of different forms of information writing, leading to children’s own writing confidence.
At CLPE, we’ve always known the value and pleasure in introducing children to a good range of non-fiction texts. Our Corebooks collection is dedicated to keeping you up to date with the most engaging books out there. Our core value as a charity is that all children are entitled to become literate and we support teachers to choose and use quality texts to facilitate this. This includes information texts.
I’m delighted to see non-fiction texts taking a more prominent role in the EYFS Statutory Framework 2021. Our youngest children need access to a wide range of literary forms which link to their interests and fascinations and open windows out into the world; they need to tune in to the distinct voices of non-fiction through enjoyable shared reading experiences with interested adults. And we all know that exposure to quality texts of all kinds will provide opportunities to better develop and enrich children’s breadth and depth of vocabulary.
But it is more than that, isn’t it? Many young people are now reporting that they don’t want to engage with the news because they no longer trust it. It is crucial that we build a classroom stock of non-fiction texts written and illustrated by authentic and expert authors and that, as they progress through Primary School, they are aware of the contestability of information texts and possess the skills to identify real and fake information. A book created by an author with understanding of and enthusiasm for their subject can be the starting point for wider and more in-depth exploration, helping to develop children’s knowledge and critical thinking. Such texts can also be excellent models or starting points for children finding their own voice as writers of non-fiction.
And non-fiction texts play an integral role in shaping a truly diverse and inclusive curriculum. CLPE’s Reflecting Realities reports continue to highlight the need to ensure that our children access texts that reflect all their realities — and reflect them well. The information books we choose to integrate in to our curriculum influence the way our children view the world and their own position in it.
We encounter a variety of forms of non-fiction in all aspects of our daily lives and reading each type places its own special demands on us as readers. What is this text type asking of us? Where is the information we most need? How can we check this is accurate? We need to ensure we support children to develop the reading skills and strategies to meet these demands through a well-chosen and progressive range of texts. This webinar introduces practical ways for you to support children to develop the experience and skills that equip them to leave Primary School ready to meet the demands of the curriculum and of the real world. This webinar will show you how to achieve this.
Reading non-fiction for pleasure
So how do we do this? We start by considering quality non-fiction at the heart of a culture of reading for pleasure; discussions about reading for pleasure too often focus exclusively on fiction, but high quality information books that present facts in an interesting and informative ways are a key part of any classroom collection. Access to good non-fiction is important as part of supporting a broader curriculum and wider reading diet. Furthermore, non-fiction books often offer excellent examples of how text and pictures can work together to provide comprehensive information and an enjoyable reading experience.
Recent years have seen a renaissance in information book publishing with much more attention being paid to illustration and design. It can be overwhelming for busy teachers to keep up with the best books out there, which is where CLPE’s expertise comes in. We want teachers to use the time the webinar gives them to step back and reflect on what they like about the titles shared and which would most engage their children.
Rather than generic photograph-with-caption texts, we introduce well-crafted texts in which the text, illustration, graphics and layout have been carefully considered and the information carefully researched; poems in instructional voice; picture-books for older readers to demonstrate events and viewpoint as well as abstract concepts; figurative language used by zoologists; wordless instructional texts; narratives that best relate the stories of non-fiction; geographical texts that encourage inference and understanding; counting books that amuse; social stories to inspire personal stories; books that provide models to develop children’s own non-fiction voice; and books that leave just enough space for children to think and enquire and through deceptively simple illustrations and text and the relationships woven between the two.
Introducing and exploring the purpose of non-fiction in the Early Years
The webinar starts with a focus on laying the foundations for exploring non-fiction in the Early Years. We look at how non-fiction texts support reading for purpose and for information, and how to communicate ideas to an audience in writing. Our CLPE Members know that the texts and teaching approaches used in the Early Years Power of Reading Teaching Sequences focus on topics of immediate interest for young children and work to channel young children’s curiosity and develop sustained shared thinking. Writing tasks are designed to develop an awareness of non-fiction writing in the Early Years and these are embedded across areas of focus and interest, building on the scaffolded experiences detailed in the teaching sequences.
In shared and modelled writing, we need to demonstrate how to draw on the voice being employed in a given book. But first we need to choose the book carefully, asking ourselves why this is the ideal information book for our youngest children. How will it engage and interest them? What information do they learn and what personal connections can they make? What do they learn about the language and voice of information texts? How is it different from a story book?
Accessing the language, vocabulary and concepts presented in non-fiction
The next section of the webinar supports teachers in building children’s understanding of how non-fiction can be used for specific purposes. We look at how language and grammar can be used to explain concepts to a wider audience, and how to develop a distinctive voice for non-fiction. We introduce texts that support children to gain deeper understanding of the world around them as well as providing a good model of explanatory voice and interesting presentation style, with both descriptive and technical language to consolidate and increase children’s understanding. Our member schools have told us this is particularly helpful for enabling children to have a greater depth of knowledge of how and why grammatical structures are used by authors. The meaningful contexts make for enriching and enlivening grammar teaching.
It is vital that we support young children to be able to access the vocabulary that they will encounter in non-fiction texts — both descriptive and technical — so we demonstrate activities that provide an immediate way in to a new subject; activities that enable us as experienced adults to draw out children’s existing repertoire of vocabulary as well as introducing new language. We want children to gain a much deeper understanding of a scientific subject, for example, by using creative approaches, rather than merely filling blank labels on a pre-drawn picture. Well-chosen information books can provide excellent models for how this kind of annotated drawing, labelling and description can be achieved by the children when adopting their own scientific behaviour.
You can support children to re-read and revisit information texts independently by contextualising phonics sessions, making more of the text accessible to them and showing them that phonics is related to the act of reading and is always about making sense of real texts. In this way phonics isn’t confined to a discrete session but is integral to children’s ability to articulate thinking and new learning in information writing across the curriculum. If you are hold CLPE School Membership, you will find that Power of Reading Teaching Sequences support teachers to teach phonics in meaningful contexts, enriching and exemplifying the learning from discrete sessions.
Of course, reading aloud is a vital approach to enable children to tune in to voice and for us to model fluency, register and tone. Listen to how your chosen information books sound when you read them aloud before introducing them to the children. Consider too the overall experience: how the children would be looking at the text and illustrations as you read to them and how engaging this will be for them. Think about what knowledge they might have confirmed or consolidated and what new information they will learn. Are there gaps left that feed children’s curiosity and inspire further investigation and sustained shared thinking, as Nicola Davies suggests?
‘Your job is to ignite their interest... you are leading them somewhere… That closed page is the start of their own investigation.’
Nicola Davies, 2015
Building on knowledge bases and tuning in to the voice of non-fiction
We can then move on to focus on how we help children develop their own non-fiction voice by drawing on the models in a text as well as the considerations we need to make when shaping a piece of writing. We want to be choosing information texts that broaden children’s understanding of the world, but also those that demonstrate how information can be shared in different ways through carefully crafted illustrations which work perfectly with the text. Planning in opportunities for our young readers to interact with both image and print means they will not only absorb new knowledge but will also develop key skills of navigating information and meeting the unique demands of reading non-fiction.
Careful choice of information texts motivates children to use key reading skills and strategies. They need to learn how to scan a non-fiction text for key words, specific facts or the information they need as opposed to reading the entire text. They might use the contents page, clues in the headings and subheadings, numbers or font design to retrieve or infer meaning. Do you have texts in your book stock that demonstrate different ways in which information can be organised and laid out?
As children become more experienced, independent readers, what are they learning about how information spreads are organized? Where is the best place to find a definition or overview, for example? How do the features support them to skim read to get the overall gist, in order to summarise information for their own audiences? We need to choose texts that invite us to draw attention to all aspects of the text, including endpapers, title pages, index pages and glossaries and key illustrations throughout. With CLPE, you can broaden children’s experiences of the different kinds of texts they can use to find information.
And no matter the age and experience of the reader, as well as using non-fiction texts to find information, we need to encourage them to draw on them to ask questions, to wonder at the world around them. We need to choose texts that inspire and sustain curiosity and provide the springboard for children to seek further answers. High quality information texts allow teachers to plan plentiful opportunities for children to collaborate in their enquiry as part of a deeper, more social reading experience as well as planning for an authentic writing process.
Developing deeper comprehension and critical reading skills
We know that being able to infer and deduce is key to being a reader at greater depth. Quality non-fiction presents as fantastic an opportunity to deepen comprehension as fiction. We demonstrate how to broaden thinking around a piece of text or illustration spread, exploring inferential understanding as well as making connections with background knowledge and life experience through evaluative questions. These texts allow us to go beyond superficial fact retrieval and to formulate questions that stimulate discussion and provide children with models of deeper thinking.
During the webinar we explore how to develop children's understanding as critical consumers of information, targeting high level reading skills such as critically reflecting on texts; recognising and using language for effect; and making constructive choices in composition and publication. A fantastic place to start is by looking at historical texts. Will the texts you choose provide opportunity for children to develop the knowledge and skills involved in being an historian, such as: comprehension; a sense of chronology; understanding of terms and abstract concepts; analysis and use of sources; perspectives and interpretations; empathetic interpretation, research and explanation and communication?
Look out for books that allow children to gain a broad sense of the era. Great historians draw the reader in, offering scope for children to enter scenes from the story, perhaps through role play and re-enactment, building empathy for key figures and deeper understanding of significant events. We can explore the impact of specific language used to engage or persuade the reader, infer viewpoint and give an impression of the context.
Shaping non-fiction writing
When choosing non-fiction texts that will support the teaching of non-fiction writing, it is crucial, as with any other kind of writing, to encourage children to consider the core purpose of writing tasks and their intended audience. If well-read in a range of non-fiction texts, and experienced in how these work in the real world, they can reflect on the choice of form most suitable. This then drives their compositional choices, including language, sentence structure, layout and organisation. Taking this as your primary approach when planning for authentic writing outcomes ensures that children understand how to create and shape content appropriate to purpose and audience, rather than becoming pre-occupied with a tick-list of features to match the requirements of a given genre.
The titles we share in this webinar showcase a wealth of different ways to present different kinds of information, and offer inspiring models for children to draw on for their own non-fiction writing. We know that teaching writing is effective when children see the use in it; when there is real, authentic purpose; when there is an audience that authenticates their voice. Before they can do this in their own writing, they need to see how it can be done through the reading material we provide. It’s crucial that children are given a wide range of experience in how writing can be used to inform and communicate and can see how writing looks for different purposes.
Whether you want to strengthen your classroom provision, develop a progressive information reading curriculum, or simply enrich your book stock, please do join me on the Non-fiction in the Primary School webinar this term.