ime and time again, we hear that children do not know how to read nonfiction as well as fiction. It isn’t that nonfiction is inherently more difficult than fiction. It’s often that students do not have exposure to regular and steady doses of a wide variety of nonfiction texts.
When teachers and librarians consider instructional strategies to improve students’ ability to read nonfiction, they often start with text features. Text features are a central component of book construction, but understanding how they work is not the ultimate goal. Teachers also ask students to consider text structures, the larger format or outline with which the book is written. Text structures are important when considering how a book is constructed, but an understanding of text structures is not the ultimate goal, either. The goal is to teach children how the different elements of a nonfiction book work together to contribute to the overall meaning.
Text Types and Structures of Nonfiction Text
If students are unfamiliar with nonfiction texts, they may assume that every nonfiction book serves the same function. This is not the case. Different types of nonfiction books serve varied purposes. Having an understanding of what those purposes are can help students understand why an author selected a particular structure for the book, and how the two work together to create meaning.
The most common form of nonfiction is the survey, which provides an overview on a topic. Surveys often have nouns as their title. Think “Snakes” or “Africa.” Because there are so many of these books in school libraries, students may expect every nonfiction book to do what a survey does. Students need to know that concept books focus on abstract ideas or classifications, such as life cycles; that specialized nonfiction dives deeply into a precise topic and may draw on primary and secondary source material; and that biographies focus on the life of one or several people.
Identifying the type of book they are about to read can help students develop an understanding of each type’s common traits. When students know what type of nonfiction book they are about to read, they have a sense of the book’s purpose, and can anticipate the range of material within its pages.
Just as there are different kinds of nonfiction texts, there are different types of text structures. Exposition is the most common type, often found in surveys, as it introduces a topic and divides it into subtopics. But some nonfiction titles employ narration, choosing to tell a story. Nonfiction picture storybooks are an example of this, but nonfiction chapter books can also adopt this approach. At times nonfiction takes a linear or chronological structure, and at other times, an external sequence is used, such as the alphabet or numbers, days of the week, or months of the year. Compare-and-contrast, question-and-answer. and problem-solution are other familiar structures.
Having conversations with children about identifying the text type and purpose of a book, as well as its overall structure, will allow them to better understand how print and visual components of a book work together to convey meaning. These conversations will also aid in understanding how the components contribute to meaning-making, strengthening students’ reading and writing.
Examining Text Features Outside, Around, and Inside a Nonfiction Text
Just as there are many ways to structure an entire text in order to give it clarity and coherence, text features can also support comprehension. In Checking Out Nonfiction K-8: Good Choices for Best Learning (Christopher-Gordon Pub., 2000), authors Rosemary A. Bamford and Janice V. Kristo refer to these text features by their location: outside the body of the book, around the text, and inside the text. This is a useful way for educators to discuss with students how the specific parts of a book support and extend its overall design. Since not every book will have all possible text features, be sure to provide a range of materials.
Outside a Nonfiction Text.
Begin by considering these features:
- Table of contents
Outside features help readers locate what they want, understand the overall structure of the book, learn the sources used to write it, find additional books to extend their understanding, and enrich or support vocabulary. It’s a good idea to spend some time showing how these features help readers from the start. For example, closely examine the table of contents. Does it reveal the specific topics to be discussed? How are the titles written—as questions, topics, vivid quotes from within the chapter? By stopping to examine a table of contents, readers ready themselves for what is to follow.
Around a Nonfiction Text.
Before delving into the main text, consider how the author has framed the book for the reader by exploring these features:
- Author’s Note
- Illustrator’s Note
Around features not only introduce readers to a topic, they also provide additional information about the subject and the author’s experience researching it. By carefully examining an author’s note, for example, students might learn how that person became interested in the topic, the kind of research required to write the book, and what discoveries were made. This information demystifies the process of creating nonfiction and helps readers understand the passion writers have for the topics they investigate.
Inside a nonfiction text.
As you discuss reading a text, explore how these features support the text or extend it by providing additional information:
- Headings and subheadings
- Sidebars and insets
- Photographs and captions
- Graphs, charts and tables
While headings and subheadings can guide students as they read, photographs and captions extend and assist in comprehension. A photograph may show details not included in written text. Captions can go much further by pointing out details, providing additional information beyond the text or the photo, giving opinions, speculating, and posing questions for the reader to think about. It’s a good idea to consider how these features complement and extend the writing.
Both text structure and text features provide ways for writers to organize and introduce information, while keeping the narrative engaging. When we introduce these features of nonfiction to students, they benefit both as readers and writers. Having conversations about texts is a major component of the Common Core State Standards. Discussing how texts are constructed and using examples from quality nonfiction books is both illuminating and essential.
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