Don’t Gloss Over the Glossary | What Works

Some nifty tools make it easier for kids to navigate nonfiction books

One day, while reading Anne and Harlow Rockwell’s classic picture book, The Toolbox (Macmillan, 1971), it occurred to me that any good nonfiction book is filled with tools. Tables of contents, indexes, captions, charts, and the like—they’re the hammers, screwdrivers, and saws that help readers construct meaning. Could I teach second graders to recognize these useful devices? I decided to find out by reading them this short, sweet story about a little boy describing the items in his father’s toolbox.

Days later, my pilot group now in front of me, it was time to see if my idea would fly. I explained that I had a special reason for reading The Toolbox to them, and that I would reveal it afterward. They seemed intrigued. So far, so good.

“What if I told you,” I said after finishing the book, “that there are also some handy tools inside informational books? I picked up Exhibit A—A Visit to Japan (Heinemann, 1998) by Peter and Connie Roop. I pointed out that the front-cover illustration and the title—two key tools—help us predict what a book is about. On the inside, we found another tool, the table of contents. I explained that this feature had a dual purpose: previewing a book’s topics and helping us find them.

After checking for understanding, I moved to the index. “Here’s a really useful tool,” I said. “The index lists important topics found in this book, and it does it alphabetically. Look—the author has listed the page numbers where information on specific topics can be found!” Using the index, we located pages about celebrations, food, school, and money.

Riding the wave of the kids’ curiosity, I introduced one last nonfiction element—the glossary. What could be more helpful than a tool that tells you what hard words mean?

They seemed to get it. So the next week, I selected Our Whale Watching Trip (Rigby, 2000) by Sylvia Karavis and Gill Matthews, a wonderful example of how authors use drawings and photos to convey information. As I read aloud from the big book, I pointed out nonfiction features, such as bolded text, labels, a chart, a map, and a pictograph.

For my next mini-lesson, I used the big-book edition of Adventure Sports on the Edge (Rigby, 2000) by Michael Spellman. Mountain climbing, MBX racing, riding the rapids—these captivating topics held the children’s interest while we discussed the picture glossaries, tables, and flow maps we encountered.

By this time, the students were spotting elements that we had already learned about. “There’s a glossary!” a child would shout. Or, “You forgot to mention the table of contents!” Now I had them where I wanted them.

The following class found us reading about art in Jane Shuter and Jo Brooker’s How to Make Masks (Rigby, 2000). Here we focused on flow diagrams and row and column tables. From The Reason for a Flower (Scholastic, 1983), stunningly illustrated by Ruth Heller, students learned the difference between a cross-section and a cutaway as we peered inside a pepper and examined roots working their way into the earth. Why would an author choose to use cross-sections and cutaways? What kind of information does each visual device give the reader? We talked it over.

By now, the toolbox was empty. But the students knew what each tool was for, and they were using them enthusiastically in their reading.

As a middle school media specialist now, I no longer read The Toolbox to kids. But I still use the concept of “reading tools.” Students of any age need to be reminded that a book is a toolbox, filled with gadgets designed to help them understand what they read. It’s a lesson I won’t forget any more than I will forget the little book that taught it to me.


Jane Rossi is a media specialist at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor, MI.

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