Stories dominate many early childhood classrooms, libraries and homes (e.g. Guo et al., 2013). We love good stories too. But, recently, we’ve added more non-fiction books into our programs for late-talking and preschooler clients.
- Knowledge of the structure and language of non-fiction books is critical to later reading achievement. For example, a preschooler’s ability to produce well-organised, informational and detailed picture descriptions account for almost a quarter of the variance in reading comprehension scores at 8 years of age (Griffin et al., 2004).
- Young typically-developing kids and at-risk school-age kids have been shown to be capable of understanding non-fiction books (e.g. Culatta et al., 2010).
- Some young kids – including lots of boys – are not into picture books. Lots of my young clients would prefer to ‘read’ about dinosaurs, cars, Rugby League or the Battle of Hastings than about dragons, flying broomsticks, Quidditch or the Avengers Infinity War (though it’s possible to love both).
- As I’ve said before about boys, the right book for a preschooler is a book they are into. Kids are likely to learn more if they are interested in the topic. This is especially true of preschool children with language learning disorders who are six times more likely to be identified with a later reading disability at school age than peers who do not have language disorders (Catts et al., 2002).
- The right non-fiction books can be just as useful as stories for teaching kids pre-literacy skills like print awareness, phonological awareness, and vocabulary.
What kinds of non-fiction books should we read with late talkers and preschoolers?
Most stories tend to follow the same basic structures. But books that explain facts about the world – so called “expository texts” – come in all shapes and sizes:
- some sequence events or set out procedures, explaining how to do things step-by-step, e.g. how to grow a sunflower, tie up your shoes or make a cake using words like “First, next and last” or “first, next, then, last“;
- some explain simple cause and effect relationships, e.g.
“It’s raining so put on a raincoat”,
“If you don’t water the plant, it will die”, or
“The cheetah is chasing the gazelle because it’s hungry”;
- some explain problems, their causes and possible solutions e.g.:
Problem: The river is dirty.
Cause: People threw rubbish out of their cars that ended up in the river.
Possible solutions: Don’t litter, volunteer to help clean up the river on Clean up Australia Day;
- some explain what things are, e.g. describing common places, people, animals, plants and objects by features like size, shape, parts, materials, what you do with it/what it does, colour, taste, texture, smell, and things that often go with them (you can see an example of a tool to do this here); and
- some explain similarities and differences between objects and ideas, e.g. A mug and a glass are the same because they are both used for drinks. A mug differs from a glass because they are made of different things (porcelain v glass/plastic), a mug has a handle and a glass doesn’t, a glass is see-through and a mug isn’t, and you drink different kinds of drinks from them (e.g. hot tea versus cold water).
(Meyer & Ray, 2011; Young & Moss, 2006.)
Often, a good non-fiction book will do more than one of these things at once. In academic speak: “Often, they include multiple structures rather than one singular text within a single text” (Breit-Smith et al., 2017 – see citation below).
The right non-fiction books can provide a language “workout” by:
- requiring kids to process and use complex syntax such as compound and complex sentences e.g. when discussing explanations, predictions and cause-effect relationships. Many kids with language disorders have problems in these areas, even if their IQ is in the normal range (Tomblin et al., 1997);
- helping kids to learn academic and so-called Tier 2 or “Power” words – words they are unlikely to hear in spoken conversation, but are likely to encounter across many subjects at school (you can see a list here);
- helping kids to acquire background knowledge about the world, e.g. that most plants need sunlight and water to live; and
- provide facts, e.g. on science concepts, that can help kids link new vocabulary to their real world experiences.
What kinds of non-fiction books should we start with?
Start with simple “how do’s” and “how to’s” sequences and procedures (Ray & Meyer, 2011):
- In general, sequences and procedures are more easily recalled than other kinds of non-fiction books (Lundine & McCauley, 2014), probably because most kids are familiar with stories, which also follow a chronological pattern (e.g. Pentimoni et al., 2011). As an aside, unlike many stories, most procedures are written in present tense: this can be a big help with many kids who struggle with past tense verb forms like “broke”, “fell”, and “threw”.
- Cause-effect and problem-solution books also rely on time sequencing, but are harder than sequences.
- Purely descriptive books are hard for many children to remember – probably because they are not organised by time (e.g. Wylie & McGuiness, 2004) and – let’s face it – can be as boring as a tax textbook.
- Compare and contrast books can be complex because they don’t sort the information by time but by similarities and differences (Ray & Meyer, 2011).
How to help young kids understand non-fiction sequences and procedures
Use repeated, shared reading strategies (also called dialogic reading), including:
- introducing the purpose of the book, e.g. “This book tells the steps for growing a sunflower. The steps are called a sequence. We will learn the steps or sequence”;
- multiple, interactive readings of the same book over a week;
- highlighting “signal words” that help kids understand the sequence, e.g. first, next, then and last; before and after;
- identifying academic power words up front and discussing their meaning as you read the book;
- using graphical organisers like these ones;
- using picture cards to demonstrate sequences in pictures (and then sorting them into order or “filling in the gaps” in part-filled sequences);
- responding to children’s comments on the books with language stimulation techniques like extensions and expansions;
- using questions (although I try not to use too many as it can make a book discussions feel like a test or interrogation);
- summarising the book at the start and end;
- predicting what might happen next;
- providing hints via “think-alouds”, e.g. “I want to know about the different parts of a sunflower plant. I will look for pictures in this book”);
- asking kids to look at and label the pictures; and
- acting out or dramatising the topic, e.g. acting out a book about growing a sunflower by making one child the plant, another the sun, another the rain, etc.
Come on! Where are the specific book tips?
Glad you asked! Join us next week for our last article of the year: our list of recommended non-fiction books for late talkers, preschoolers and young kids.
- Read non-fiction books to your kids, part 2: our booklist!
- Reading with – not to – your preschoolers: how to do it better (and why)
- “You know, um, veniculars-like, thingies you look through to see far away stuff. I doni’t know!”: How to help school-aged kids to find their words
- For reading, school and life success, which words should we teach our kids? How should we do it?
- 15 practical ways to help your son discover a passion for reading
- Speaking for themselves: why I choose ambitious goals to help young children put words together
- Too many stories, not enough facts? Free tips and resources to boost your child’s knowledge and reading comprehension skills
Principal source: Breit-Smith, A., Olszewski, A., Swoboda, C., Guo, Y and Prendeville, J.A. (2017). Sequence text structure intervention during interactive book reading of expository picture books with preschool children with language impairment. Child Language Teaching & Therapy 33(3) 287-304. (Interesting paper, though hampered by limited/subjective outcome measures and a lack of a control group.)
Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.
Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language
Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.