Easing Young Readers into Nonfiction

Fiction is full of wild characters with silly voices who live in magical lands where pigeons drive buses and rabbit holes lead to fantastic adventures. No wonder it’s the genre many parents reach for when they have a child in their lap and some time to spare.

Many children don’t get their first taste of nonfiction reading until they get to school — and schools are serving up larger portions of it than ever before. The Common Core State Standards, established in 2012, recommend more nonfiction, or “informational texts,” in all K-12 classrooms, based on literacy experts’ reports that nonfiction lays important groundwork for college and career readiness.

After all the sweet escapes they’ve found through fiction, however, some kids might find nonfiction tough to swallow. These readers just need a nudge in the right direction, said Katharine Thurlow, program manager at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

“Everybody is curious about something, so it really comes down to figuring out what kids are curious about and finding them something to read about it,” she said.

Magazines like Time for Kids, National Geographic Kids, and Sports Illustrated Kids can grab emerging readers’ attention with short, timely articles and photos. They also help build vocabulary, comprehension skills, and knowledge of real-world issues — which they’ll use time and again as they grow, said CTY program manager Steve Barish.

Biographies can serve as another great entrée into nonfiction reading because they retain many of the same narrative elements as literature, Thurlow said.

“I feel lucky that when I was in fourth grade, there was a series of books about Pocahontas, Amelia Earhart, and more, and they were interesting.”

Kids can learn historical facts and character traits like perseverance, work ethic, leadership, and optimism by reading biographies about their favorite authors, celebrities, scientists, sports heroes, and historical figures, including those featured in Brad Metzger’s “Ordinary People Change the World” series. His subjects include Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thurlow recommends books from the publisher DK, which use engaging images and text to tackle a broad range of subjects, including birds, space, oceans, airplanes, weather, farm animals, knights and pirates. And the “how things work” series by Jennifer Swanson, a CTY science instructor, demystifies the internet, submarines, hybrid cars, and solar energy, for readers ages 6 and up.

Cookbooks and other “how-to” books about making crafts, drawing, playing chess, and performing science experiments help kids practice reading and following instructions, all while learning a new skill.

Ultimately, it should be up to the child to select the nonfiction subjects he or she wants to explore outside of school.

“For kids who aren’t quite motivated to read yet, I suggest a parent-child trip to the bookstore or library and telling them they can choose any nonfiction book they want,” Barish said.