I always feel a bit sorry for non-fiction.
It must be hard to be defined by what you aren’t, rather than having a proper name of your own. It’s a bit like calling dogs ‘non-cats’ or having two children and calling them Sam and Not-Sam.
Despite the name we’ve chosen to give it, non-fiction is far more than simply an absence of fiction. Non-fiction is a vital part of children’s reading experience. Reading non-fiction allows children to follow their interests and immerse themselves in the subjects they are interested in. It opens up new worlds for children, introducing them to ideas that will broaden their horizons and help them to make sense of the world.
And we live in a golden age of non-fiction at the moment. The modern web-connected world, where any conceivable fact is just an online search away, might have spelled the death of non-fiction. Instead, non-fiction has flourished. A quick browse in any bookshop or library will reveal shelves of beautiful non-fiction texts, as attractive as they are fascinating.
At school and at home, non-fiction should be a key part of every child’s reading diet. Here are five reasons why:
1. Non-fiction can help your child find their identity as a reader
For some of us, losing ourselves in a great novel is one of life’s greatest pleasures. But that isn’t for everyone. The reading of many adults consists principally of non-fiction texts: biographies, history books, the newspaper or websites that reflect their interests.Reading non-fiction helps children to form their own tastes and opinions. You don’t know what you like until you’ve tried it.
2. Non-fiction is great for children’s vocabulary
Reading non-fiction will introduce children to lots of new words. Some of this will be technical language linked to the subject they’re reading about – pirouette or soubresaut in a book about ballet, for example.
But even more useful are words that are less common in speech and fiction, but are useful for education – words like consistent, definition, indicate. Words like these are so useful for understanding the texts used at school, and non-fiction is often full of them.
3. Non-fiction helps children learn new language patterns
It’s not just new words that children can learn from non-fiction – the patterns of language themselves are often very different. For example, non-fiction tends to make greater use of the passive voice (it is thought that…, rather than I think that…). Reading these patterns of language can help children to absorb them and use them in their own writing, particularly in the more formal types of writing that are useful for school and beyond.
4. Non-fiction uses different skills to fiction reading
While we might pick up a non-fiction text and read it from cover to cover like a work of fiction, the chances are we’ll read it very differently. We might skim through, looking for something that catches our eye, or we might scan a page about a topic we know a lot about already, before slowing down to read about something new more carefully. We might use the glossary to look up the meaning of a new word or use the index to find a topic quickly.
These reading skills are taught and practised in classrooms all over the country, but reading non-fiction gives children a chance to practise them at home with books they enjoy. And, of course, these reading skills are useful at secondary school when researching for homework or finding information for an essay.
5. Non-fiction isn’t always about the reading
The benefits that children get from reading are well known. Academic research has suggested a link between reading in childhood and stronger reading skills, better school results in general, increased empathy for others, a larger vocabulary, increased happiness as a teenager… Being a reader is one of the most important things we can do for future success and happiness.
But while we’d love every child to be an avid reader, some children prefer to spend their time doing other things – drawing, sports, music, using screens or just playing with their toys. No matter how good our intentions, forcing children to read because it’s good for them could well backfire and make them even less keen to read. Non-fiction (both books and on screen) can be a secret weapon in the battle for reading: unlike a story book, children don’t always see non-fiction as proper reading.
When we’re finding out about something we’re interested in, the activity becomes about the topic we’re interested in, rather than reading itself. And time spent enjoying a fascinating non-fiction text might just be enough to kick-start the reading habit.
Non-fiction top picks
If you’re looking for some engaging non-fiction books, here are some suggestions to get you started:
Please note: all book links lead to more information on Amazon.co.uk
Nicola Davies and Lorna Scobie
A fascinating, exquisitely illustrated (and pleasingly huge) book celebrating the richness of life on Earth. Each page is covered in wonderful creatures with facts about them. While children might need some help reading all of the text (especially the Latin names), this is a great book to share and enjoy together.
Emma Strack and Guillaume Plantevin
Each page of this captivating book takes two seemingly similar things (Antarctica and the Arctic, noodles and pasta, a bus and a coach) and compares them, pointing out how they differ. The book is perfectly designed and covers a wide range of topics.
A brilliant series for children of all ages which introduces children to wonderful women who have achieved great things. Younger children will enjoy the pictures and be interested in the stories and achievements of the remarkable people the books describe. As they get older, children will be able to appreciate some of the barriers that stood in the way of their achievements.
Ben Newman and Dominic Walliman
In this series of five glorious titles, Professor Astro Cat explores everything from the human body to space. Packed full of facts and beautiful illustrations, these books manage to make very big topics accessible without ever dumbing down.
The Read with Oxford range has been carefully created by educational experts to support your child as they learn to read. These wonderful books will take your child on a journey from the deepest fathoms of space to the strangest and most beautiful creatures in our natural world.