Use Easy Nonfiction to Build Background Knowledge
By: Elaine K. McEwan
For struggling readers, the suggestion to read an easy book, as a way to gather background information, is not filled with fear of failure or dread that the reading will take a very long time and great effort as might be the case if the assignment were to read a more difficult book.
— Pressley et al. (2005, p. 45)
Help all students — struggling readers and gifted students — to let go of the idea that reading easy books is embarrassing. Where do you go when you're looking for information about an unfamiliar topic? To a 400-page textbook written by experts or to an easy-reading online encyclopedia that summarizes the key concepts? Background knowledge is essential to the comprehension of more difficult text, and reading easy nonfiction that explains the critical concepts is an ideal way to expose all students to the essential background knowledge they need to understand their textbooks.
John Witmer, librarian at Alief Hastings High School (Houston, TX), believes that an excellent alternative source of concept knowledge for students whose reading levels are too low to access textbooks is a collection of easy nonfiction. He says, "My experience is that once students have been exposed to the vocabulary and concepts of academic content in easy reading material, they are more confident about making the transition to textbooks. This is especially true for ELL students" (J. Witmer, personal communication, August 1, 2006).
Seeking to develop a collection that would support math and science content and meet the needs of struggling readers, Witmer consulted with the teachers to develop a list of core concepts tested on Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills tests. John then assembled a bibliography of the best in illustrated, easy nonfiction books related to the core concepts and ordered them. He spent $2,000 on his initial collection and is ready to spend another $1,000 next year.
Promoting nonfiction picture books to struggling high school readers may seem like a daunting task, but John has been creative in his approach. He explains, "I've labeled it the Parenting Collection. At least 40% of the juniors and seniors care for younger siblings, and we encourage them to check these books out to read aloud at home. We also work with parents of struggling readers to check out books that build vocabulary and concepts" (J. Witmer, personal communication, August 1, 2006). His marketing plan is working. There is a steady flow in and out of books about number sense, cells, and other high-level concepts.
Selected Bibliography of Easy Content Concept Books
|Title||Author||Publisher||# of Pages||Date|
|Adding and Subtracting Puzzles||Bryant-Mole, Karen||Usborne||32||1993|
|Chemistry Experiments||Johnson, Mary||Usborne||64||1988|
|A Drop of Blood||Showers, Paul||HarperCollins||25||2004|
|Energy and Power||Spirgeon, Richard||Usborne||48||1900|
|Forces and Movement||Llewellyn, Claire||Cherrytree Books||24||2005|
|The Greek Gazette||Fleming, Fergus||Usborne||32||1997|
|The Hershey's Milk Chocolate Multiplication Book||Palotta, Jerry||Cartwheel Books/Scholastic||32||2002|
|How Flowers Grow||Helbrough, Emma||Usborne||32||2003|
|How Much is a Million?||Schwartz, David M.||Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books||38||1985|
|Less Than Zero||Murphy, Stuart J.||HarperCollins||33||2003|
|The M&Ms Brand Color Pattern Book||McGrath, Barbara Barbieri||Charlesbridge||32||2002|
|The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses||Cole, Joanna||Scholastic Press||47||1999|
|Me and the Measure of Things||Sweeney, Joan||Dell Dragonfly Books||29||2002|
|The Medieval Messenger||Fleming, Fergus||Usborne||32||1997|
|On Beyond a Million||Schwartz, David M.||Dragonfly Books||32||1999|
Download chart » (9K PDF)*
Source: Reprinted by permission of John Witmer, Librarian at Alief Hastings High School, Alief ISD, Houston, TX.
Copyright © 2007 by Corwin Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from 40 Ways to Support Struggling Readers in the Content Classrooms, Grades 6-12 by Elaine K. McEwan. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, www.corwinpress.com.
Click the "References" link above to hide these references.Carr, Buchanan, Wentz, Weiss. & Brant, 2001. "Not Just for Primary Grades: A Bibliography of Picture Books for Secondary Content Teachers." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.
McEwan, E.K., 40 Ways to Support Readers in Content Classrooms. Grades 6-12, pp. 93-94, copyright 2007 by Corwin Press. Reprinted by permission of Corwin Press, Inc.