Most of the books that children need to read at school will in fact be non-fiction books – books that inform, explain or instruct. At higher levels of school some of these will be textbooks. Others will be books they use to find out information for a project, for example.
Good readers are able to use their knowledge of the features of a non-fiction book to help them choose the most useful book in the first place.
They know, for example, that the table of contents and the index are both good places in which to find out whether the book has the information they need.They know that a single page reference in the index probably means that their topic is just mentioned there, whereas multiple page references (113 – 118, eg) mean that this is where they are likely to find the most information about their topic.
They look at the headings that the author has given to each chapter or section to find out what to expect there.
They look at the drawings or photographs accompanying the written information and read the captions that explain the picture or diagram.
They focus on any words that are printed in bold on the page because these might be important ones. Sometimes the bolded words indicate that they are contained in a glossary that explains their meanings.
They read the insets on the page because they know that these will give quick facts and perhaps provide more detail.
Help children to find the information they need, by showing how these features can assist them.
First check the book to make sure that it is not too difficult for the child. The five-finger test is an easy one to use here. Tell the child to start reading the part that seems to contain the needed information. Every time an unfamiliar word is encountered, the child raises a finger. If he or she puts up five fingers on a page then the level of language is probably too difficult, and it would be more sensible to search for another book that contains the same information but presents it in simpler language.
Although I’ve been talking here about non-fiction books and their features, a lot of children’s reading will actually occur on the Internet. It’s important, therefore, that children understand the features of a website and are able to use them to find information.
Children need to understand that a webpage will have various kinds of hyperlinks – headings, graphics, illustrations, italic print, differently coloured words, underlined words – and that each of these will lead to further information.
The top or sidebar menu with hyperlinks is the equivalent of a table of contents. Show children how these work and, in particular, how to get back to the homepage quickly and efficiently. A great deal of time can otherwise be wasted.
If necessary, note-taking from the Internet can be done by cutting and pasting into a Word document or by using a program such as Scrible.
Because it is important that children acknowledge the source of their information, encourage them to copy the URL at the same time. When they are using a book, they should note the author, the title and the publisher.
When children rephrase the words from the text into their own words this not only avoids plagiarism, but also helps to consolidate their understanding of the material.