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Use Easy Nonfiction to Build Background Knowledge

Corwin Press, an imprint of Sage Publications

A Texas librarian shares his strategy of using nonfiction picture books to introduce new concepts to struggling adolescent readers and to build their background knowledge. Once students have been exposed to academic content in easy reading material, they are more confident in making the transition to textbooks.

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.

Instructional aid

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

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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, in a new window).

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.