Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Reaching Readers: The Potential of Non-Fiction

When my son had to sit down for his required 20 minutes of homework reading time, it was like pulling teeth. He couldn’t find a book he wanted to read, he didn’t know where to sit, he hadn’t eaten a snack yet, the room was too loud or too quiet or too whatever. And every few minutes, he’d ask, “Is it time yet? Am I done?”

Getting kids to do something they don’t want to do is always hard. And if they think you’re trying to trick them into doing something that is “good for them,” it’s even harder.

Reading can sometimes fall into that category.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
When a child tells you they don’t like to read, often the reason they give is that it’s “boring.” Which is their way of saying that it feels too forced, too much like school work.

And then they get labeled as a Reluctant Reader.

Now let me stop to say that I think using the term Reluctant Reader is a huge disservice to the child and maybe a bit of a lazy cop-out for the adult using it. When you label a child as a Reluctant Reader, (which means unwilling) you’re putting blame on them for not finding books they love. But that’s not really fair since they don’t even know the possibility of all the great reading material out there. It should be the responsibility of the adult to guide the Potential Reader (see what I did there? That denotes the likelihood of becoming a reader in the future) to interesting books and material.

To make reading fun, you need to meet the Potential Reader where they are, not where you think they should be.

Novels can seem daunting to a Potential Reader. A thick spine with hundreds of pages can look more like a brick wall than a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

What does that mean? Well, if you have this great story about a boy who is wizard, but your Potential Reader says wizards are “stupid,” you’re not going to have an easy time getting them to read that book. It doesn’t matter how many other kids loved it. And the hurdle to turning a Potential Reader into just a regular old Reader is finding books that interests them, not necessarily what’s on the awards list or what everyone else is reading.

Photo by Jamie Taylor on Unsplash
One way to help a Potential Reader discover how fun reading can be is to investigate what they find interesting, whether it’s within fiction or non-fiction.

Adults may pass off a Potential Reader’s interest in non-fiction as not really reading if that non-fiction is different than what the adult knew from their childhood. When we were kids, non-fiction was serious, like boring biographies about dead presidents or animal migration habits.

Non-fiction felt like just more schoolwork because it read like a social studies or science text book. But non-fiction is no longer limited to the dull writing we read as kids.

Quality, well-written non-fiction comes in many forms, including books, but also magazines, newspapers, blogs, how-to and DIY guides, cookbooks and, yes, instructions manuals. They can be regular books, electronic books, graphic novels or even comics. All while also being funny or suspenseful.

Non-fiction books are a great way to help a Potential Reader expand their knowledge for their other passions. A biography about a beloved sports hero could improve a Potential Reader’s game. Studying about artists’ techniques will help a Potential Reader become better at art. A Potential Reader who loves to write made-up stories about real things, like shipwrecks or space, will improve their own stories using a little research.

Non-fiction can be used as a tie-in with fiction books, too. For example, if a Potential Reader enjoys a fiction book set in Egypt, they might love to learn more about the country.

My son loves gross, random facts, but text-heavy books overwhelmed him. So when he discovered the Weird But True! series and yearly Kids Almanacs by National Geographic Kids, full of short non-fiction chunks of text and loads of interesting photos, he was hooked. When I’d say his reading time was up, he’d say, “Can I finish this page first?”

He decided this whole reading thing isn’t so bad. He fell in love with reading because we let his interests lead the way.

Non-fiction books to try with your Potential Reader:

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy
Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? And Other Questions About Animals by Buffy Silverman
Weird but True! series by National Geographic Kids
Guinness World Records 2017 by Guinness World Records
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernik
Older Than the Stars by Karen C. Fox
On Board the Titanic: What It Was Like When the Great Liner Sank, by Shelley Tanaka

Feel free to share your tips and tricks for Potential Readers in the comments!


  1. Love the term "potential reader!" That's what all kids have--potential. Thanks for including Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks on your list.

  2. Thank you! I thought it was a nice, positive spin. :) And you're certainly welcome!

  3. “Potential reader” —so positive and full of promise! Poetry can also offer inviting, smaller portions of information, emotion, humor, and wordplay. Riddles, too!

    1. Oh, definitely! Thanks for pointing that out. Poetry can be nice, little "bite-size" reading for kids that make them think about the text long after they finished reading it!


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