Updated: Nov 24, 2022
This is the final instalment of our 3-part series that has explored some of the key aspects of literature that we believe children should be taught about in schools. Our first two blog posts and free poster sets had a focus on fiction: The 7 Story Types and The 7 Character Archetypes. They looked at how stories have been constructed over hundreds of years and what elements seem to run throughout each of them in terms of story structure and characters. Click on the links to read the blogs and download the posters.
This final set of posters and explanations focuses on non-fiction. In Chapter 3 of Doug Lemov’s ‘Reading Reconsidered’, he explains that there are a variety of micro-rules which can often pose a barrier and prevent readers from being able to fully understand both the reading of (and consequently the writing of) non-fiction texts. By identifying and understanding these rules, it can help the reader unlock the specialised style in which much non-fiction is written. Below are the seven rules (although Rule 6 differs from Lemov's book and I explain why further down).
1. The Universal Article
When the refers to an entire species instead of one example. This is commonly found in non-fiction science texts, for example the polar bear has thick, white fur for insulation and camouflage refers to all polar bears, not just one animal.
2. The Artful Synonym
Non-fiction texts often use synonyms because they are written for publication and so require creative flair. For example, Americans are often referred to as ‘our cousins across the pond’ in UK publications.
3. Optional Parenthetical
Consider the sentence ‘Trout, any of several prized game and food fishes of the family Salmonidae (order Salmoniformes) are usually restricted to freshwater’. Non-fiction texts are aimed at different levels of reader. This means that non-fiction writers often include information in brackets that is an optional extra – some readers will read this and some will ignore entirely or come back to it later. A good example is the use of Latin names when writing about species, as exemplified in the sentence above.
4. Throwaway References
In non-fiction texts for newspapers, magazines or journals every quote has to be referenced for legal reasons. Readers, therefore, have to know when the reference is integral to comprehension of the text and when the reference can be ignored.
5. Generic Numbers
Writers of non-fiction will often use generic numbers to create an impression. Often, the specific number does not require the cognitive effort of being considered in detail as the reader just needs to recall the general point. For example, a current GCSE Geography exam paper uses the sentence ‘Study Figure 2, a map showing how global surface temperatures might change by 2070’. Here, the reader does not need to specifically know or think about the year 2070 but instead needs the awareness that this sentence requires consideration about a time in the not-too-distant future.
6. Technical Vocabulary
Domain specific vocabulary which is often very technical or specialised often appears within a non-fiction text. Books may have glossaries or definitions to support the reader and an awareness of key terms is vital for comprehension. It may be an information text about the heart and contain specific vocabulary such as the aorta, pulmonary veins or left ventricle. These are words which would be unlikely to appear in general conversation or fiction books.
7. Non-Linear Layout
Many non-fiction texts will contain titles, subheadings, diagrams, captions and photographs. This can be overwhelming or confusing and specifically teaching how to navigate the structure and layout of non-fiction texts is an important part of understanding the text as a whole.
In Reading Reconsidered, Doug Lemov chooses Micro-Genres as one of the fundamental micro-rules. This takes into consideration new, diverse forms of non-fiction, accelerated by the rise of electronic media. As children move away from 'made-for-school' non-fiction texts, they will encounter these more frequently. For the purposes of making this resource primary school appropriate, we have replaced this with 'Technical Vocabulary' as a key aspect of non-fiction which all children must grapple with, often coming into contact with complex words never encountered before.
Children should be made aware of all these rules in order to navigate non-fiction texts. They should also be exposed to as much non-fiction as they are to fiction, making a note of some of these features, in order to gather together a wealth of examples from texts and then either re-apply them to their own writing or, having been given a new stimulus, transfer the rules with a better understanding independently. A simple activity I have used before can be seen here: Animals (Rules 1, 2, 5 and 6) .docx .pdf However, Lemov is keen to promote the use of real non-fiction texts too, so once children have developed an eye for spotting some of these, it's really important to allow them the same opportunities in less 'made-for-school' style extracts or books.
There is also still plenty of value in spending time looking at the way a non-fiction text is set out. Whether this be identifying features or discussing them each time a non-fiction text is used in class. Another simple activity can be seen here: Non-Linear Layout (Rule 7) .pdf
As children grow older, their learning experience will centre more and more on reading and understanding non-fiction and so teaching these features explicitly can make this complex journey a little more straight forward. So, download the posters and refer to them as often as you can in your classroom.