22 Mar 2023
by James Ball
Why Every Child Benefits from Reading More Non-Fiction Books
The term non-fiction has a perception problem. People hear it and immediately think of dry, dusty old tomes that would struggle to engage even the most capable and committed of learners. But this is both unfair and inaccurate. Modern non-fiction books can literally grab a child’s attention from across the room and hold them enthralled for hours. They also provide a whole host of benefits for both learners and educators. So what makes non-fiction so engaging for so many children? Exactly how does non-fiction help teachers and learners? And why would every child benefit from reading more non-fiction books?
Reeling in Reluctant Readers
For many young people, the idea of reading an entire novel is a daunting prospect. The front cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone might be appealing, but for many young readers, committing to 223 pages certainly isn’t. Regardless of the talent of the novelist, there is always an element of delayed gratification when it comes to fiction. Characters develop, tales twist and plot-lines arc. And that all takes time.
There are no such issues with non-fiction. It gets straight to the point. It isn’t always immediately apparent what a novel is going to be about, whereas the topic of a non-fiction book is normally included in the title itself. This lack of ambiguity is greatly appreciated by many young readers. There doesn’t have to be a clear start and end point in non-fiction. Kids can dip in (and dip out) at a point of their choosing and still have a valuable reading experience.
When it comes to topics, there really is a non-fiction book for everyone. No matter how diverse or specific the interests of class members are, from dinosaurs to diggers, asteroids to Aristotle, and ferrets to pharaohs, there is a non-fiction book that will nail every niche.
Dual Coding Theory and the Educational Advantages of Imagery
Non-fiction books are far more likely to incorporate imagery, imaginative page structures and infographics. This not only makes the books more visually stimulating and less intimidating, but it also has several evidence-based educational benefits.
Dual coding theory was developed in 1971 but has taken UK schools by storm in recent years. It puts forward the idea that two, separate yet connected, channels feed our working memory; one visual and one verbal. By engaging both of these channels at the same time, it has been shown that information and concepts are more likely to be understood and retained.
This is exactly what good non-fiction books do. And they don’t just include photographs and illustrations but also diagrams and infographics. These are invaluable in helping young people to understand concepts and processes.
Another aspect of the educational value of imagery in books is how they support readers to whom English is a second language. Being able to make autonomous, independent progress is far more likely when words are accompanied by pictures and illustrations.
Building Contextual Bridges with Non-Fiction
All too often, children in school learn things in glorious isolation. Exam specifications are covered to the letter and pupils are equipped with what they need to finish a module. But they are often left with a limited understanding of the hinterland that surrounds a topic. Reading non-fiction teaches general knowledge and can actually help improve their academic performance.
Better background knowledge enables students to make sense of what an exam question is actually asking them. And when it comes to responding, their answers become richer and more comprehensive in scope.
Exposure to the specific terminology of a topic is an excellent way to improve vocabulary. Although they will often come across new words when reading fiction, they have to rely on context to try and infer the word’s meaning. Non-fiction books are far more likely to feature keyword definitions that provide a much clearer path to a broader vocabulary.
Non-fiction also improves students’ visual literacy. By extracting information from graphs, charts, maps, labels, infographics etc., they are learning skills that will serve them well in exams and in life beyond school. The opportunity to hone these skills simply doesn’t exist in narrative fiction.
Up and down the country, English teachers will tell you that improving literacy in a school is not their sole preserve. Reading is something that can and should be incorporated into every lesson. And it can improve pupils’ progress in every lesson.
Schools are quite rightly very keen to establish cross-curricular links between departments. All too often, a top-down approach is adopted and these links can feel superficial and tacked on. But by equipping schools with the correct mix of non-fiction books, genuine links can grow organically in pupils’ minds and become a powerful tool both in terms of engagement and attainment.
A Basis in Fact
It is an oversimplification to say that neurodiverse learners prefer reading non-fiction to novels. By its very nature, the neurodiverse community is diverse and no particular interest is more prevalent than any other. However, there is some evidence that learners with Asperger’s or autism may have a preference for factual books over fiction. This could be because a neurodivergent learner’s interests can be niche and specific. Non-fiction books that cater to that niche can be quickly and easily identified.
The fact is, non-fiction books appeal to every sort of learner. It is just the degree of interest that varies. Non-fiction allows youngsters to learn about other people's lives, both living and dead, and instinctively compare those lives to their own lives, their own experiences and their own world. Life lessons are learnt, new perspectives are gained and horizons are broadened. All from the safety and comfort of the classroom.
Non-Fiction Is a Workout for the Brain
Non-fiction is actually good for the brain. If there was such a thing as a neurological fitness regime, reading non-fiction would be a core part of it. Non-fiction forces you to concentrate for extended periods of time. We have all drifted off for a few moments when reading a novel before picking the story back up again. Non-fiction does not afford you such luxury. If you do not concentrate, you do not understand and you have to go back and start again. And this act of concentration is just as important as the information being learned. By focusing, processing and unpicking information, we are improving and strengthening our brains. From a very young age, our ability to concentrate can be significantly enhanced and improved by reading factual information. Non-fiction creates better learners.
A Springboard for Adventure
Many people mistakenly believe that it is the reading of fiction alone that opens the door to a world of excitement and adventure. But non-fiction books can teach rules to games that have never been played before. They can give instructions on how to make paper aeroplanes, build kites or fashion rudimentary musical instruments. They can provide recipes to make cakes, casseroles or even play clay.
The lives of people who made great discoveries, travelled around the world or even left it are there. The life cycles of incredible animals and creatures are just waiting to be discovered. There are fascinating facts about the world around us that will make children look at it with new eyes. Fact really is stranger than fiction.
A Trustworthy Source of Information
So many of the facts and concepts that young people learn are so incredible that they can initially struggle to believe them. The internet has opened up many new and exciting possibilities in young people's lives. But it has also led to some less welcome developments. Conspiracy theories that would have been dismissed as extreme and laughable just a few years ago are now widely shared and discussed online. Young people are growing up in a world of earnest and presentable flat earthers and moon landing deniers. Differentiating between what is certifiable fact and what is conspiratorial nonsense online is very difficult for people of any age. It is almost impossible for younger children.
Non-fiction books are a much-needed authoritative source of trustworthy information. At a time when young people are being bombarded by so much that is fake, the value of this cannot be overestimated.
Non-Fiction Really Is All Gain and No Pain
There really are no downsides to exposing children to more non-fiction books. The sheer variety of topics, the imagery, the imaginative page layouts and the ability to have a “quick look’ all combine to make them incredibly appealing.
There are inherent advantages illustrated non-fiction books have for readers who have English as an additional language:
- The contextual knowledge and enhanced vocabulary lead to increased academic attainment across the curriculum.
- The improved ability to concentrate.
- The life-enhancing insights they gain into the world around them.
- The instructions they receive on how to engage with and enjoy that world.
- The factual bulwark they represent against the pseudo-science and unproven conspiracies of the internet.
The list is exhaustive and inarguable. But there is no need to take my word for it. Put
some non-fiction books in front of a child and watch the magic happen.
James Ball is a self-professed non-fiction evangelist. He is also an author, content creator and copywriter who has been writing highly successful educational textbooks for over 15 years. His books have been aimed at a variety of Key Stages but always place emphasis on accessibility and engagement. After nearly 20 years as a teacher and head of faculty, James turned to writing full-time. Whilst continuing to write textbooks, he also creates scroll-stopping, SEO-infused blogs and reports for Edtech companies, marketing agencies, industry magazines and educational publishers.