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Help Your Children Understand Non-Fiction Books

Reading non-fiction books is a completely different experience than reading a story.  Often when children learn to read, they have had much less experience with non-fiction books.  While many children find these books interesting, they can also find them confusing.  Children may not fully comprehend all the information the book has to offer since it is offered in a variety of ways throughout the book.

As parents and teachers, it is important that we use specific strategies when presenting non-fiction books to our children.  The eight strategies below will help you teach your children how to read and understand non-fiction books with confidence.

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Explain The Table of Contents

One key difference with a non-fiction text is that is has additional ‘parts’.  Start by explaining to your child that you will be reading a book that is not a story book, but rather will give you lots of true information about a subject.  Start with the table of contents and read the names of the chapters to see what information you will learn.

Let your children know that with a non-fiction book, they might not always start at the beginning of the book.  If appropriate, have your child pick a chapter from the Table of Contents to start with.  This often intrigues children and they love making the choice.  Some books are easy to interact with in this way and other books will make more sense to start at the beginning so use your discretion.

Start Reading with a Picture Walk

One challenge when you read non-fiction books is there are lots of different places to look on a page.  For example on the pages below, we have the main text defining the Edmontosaurus dinosaur.  In addition, there is a sidebar on the left explaining where its name came from and a picture with labels of key body parts.  Where is a child to start?

Two pages from a Magic Tree House Fact Tracker about Dinosaurs.

One trick is to start each chapter by “walking” through each page with your child BEFORE you start reading.  See what you are going to learn on each page by looking at headings, pictures and captions, and sidebars.  Then, when your child encounters these items while reading, they won’t appear novel and distracting.  She will be ready for them!

Teaching Where to Read

Knowing where to read on the page when there is text in different places can be confusing.  A good general rule is to teach your children to read the main body text until there is a natural break such as the end of a paragraph or the end of a section.  Point out how headings divide sections.  When your child comes to a break, then encourage him to look at the other information on the page.  You will likely need to explain that the bottom of the page is often NOT a natural break as this can seem to make the most sense.  However, the end of a page often divides a section of text, even interrupting a single paragraph.

My boys often wanted to stop mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence to look at something interesting so picture walks and showing them where to stop before looking at additional information were important!

Pictures and Captions

Once it is appropriate to break from the main body text and look at other sections, follow your children’s lead as to where they want to look.  Pictures are often engaging and you can help explain how they relate to what they just read.  Point out a caption and explain how it helps describe a picture and may have some new facts in it as well.  If there are labels on the picture, like the dinosaur above, explain these to your child as well


You may find your children tend to skip over information in sidebars and that you need to point out that these sections often contain helpful or interesting information.  Help your children find and learn from these sections.  In the picture below, the sidebar on the right contains a great deal of information comparing and contrasting global warming and climate change.  If a student skipped over the sidebar, he would be missing critical information.

Two pages of a non-fiction text showing a sidebard comparing and contrasting global warming and climate change

Charts and Graphs

As children get older and books become more complex, they will start to encounter charts and graphs  that may need more analysis to understand.  Point out the title of these and the labels of the information so they understand what they are looking at.  Talk about how the information relates to the text they have read.  Help them interpret and compare and contrast the information that is provided.

Chart showing the human population of each continent in 1990


Some non-fiction texts will have boldfaced words throughout the text.  These are often words that may be new to the reader that are important to understanding the information presented.  Show children the glossary at the back of the book and explain how it works like a much smaller dictionary with words that are just for that book.  Help them find and learn some of the boldfaced words that are new to them relating the definitions back to the text they have read.


Finally, at the end of the book, show your children the index and how you can use it to find more specific topics than you would find in the table of contents.  Some books may have more than one index and this may need to be explained to your children.  For example, a book with a lots of pictures, especially ones done by artists, may contain a separate index just for the pictures.  Or a book that contains recipes as some of the information in the book may have a separate recipe index.  The more intentional you are about explaining the various parts of the non-fiction text, the better your children will understand them.

What other ways have you helped your child understand non-fiction books?  Comment below!