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Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL specialist

Learners are often faced with the challenge of carrying out research for their class project work, and often schools invest heavily into non-fiction readers which can be used for such projects. Non-fiction books are a vehicle for learning all sorts of information about life and the way the world works. These books are also invaluable for helping EAL learners to develop a range of literacy skills, which in contrast to fiction books, require a different type of literacy skill because they use a narrative tone (Lines, 2009). The challenge comes when we have to consider ways to make these non-fiction books inspiring and engaging for EAL learners.

Before selecting a text you'll need to consider how difficult it may be to access: Can a learner access most of the non-technical language? Does the book have accessible pictures to enhance understanding? Care needs to be taken when selecting books to ensure they are accessible, relevant and conceptually interesting for EAL learners. Many nonfiction readers are flexible for use with a range of levels and ages, depending how you choose to exploit them (Brewster et al, 2012).

Washbourne, (2011) highlights the importance of EAL learners reading for meaning. You may want to consider some of her suggestions:

  • The cultural knowledge needed when choosing a text
  • Choosing a text from an EAL learners cultural background
  • Encouraging EAL learners to guess the meaning of the words from the sentence they read
  • Pre-teaching any vocabulary
  • Encouraging learners to ask ‘why’ questions
  • Modelling the behaviours of good reading

You may find the chart below useful when introducing your nonfiction text (it’s an adaptation of Washbourne’s ideas):

Before reading
  • Show and discuss the cover and opening picture. Inspire the readers to want to read the book.
  • Ask the learners questions, to help them understand the text. e.g “What animal do you think eats plants”, “Do any animals eat meat?”
  • Ask the learners what they might do if they come across a difficult word – point out some of these.
  • Learners complete a game or activity with key words from the text.
During reading
  • Read a section to model good reading then learners read a section - you can ask learners to read aloud at their own speed and walk round the group listening to each read in turn.
  • Ensure you leave plenty of time for learners to look at the pictures and assimilate what they have read.
  • Ask the learners to read the book again, and if you have a class set, let learners look at their copies.
  • Talk about the pictures, but don’t forget there is often no right answer and a question may just be provided to spark the imagination and help learners access higher levels of thinking e.g. evaluating or creating their own opinions.
  • In groups, ask them to point out the images that show the main topics e.g. animals or habitats and comment about each.
  • Follow up with learners sharing their ideas with the rest of the class, give plenty of time for further discussion.
After reading
  • Create a display based on the topic where learner have to write captions using pre-taught language structures. Give students images of topics that inspire their writing.
  • Create a fact file book: Ask learners to complete a fact file about the topics. Create a glossary of words for the fact file and again, expect learners to use some of the pre-taught language structures but with the key vocabulary from their glossary. Put the fact file sheets together into the class book.
  • Make a class poem book: Ask learners to complete a poem, using the topic language structures and topic words. Learners can also illustrate their poem. Put the poem sheets together into the class book.

In addition to all these elements is access learners have to use higher order thinking when developing reading skills. We can use Bloom’s taxonomy to help us focus on these cognitive goals of, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation which are used for more complex and ‘higher’ levels of thinking, in contrast to questions which ask for knowledge, comprehension and application which demand less complex and ‘lower’ levels of thinking (Fisher, 2005). With this in mind, you can create Bloom’s Taxonomy ladders as a tool to engage and challenge your learners, with phrased questions to make reading nonfiction texts more interactive. The resource attached is a sample of the levelled questions which you can adapt and use in your classroom.

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Brewster, J., Ellis, G., and Girard, D. (2002). The Primary English Teacher’s Guide. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Fisher, R (2005). Teaching Children to Learn. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Linse, C (2009). What about nonfiction? IATEFL Young Learner and Teenager Special Interest Group Publication 2009-1.

Washbourne, A (2011). EAL Pocketbook: Tools and Techniques to Create Inclusive Learning Environments and Lessons for Students with English as an Additional Langauge. Alresford: Teachers' Pocket.

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