How Does Children's Nonfiction Build Twenty-First Century Literacy? | Barefoot Books

“What does print nonfiction do for children that a web or mobile resource can’t?”

This question concluded our previous post about children’s nonfiction, in which we chatted with three teachers about why nonfiction is great for kids. Among other things, we learned from elementary and middle school technology teacher Vanessa Vosburg that children’s print and digital nonfiction work together to build vital twenty-first century literacies.

What is twenty-first century literacy?

Ms. Vosburg defines twenty-first century literacy as the ability to participate in and contribute to our information society. “It’s not just creating a PowerPoint based on information you’ve read about animals,” she says. “It’s starting a discussion on the topic, noticing trends and patterns. It’s understanding why those patterns are important and what they mean in the big picture.”

“Previously,” she explains, “elementary school students would memorize facts, like the fact that polar bears live in the Arctic and penguins in the Antarctic. Now, we’re teaching children to participate in discussions and use their innate reasoning skills to understand why a polar bear lives in the Arctic, and why that fact is relevant to their lives.”

How Does Children's Nonfiction Build Twenty-First Century Literacy? | Barefoot Books

Developing twenty-first century literacy is thus as complex a goal as our twenty-first century world. But, parents and teachers: don’t feel overwhelmed! Children’s print nonfiction lays a strong foundation on which kids can build the twenty-first century skills they need to succeed in school—and the rest of their lives.

Reading print nonfiction teaches children “how to teach themselves.”

When asked which foundational twenty-first century skill is most important for children to learn, Ms. Vosburg says, “I want my students to know how to teach themselves.”

So Ms. Vosburg prioritizes showing her students how to “use their computers for research, especially finding reliable sources and incorporating information from multiple sources,” she says. It’s no easy task. “For children, researching a topic online can be overwhelming,” she explains. “There’s so much information readily available in our digital age that narrowing down where to look and then deciphering a digital source can frustrate students, especially younger children. Not only do they need to comprehend the material, but they also need to judge whether or not a website can be trusted as a reliable source. But I’ve found that the wider the variety of nonfiction children have read, the easier it is for them to grasp these skills. Early exposure to nonfiction empowers children to find answers to their own questions for themselves.”

How Does Children's Nonfiction Build Twenty-First Century Literacy? | Barefoot Books

One way reading nonfiction empowers children is by teaching them how information is structured. A novel’s structure is emotional and story-driven; a website or app’s information architecture is intuitive and user experience-centric; but one can argue that a print nonfiction book’s structure is rational, designed to present content in a logical way. Often, a book begins with an introduction that provides context for the argument and ends with an epilogue that recaps the argument and its importance. In between, chapters discuss related, but distinct topics, which logically progress from beginning to end.

For example, our World Atlas begins with three introductory spreads that provide context: “The Story of Our Planet” offers geological context; “Mapping the World,” historical context; and “The Oceans and Continents of the World,” geographic context. The Atlas ends with a glossary that reinforces key terms used throughout the text. Between, distinct spreads feature each region of the globe, moving from oceans to land mass, with Oceania as a transitionary region. Each spread includes the same categories of information—“Physical Features,” “Climate and Weather,” “Natural Resources,” and so on. The spreads move in a logical order from region to region from beginning to end. And the structure itself has meaning: the ocean-to-land organization emphasizes the fact that Earth’s five oceans, despite their lack of permanent human civilization, are just as diverse and important as the seven continents.

How Does Children's Nonfiction Build Twenty-First Century Literacy? | Barefoot Books

Reading a nonfiction book like the World Atlas or Wonderful Words, Ms. Vosburg says, “gives children an overarching view of how information and themes are structured. Instead of seeing facts in isolation—which is easy—they can see how each fact ties into the next, how larger topics flow together and how all the parts combine into the whole.” Children who understand how facts relate to each other and to larger concepts will have greater success doing Internet research, where one keyword search leads down a rabbit hole into a network of diverging, overlapping and intersecting tunnels. When children understand how one small fact can contribute to a larger argument or narrative, they can more readily identify which of the dozen scattered scraps of information they’ve found is most important, and can more effectively combine those scraps into one holistic whole.

As it provides this “big-picture view” of information, Ms. Vosburg explains, reading nonfiction helps children learn to think for themselves. Children who read nonfiction find a larger realm of understanding open before them: they can use their “critical thinking skills to form their own opinions about the information presented and see how it relates to themselves,” Ms. Vosburg says.

Moreover, reading nonfiction helps children use critical thinking skills to identify reliable sources online. “Being exposed early to print nonfiction material increases a child’s understanding of the structure, language and style of digital nonfiction,” Ms. Vosburg says. Since a logical argument or unbiased historical account has the same basic characteristics in any medium, a child who is familiar with print nonfiction will be more likely to gravitate toward logical, unbiased information online. Thus, reading nonfiction in elementary school helps children “overcome many of the common struggles they have with independent research in middle and high school,” Ms. Vosburg says—and throughout the rest of their lives.

Ready to wield the power of children’s nonfiction to empower the kids in your life to build twenty-first century skills? Keep your eyes open for our next post on nonfiction—Ms. Vosburg will share her top tips. You won’t want to miss it!


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