I teach science at the elementary level. I’d like to improve our nonfiction science collection for students to read outside of class or for teachers to use during read-alouds. I want to be sure what we purchase is appropriate; do you have any suggestions or lists of recommended books for this level?
—Gina, Thornton, Colorado
One of my elementary colleagues notes there seems to be trend toward including more nonfiction in reading class to stimulate interest with alternatives to fiction, build vocabulary and background knowledge, and help students make the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
At the secondary level, two recent articles show an increased interest in science-related reading beyond the textbook: “Reading Aloud to Teens Gains Favor Among Teachers” (in the January 4 issue of Education Week) and “Building Background Knowledge” (in the January 2010 issue of The Science Teacher).
To find appropriate books for all grade levels, I can recommend two sources on the NSTA website. Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 contains lists compiled by NSTA in association with the Children’s Book Council. The titles are listed by year and include an annotated description of each book, including a reference to the national standards and a suggested reading level. The criteria for selection include
- The book has substantial science content.
- Information is clear, accurate, and up-to-date.
- Theories and facts are clearly distinguished.
- Facts are not oversimplified to the point that the information is misleading.
- Generalizations are supported by facts, and significant facts are not omitted.
- Books are free of gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic bias.
Unfortunately, the list is not searchable, but all of these titles are also in the second source, NSTA Recommends. This broader list includes reviews of books and other media. The reviews are written by science educators and can be searched by format (e.g., print, kits, DVDs), words in the title or review (e.g., weather, machines, insects), and grade level (K through college). The lists can be exported as Excel spreadsheets. NSTA Recommends also has monthly updates in the NSTA journals.
Consider the grade level or reading levels as suggestions. Struggling middle school readers may be more successful with books at the upper elementary level. Likewise, some elementary students may be ready for books written at a higher level.
If you’re curious about a book that doesn’t appear on these lists, the article “What Teachers Need to Know About the ‘New’ Nonfiction” by Sharon Ruth Gill has a discussion of quality nonfiction. It’s in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of The Reading Teacher and is available online to members of the International Reading Association. If colleagues (reading specialists or a Title I coordinator) are members, they can access the article for you.
The author shares a detailed look at several books, discussing her three criteria for selecting nonfiction picture books:
- Is the book visually appealing? – Do the illustrations contribute to the topic? Is the text broken up with illustrations, sidebars, headings?
- Is the book accurate and authoritative? – Are sources or references listed? Does it include supplemental materials such as a glossary, index, or table of contents? Do illustrations relate to and accurately depict the text? Are there suggestions for further reading? Are animals depicted accurately without anthropomorphism? Is the book a blend of fact and fiction? If so, is it clear which parts are fact and which are fiction?
- Is the writing style engaging? Are ideas logically ordered? Are new ideas explained clearly and simply? Are new ideas connected to what children might already know?
A group of teachers I know worked with their school librarian to examine books for their inclusion in a reading list of science nonfiction. They discovered some nonfiction science titles in their school library were more than 20 years old! Although some information is timeless, they were concerned many had outdated or incomplete information and did not recommend them to students.
I wonder about the future of print resources. Will we see a time when books as we know them are obsolete—when all of our resources will be electronic? If and when that time comes, I suspect we’ll use the same criteria for evaluation—visual appeal, accuracy and the source of the material, and writing style.