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Teaching Nonfiction to Early Elementary Students

Introduction to Nonfiction (Characteristics and Conventions)

This multi-part lesson introduces the characteristics of nonfiction, with the point of view that good readers can tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, because they’re used for different purposes. Like several of the lessons in this unit, it is meant to be used over the course of at least two weeks. (See bottom of page for definitions of nonfiction conventions)

Age/Grade: 2nd

-Enough blank convention notebooks for the whole class (these can just be stapled pieces of paper with one convention written at the top of each page. There should be enough room on each page for the child to write a definition and glue or tape one example of the convention.)
-Photocopies (and a copy on transparent paper if possible, for use on an overhead projector) of one example of each convention (note: make sure that the copied images will fit in the convention notebooks.)
-Chart paper and markers
-Examples of nonfiction for students to explore. I chose to use library copies of Ranger Rick and ZooBooks, and was able to find enough that each child could borrow one.

1.) Ask the class if anyone knows a definition of fiction and/or nonfiction. Hold up examples of fiction and nonfiction books, and ask children what similarities and differences they notice.

2.) Give each student their own book or magazine and let them have ten minutes to take it back to their seats, look through it,
and discuss it with their tablemates. At the end of the ten minutes, have the group reconvene to share their observations.

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3.) Create a two-column chart for recording observations; have “fiction” on one side and “nonfiction” on the other. The idea is to help students create working definitions for both; my class’s definition of fiction was “stories, things that didn’t happen/aren’t real/aren’t true.” Nonfiction was “things that are real and true, a place to get information/knowledge.” Add to this chart as the days go by and students notice more. Make sure you keep it in a visible, accessible place where children can refer to it and it can be used in other lessons.

2.) On the second day, introduce the conventions notebooks. Show students a sample one that you have made, and explain the first convention: labels (see attached sheet of definitions). Show several examples of labels, then give students photocopies of one of the examples to paste in their convention notebooks (I chose to photocopy the same convention for the whole class because we didn’t own nonfiction magazines that we could cut apart; if you classroom has an abundance of Ranger Rick, ZooBooks, National Geographic for Kids, or other publications and students are able to cut and paste their own labels, that would be ideal).

3.) Each day, couple a read-aloud with another convention until all of the pages of the convention notebook are filled. Keep an eye out for students starting to notice and name conventions in other locations – this is a good indicator that they are understanding and remembering the new terms.

Adaptations/Extensions: A fun activity (and another information way of assessing student comprehension) is going on a “Convention Hunt” – give students hints like, “This convention is like an x-ray for a picture – it lets you see through it to the inside” and let them hunt through the books (and the room) to find an example of whichever convention they believe you’re talking about.

Nonfiction Conventions
(adapted from Debbie Miller’s Reading With Meaning; see Resources)

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Labels: A label tells you what you’re looking at in a picture.

Photographs: Photographs are pictures that are taken with a camera, and which help you understand exactly what something looks like.

Captions: A caption gives you more information about a photograph or picture.

Comparisons: Comparisons show how two or more things are related to each other.

Cutaways: Cutaways help readers understand something by looking at it from the inside.

Maps: Maps help readers understand where things are in the world.

Types of Print: Different types of print, like bold and italic, help the author let you know what he or she thinks is important.

Close Ups: Close ups help readers see details in something small by showing it as larger than it really is.

Tables of Contents: The table of contents helps the reader easily find the main topics of a book in the order in which they come.

Index: The index is an alphabetical list of most of the things written in the book, organized with page numbers so that the reader can find the information.

Glossary: The glossary identifies and defines words that will help the reader understand the text better.


  • For more information on teaching nonfiction, see Miller, D. (2002). Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. To order Ranger Rick magazine, go to www.nwf.org/kidspubs/rangerrick/  The ZooBooks magazine is found at www.zoobooks.com/