Category Archives: nonfiction reading

How to find the main idea in nonfiction articles

Understanding the main idea of a piece of writing is probably the most important aspect of reading once children understand phonics.  Yet many children struggle to find the main idea.  How can we help them?

  • Ask the children to read the title and any subheadings. Ask the children what those words mean.  Ask the children to predict what the writing might be about.
  • Ask the children to look at any graphics such as photos, graphs, charts, maps, diagrams or other nontextual information. Ask the children what they have learned from those graphics.  Ask them to predict what the reading might be about.
  • In nonfiction, the main idea is often expressed at the end of the first paragraph. Ask the children if the last sentence of the first paragraph tells what the main idea is.
  • In nonfiction, many times the first paragraph or even two or three paragraphs are a hook. They might give hints about the topic of the writing, but they might not tell the main idea.  Ask the children if that is the case with what they are reading.
  • In nonfiction, topic sentences often start the body paragraphs of a reading. Ask the child to read the first sentences of the body paragraphs.  Are they topic sentences?  If so, what is the topic that they are giving details about?
  • In the last paragraph of nonfiction, the main idea is often repeated. Ask the children to read the last paragraph and to identify the main idea if it is there.
  • Reading the first important paragraph (not the hook) and the last paragraph, one right after another, can sometimes help children to discover the main idea. Do both paragraphs talk about the same thing?  If so, what is it?

Some children will understand immediately while others will need many, many lessons focused on the main idea.  If children need more examples, more tries at figuring it out, make sure they get those extra examples and time.  Figuring out the main idea will be on almost every reading test they ever take from first grade to the SATs.

But more importantly, it is a life skill which they will need.

Picture books about voting and elections

With the election looming, this is a great time to read about how a president is elected.  Below are five picture books which get the job done.

Vote!  by Eileen Christelowvote

This book introduces children to the fundamentals of voting, including political parties, campaigns, pollsters, debates, voter registration and casting ballots.  The candidates’ dogs try to figure it out.

Vote for Me!  By Ben Clantonvoteforme

A donkey and an elephant seek votes and after a while, resort to exaggerating, name-calling, making silly promises and even slugging mud at one another.  This satirical view of an election is told in red and blue.

Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchiograceforpres

When Grace hears a woman has never been elected President, she decides to run in her school’s election.  She soon figures out it’s not easy to get elected.


If I Ran for President by Catherine Steirif_i_ran

What would you need to do to run for President?  This picture book shows how you would develop a platform, choose a vice president and campaign for votes.



One Vote, Two Votes, I Vote, You Vote by Bonnie Worth

The Cat in the Hat explains American democracy.  Why are elections in November?  Why do political parties exist?  The focus is on electing the President, all told in rhyme.

For more book selections, go to

How to make reading nonfiction easier

Here is a pattern I have taught second graders, but  children of all ages can benefit.  It works especially well for reading nonfiction which is usually harder than reading fiction.

boy reading on the floor

First, before reading the text,

  • Read the title and think about what it means. Then look at all the photos, drawings, charts, cartoons, maps and tables.  Try to figure out what they mean.  From all them, try to figure out what you will be reading about.
  • If there are subheadings, read them. Go through the whole article and read them.  If you are reading a book, read chapter headings.  Ask yourself, what is this about?  Try to predict what you’ll be reading about.
  • If there are vocabulary words in the margins or highlighted in the text, read them and their definitions. Say them out loud, and if you can’t, ask an adult how to pronounce them.

Now you are ready to read the text.

  • The most important thing to figure out is the main idea. Often in nonfiction, the main idea is stated at the end of the first paragraph.  But sometimes the first paragraph is a hook, so the main idea comes later.  Reread the title and find words in one of the first paragraphs which say the same thing.  If you own the book, underline or highlight the main idea and in the margin write “main idea.”  If the book cannot be written in, start a mindweb on a separate paper with the main idea in the center.  Or write “main idea” on a sticky note and paste it over the main idea in the text.
  • The next most important thing to figure out is shich details are important. Underline them or add those ideas to your mind web.  It’s easier to study a mindweb than it is to study a whole lot of paragraphs.
  • Highlight or write down the words you don’t understand. Then write down their meanings.  Sometimes there are clues in the nearby words, or the book contains a glossary.  Or you can ask someone.  Or you can use a dictionary.
  • If some idea is difficult to understand, ask someone to explain it.  If you can find a young child’s version of the information, that is a good place to start.  Online sources might say what you need to know in an easier way.

Summer reading book lists by grade and age

To maintain your child’s reading level during the summer and to avoid the summer slide, make plans now to stock up on good books.

Below are hyperlinks to lists of books appropriate for child readers. However,  the grade or age suggestions might not correspond to your child’s reading level.  Check out books in nearby grade levels too.  If your child is a precocious reader, keep in mind that books recommended for higher grades might not contain suitable content for a younger child.

boy reading on the floorAnother place to find good lists is from your child’s school or from your public library.  In the summer, children’s books tend to fly off library shelves. Reserve books now before your name goes on a waiting list.

Grade 1

Goodreads grade 1 reading list
Greatschools grade 1 reading list
Scholastic ages 6 to 7 reading list
Educationworld geade 1 reading list
ALA grade K to 2 reading list

Grade 2

Goodreads grade 2 reading list
Greatschools grade 2 reading list
Scholastic ages 8 to 10 reading list
Educationworld grade 2 reading list
ALA grades K to 2 reading list

Grade 3

Goodreads grade 3 reading list
Greatschools grade 3 reading list
Scholastic ages 8 to10 reading list
Educationworld grade 3 reading list
ALA grade 3 reading list

Grade 4

Goodreads grade 4 readinglist
Greatschools grade 4 reading list
Scholastic ages 8 to 10 reading list
Educationworld grade 4 reading list
ALA grade 4 reading list

Grade 5

Goodreads grade 5 reading list
Greatschools grade 5 reading list
Scholastic ages 11 to 13 reading list
Educationworld grade 5 reading list
ALA grade 5 reading list

Grade 6

Goodreads grade 6 reading list
Scholastic ages 11 to 13 reading list
Educationworld grade 6 reading list
ALA grade 6 reading list

Grade 7

Goodreads grade 7 reading list
Scholastic ages 11 to 13 reading list
Educationworld grade 7 reading list
ALA grade 7 reading list

Grade 8

Goodreads grade 8 reading list
Educationworld grade 8 reading list
ALA grade 8 reading list

Grade 9

Goodreads grade 9 reading list

Grade 10

Goodreads grade 10 reading list

Grade 11

Goodreads grade 11 reading list

Grade 12

Goodreads grade 12 reading list

What kind of books do you read to your kids?

When my kids were little, I selected their reading materials from the picture book section of my library and book store.  In retrospect, I was limiting my children’s literature to fairy tales, Dr. Seuss and fiction of all kinds.

Yet children need exposure to nonfiction as well:  how to books, how things work books, information about animals and the natural world we live in, biographies, history, books with maps and tables, books about dinosaurs, even current events news.

Take a quick survey of the books you have read to your preschooler in the past week.  Were any of them nonfiction?

Expand your child’s horizons starting today.  Find the nonfiction section of the children’s section of your library and see what’s there that might interest your child.

  • Does he like dinosaurs? Lots of books explore the lives of these amazing creatures.  Or does he have a pet?  Books on dogs, cats, birds and almost every other animal abound.
  • Is your daughter into fashion? Find books about how clothes have changed over the centuries.  Find a biography of Coco Channel.  Look for a magazine with Downton Abbey or Academy Award dresses.
  • Is your child into building? You can find books and magazines on how to build a soap box, a tree house or a house of cards.  Or you can learn how a spider builds a web, how a bird builds a nest or how a beaver dams a stream to build a house with an underwater doorway.
  • Do you travel with your child? Magazines highlight fascinating places around the world.  Even if your child can’t read, together you can compare your home with the ones pictured.  Or together you can wonder what it would be like to take a gondola ride or to walk on the Great Wall of China.  Maybe you could plan a vacation.
  • Did Grandpa serve in the Army? Let Grandpa read to your child about the locations where he served or about the military uniforms he wore.  Did Grandpa fly a jet?  Find books about military aircraft.
  • Cooking books are great how-to books. With your child, find a picture of something you would like to eat and cook it together.
  • How about the handbook for your car? Or you phone?  Your child and you can look over the pictures and identify parts and what they do, picking up vocabulary.
  • Look for books with maps, charts, tables, pictographs, photos and other non-textual ways of presenting information.  Help your child to understand what those graphics mean.

Reading nonfiction is harder than reading fiction, yet students must be adept at both kinds of literature under the Common Core State Standards.  Start now preparing your child for his future by exploring nonfiction together.

Is the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction reading justified?

Perhaps the biggest change the Common Core is bringing to public school reading in the US is its emphasis on reading more nonfiction and less fiction. The reasoning behind this change is to prepare students better for the reading they need to do in their math, science and social studies classes and in their future careers, especially in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).

Is the change really necessary? Let’s compare fiction reading and nonfiction reading for students who are beyond the picture book stage.

chart comparing fiction reading skills with nonfiction reading skills

(Adapted from State of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Governor’s Literacy Education and Reading Network Source)

As you can see, reading nonfiction is harder than reading fiction. It often requires more parent or teacher involvement prior to the reading to make connections to what the student already knows; during the reading to explain vocabulary and concepts; and after the reading to restate the main ideas and important details or to explain complicated concepts.

Fiction, too, can be better understood with teacher involvement, but usually fiction can be appreciated (if to a lesser degree) by the student reading alone so long as the student’s reading level matches the reading selection.

If you hope your child will have a great career someday as a doctor or environmentalist or physics teacher, you can appreciate why an increased emphasis on nonfiction reading is important even in first grade. You may question the Common Core, but its emphasis on more nonfiction reading can only help our kids.

Online site offers current events reading for young readers

If you have a young reader who is reading at a third grade level, a new online site offering nonfiction news articles might attract him.

Child Browsing the WebAt news stories at five different reading levels are offered. The lowest reading level is targeted for an average third grader, and the highest (the original news story) is written at a college level.  In between are three rewrites at intermediate reading levels.  Two news articles are posted daily, along with a quiz for each article.  Both the news stories and the quizzes are aligned with the Common Core standards for nonfiction literacy.

The news stories are divided into seven topics:  war and peace, science, kids, money, law, health and arts.  Articles from Feb. 6 and 7 include “CVS to stop selling cigarettes,” “Marine biologists baffled by beached whales in Florida,” and “Fourth-graders have become better readers.”

Articles are geared to younger readers by the subject matter, choice of vocabulary and the average sentence length.  I calculated the CVS article written for third graders to have about 8 words per sentence.  Paragraphs in that article ranged from one sentence to five sentences.

To the right of each article, which comes with a colored photo or graphic, are five tabs to allow the reader to choose his own reading level.  If a child finds one level too hard or too easy, he can choose another.

Jennifer Coogan, chief content officer for the website, selects the stories to feature from the AP News Service and the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.  Stories might be international, such as a story about Parliament telling Buckingham Palace to cut back on expenses and to repair its palaces.   Or they might have regional interest, such as the effects of an inch or two of snow on Atlanta.

The people who rewrite the original stories use guidelines for readability, including sentence structure, context clues, and time shifting in narratives.  Because younger readers don’t have “reading stamina,” said Coogan, the articles’ word counts are aligned to state-wide assessments.

The quizzes use multiple choice questions, but they also might ask a student to tell in which paragraph an idea is found.  In the works are questions that require short answers from student readers.  Also coming is a Spanish version of this service.

Although the primary target audience of the website is teachers, parents can sign up for their children.  The annual cost is $18 per student for an individual student; $2,000 per grade in a single school; and $6,000 for a whole school.  So far 90,000 teachers and a half million students are using the site.

In an earlier blog, I wrote how boys often prefer nonfiction reading.  Websites like this one might be a good alternative for them.  The timeliness of the articles, the daily introduction of new articles, the subjects themselves—plus reading and answering questions online—might attract boys who are not keen on reading fiction.  –Mrs. K