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Non Fiction and the Literacy Hour

In the past, learning to read meant reading stories.  Roger Red Hat and Janet and John bounced through their books without making any attempt to teach children about dinosaurs, astronomy or useful things to make from sticky backed plastic.

But these days, children are expected to read non-fiction right from the start of their school career. This creates opportunities for writers bu,t if you want to write for this market, you need to understand what that market needs.

Firstly, all children, even the youngest, are taught how to use a non-fiction book properly so even the simplest book needs a contents page and an index. Page headings and sub-headings are also important and so are captions for the illustrations. A glossary is a useful addition too and one welcomed by teachers, but it's not always feasible to put one in a book with only a few lines of text.

Secondly, non-fiction for primary schools is divided into categories. You'll need to keep these strongly in mind when you are planning books for the educational market as teachers will want to know which one your book fits into. Publishers will want to know this too, and they often use the categories as part of the brief when commissioning work. For instance, they may ask for ideas for non-chronological reports for 6 year olds.

Here's a list of the main categories to help you understand what everyone is talking about. 

Discussion texts
These look at two or more points of view on an issue. They discuss the pros and cons of each point of view and examine the evidence for them before drawing a conclusion or leaving the readers to make up their own minds. Balanced books on controversial topics like fox hunting and animal experimentation fit here but ones which are heavily biased in one direction are really persuasive texts. 

Explanation texts
As the name suggests, these explain how or why something happens or answer a question. They include books with titles like 'How the universe began?', 'How your body works?' and 'What happens to the food you eat?'. 

Instruction texts
These tell the reader how to do something, often with the help of lists of instructions and diagrams. 'How to .' books fit here as do cookery books, art books and books on improving your football.

Persuasive texts
These aim to persuade the reader to agree with the author or to follow a particular course of action like not smoking or keeping safe in the sun. Although they may look at alternative opinions, they don't do this in the balanced way of a discussion text.

Recount texts
These retell a sequence of events in chronological order although there is often an introductory section to set the scene. Biographies and autobiographies are recounts. So are books with titles like 'A day in the life of a fireman', 'The discovery of penicillin' and 'The ascent of Everest'.

Reference texts
These present a collection of short pieces of information organised in a way that makes them easy to locate - usually alphabetical. Encyclopaedias, dictionaries and bird books fit in this category.

Report texts or non-chronological reports
These tackle a particular topic like cats, puppets or dinosaurs in a way that is independent of the passage of time. They often begin with a general introduction (what's a puppet) followed by sections on different aspects of the topic (types of puppet, famous puppets, puppet theatres etc).

Diana Kimpton

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