Breaking down the barrier between budding scientists and the books they crave
In 1996, NSTA and the Children’s Book Council created the Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 (OSTB) list to highlight and celebrate carefully researched, finely-crafted science books that teachers should bring into their classrooms and use in instruction. In 2017, they added a complementary list, Best STEM Books K–12. Each year, volunteer committees of educators read hundreds of books, discuss their merits, and choose the ones they find most exceptional. As an author of science books for children, I am truly grateful for their time and enthusiasm. Having a book on these lists is a tremendous honor. But do they achieve their intended goal? Do teachers make the recommended books available to students? Do they use them to enrich science lessons? For the most part, the answer is “No.”
Despite NSTA’s laudable efforts:
Creating a high-quality children’s nonfiction book routinely takes five years or more. Authors and illustrators pour their hearts and souls into them, and young readers can absolutely tell the difference. Trade books have the power to inspire as well as inform. They can ignite a student’s passion for science.
A broader look at trends in children’s publishing helps to explain why the OSTB and Best STEM lists have so little impact on educators’ book-buying decisions. Overall, nonfiction accounts for just one-quarter of all children’s book sales (Milliot 2022). If you aren’t surprised by that statistic, you should be because nonfiction accounts for a whopping two-thirds of adult book sales, and science is one of the hottest categories.
Why the discrepancy? Even though many adults enjoy reading nonfiction themselves, they mistakenly believe children prefer fiction. It’s an implicit bias that permeates our society and is perpetuated by the media.
Why is this unfortunate misconception so pervasive? Perhaps it’s because adults who prefer fiction themselves assume children feel the same way. Or maybe they recall being required to read dry, encyclopedic texts when they were young and have no idea how much the genre has changed and expanded in recent years. Regardless of the reason, now is the time to make a change.
Research shows that as many as 75 percent of young readers enjoy nonfiction as much as or more than fiction, and fact-loving analytical thinkers get particularly excited about reading to learn (Clark and Teravainen-Goff 2020; Correia 2011; Mohr 2006; Repaskey, Schumm, and Johnson 2017). For them, nonfiction can be the gateway to literacy (Caswell and Duke 1998) as well as a portal to knowledge that fuels their natural curiosity and sense of wonder. When these students lack access to the nonfiction books they crave, they may lose their enthusiasm for reading and learning (Moss and Hendershot 2002).
“Children want their nonfiction books; adults may be their barriers,” says Heather Simpson, Chief Program Officer for Room to Read, a nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality in education; she continues, “A child learning how to read with fiction texts alone misses a unique opportunity to pique an independent interest in reading.”
If we want the United States to be a global innovation leader, we must foster all the potential STEM talent our country has to offer. We need to cultivate the curiosity of budding scientists, and one way to do that is by nurturing and nourishing their minds with books they find fascinating.
Here are five ways you can begin addressing the problem today:
Best STEM Books K–12: www.nsta.org/best-stem-books-k-12
National Council of Teachers of English Nonfiction Position Statement https://ncte.org/statement/role-of-nonfiction-literature-k-12/
Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12: www.nsta.org/outstanding-science-trade-books-students-k-12
Recommended Nonfiction Read Alouds: www.melissa-stewart.com/educators/sharing_expository_nf.html
Melissa Stewart (email@example.com) is a scientist, educator, and author of more than 200 STEM-themed nonfiction books for children, including seventeen that appeared on NSTA’s OSTB list. She co-wrote 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and Writing Instruction with Children’s Books and contributed to the National Council of Teachers of English’s newly-adopted Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (K–12).
Caswell L.J., and N.K. Duke. 1998. Non-narrative as a catalyst for literacy development. Language Arts 75 (2): 108–17.
Clark, C., and A. Teravainen-Goff. 2020. Children and young people’s reading in 2019: Findings from our annual literacy survey. National Literacy Trust.
Correia, M. 2011. Fiction vs. informational texts: Which will your kindergarteners choose? Young Children 66 (6): 100–104.
Dreher, M.J., and S.B. Kletzien. 2015. Teaching informational text in K–3 classrooms: Best practices to help children read, write, and learn from nonfiction. Guilford Press.
Milliot, J. 2022. Is the book sales boom finally over? Publisher’s Weekly.
Mohr, K.A.J. 2006. Children’s choices for recreational reading: A three-part investigation of selection preferences, rationales, and processes. Journal of Literacy Research 38 (1): 81–104.
Moss, B., and J. Hendershot. 2002. Exploring sixth graders’ selection of nonfiction trade books: When students are given the opportunity to select nonfiction books, motivation for reading improves. The Reading Teacher 56 (1): 6–17.
Repaskey, L.L., J. Schumm, and J. Johnson. 2017. First and fourth grade boys’ and girls’ preferences for and perceptions about narrative and expository text. Reading Psychology 38 (8): 808–847.
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