Non-fiction has a terrible reputation in schools. I have to say it has earned it -all that endless, pointless, writing of instructions, the torture of an explanation and the dreariness of a recount or a balanced argument, painstakingly written within the spiky scaffolding of a writing frame; the convoluted excuses – or the, more honest, lack of excuse – for writing. Let’s look at non-fiction from a slightly different viewpoint.
In the late eighties, there was a general worry that children in primary schools wrote too many stories -so many stories that they were not properly prepared for writing in the secondary school. And so forms of non-fiction were identified and placed in the curriculum. Children were expected to know and write using their characteristic features. Very quickly, something that can be interesting and useful to know -once you have been tackling a kind of writing – became solidified and overbearing. The great strength of non-fiction writing as a way of understanding something or working out an idea became more like the completion of a sudoku puzzle. So let’s look at it again and provide the texts that make it easier for children to write non-fiction -and for them to find it engaging and worthwhile.
Children used to write a lot of stories and enjoyed doing so because story is the text form they are likely to hear and read most frequently. They become immersed in the language and conventions of fiction. [And why not? Language, as Barbara Hardy noted, is a ‘primary act of mind.’ It seems a very good foundation for developing writing. But that argument is for another time] Children become familiar, and therefore are able to write in a particular way because they hear it and read it for themselves. So it is good to build up the reading of different kinds of text, and, yes, at some time to have a look at how they work. On the whole, children like to write stories. One reason for that is because they know how they work and what they are for. For many (most?) children, writing a story is a form of imaginative play. Hurrah. If they can see the reason for writing non-fiction, then they become immersed in that also. Some children learn that they prefer to write non-fiction.
What can we do? Look across the curriculum to see where forms of non-fiction are integral and necessary to what is being learned. Look at the rich variety of beautiful non-fiction produced for children and consider how these books can be placed at the centre of a writing project, a language study, a book making venture. Many children’s earliest writing is non-fiction and we can build up from there. There are beautiful books based on the natural world. Children do learn to write very well about their immediate surroundings, looking closely and making careful observations: the allotment diary, a record of a walk [with map], a survey of wild flowers that have gained purchase in the playground, with illustrations and interesting information. Folded books of different kinds can be the perfect frame for accounts of life cycles or insect communities. There is the world of memoir and biography. Science provides a great context for speculative and investigative writing and for accurate recording. There are beautifully researched and illustrated history books and tempting books about craft and sport. Imagine making a class craft book. Each child could contribute an idea [there you are, instructions, if you must] and they can really think about how to combine clear presentation with tempting invitation.
Here is a small challenge. Make a standard origami book. Use it to show a friend how to do or make something. You could add drawings, diagrams, photographs. What are your top tips? Write with your friend in mind. Speak to them in a way you know they will understand.