Coram Beanstalk thinks about books and other reading materials in a way that’s a bit different from the traditional system of libraries. We try to think about the likely use of the material and not about classifying the type of material, where likely use is determined by children’s interest. 

Very few books, or any other types of reading material, address only one potential area of interest from children.  For example, Steve Cole’s Astrosaurs series might appeal to those interested in space, in dinosaurs, or in ‘funny’ stories. 

This can be really helpful in helping children broaden their reading… grudgingly giving an Astrosaurs book a go ‘because it’s got dinosaurs in it’ might lead (with encouragement) to trying another Steve Cole ‘funny’ book (about something completely different) and then to another book on that subject and/or another ‘funny’ book by a different author and so on. 

Even the obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction is blurred when considering the reason why children might want to interact with a particular text.  

Many children’s authors consciously blur the boundaries: works of non-fiction are deliberately written to read like “stories” to engage children who prefer the imaginary world, and many stories are based around concrete subjects to entice children who prefer to read about facts.

However, understanding whether a child is more engaged by ‘narrative-driven’ or ‘fact-based’ reading is the crucial first step in determining how to match their interests.  

A child who likes football, for example, but relates to fact-based material will be likely to connect with a newspaper article about the weekend’s big match, to a football programme, to a book about how to improve your goal-keeping skills. But will not be as likely to connect (at least immediately) to a story about an aliens vs. monsters just because it features a football match!   

Step One: narrative-driven or fact-based? 

Narrative-focused materials include poetry and rhyme, as well as stories and plays, and come in a huge variety of forms. The emphasis in using such material will be on the child’s enjoyment as it is read to them, with them and by them.  The primary focus of the author is to convey an imagined world. 

The emphasis in using fact-based material will be on the child’s engagement with the subject matter as it is read to them, with them and by them.  The primary focus of the author of such material is to convey factual information – whether in a ‘straight’ or narrative format.  

The middle ground between ‘narrative-driven’ and ‘fact-based’ materials can be incredibly useful in helping children expand their reading horizons. A magazine, for example, that combines the ‘fact-based’ information that the child prefers may also include a comic strip telling the story of Rovers United, a review of the latest story in the Footballing Superstar’s Football Academy series of storybooks.

Step Two: what topic or subject?

Whether children are more likely to be engaged by narrative-drive or fact-based reading materials, the next step is to find out “of what kind?” We are thinking here of the topic or subjects that they like and not about the kind of reading material.

Narrative-based topics

  • Action adventures
  • Animal escapades
  • Fairy tales
  • Family & friend sagas
  • Fantasy worlds
  • Funny stuff
  • Historical times
  • Spinetinglers
  • Sporty exploits

Fact-based subjects 

  • Arts
  • Beliefs
  • Dinosaurs
  • Facts, lists & stats
  • Geography & the Environment
  • History
  • Hobbies (things to make and do)
  • Maps & atlases
  • Maths & science
  • Natural world
  • People & Real Life
  • Pets & farm animals
  • Space
  • Sport & Recreation Supernatural
  • Transport & technology
  • Supernatural

Within each topic and subject area there are, obviously, a lot more specific topics and subjects!  Conversation with the child will allow you to drill down further.  “What kind of fairy tales, do you like?”; “What kind of transport are you interested in?” 

Step Three: what kind of reading material?

Although, obviously, some kinds of reading materials are associated more strongly with certain topic or subject areas and with specific age groups, you might be surprised at the extent to which you can find all areas of interest and for all age groups.  ‘Lift-the-flap’ books, for example, might traditionally be associated with children just starting to read but there are now many beautiful and more complex specimens written for much older readers. 

When children are not ready to read, or are resistant to the idea of reading, “proper  books” (see below), reading materials which the children see as being a different beast altogether can be an effective entry route to the pleasure of reading.

Activity (e.g. colouring, sticker), puzzle activity and toy (e.g. jigsaw, puppet) books – provide a platform for inter-action with reading material that will feel to the child like ‘play’.

Annuals & magazines – provide a wide variety of self-contained fun activities (which feel like play) and related (shorter) pieces for reading which will consequently have less pressure attached to the “”reading”.

Comics & graphic novels – provide a visual story-board (i.e. doesn’t feel so much like a “book”) which is much less intimidating and has a practical value in helping children with less comprehension of the written word.

Joke books – provide an opportunity to dip in and out of reading to access content that the child will associate more with a fun activity i.e. the telling of jokes than with reading.

Lift-the-flap, mix-up, and touch & feel books – provide a platform for tactile inter-action with the reading material, helpful for kinaesthetic learners.

Technical manuals & programmes – provide a high-level of factual detail in very specific areas of knowledge, strongly associated with task/activity orientation.

Plays & two-reader books – provide a platform for the children to engage in performance, rather than ‘reading’.

Poetry & rhymes – provide ‘bite-sized’ reading experiences that, with their playful use of language and rhyming patterns, can feel much less daunting to children and can be associated with speaking (the poem out loud) rather than “reading”.

Pop-up, I-Spy, & visual puzzle books – provide a higher-degree of visual inter-action with the material, helpful for visual learners.

Sound & music panel books – provide a higher-degree of auditory inter-action with the material, useful for auditory learners.

Wordless stories – provide an introduction to the idea of ‘story-telling’ without the complication of words!

Step Four: what kind of features?

Children are often introduced the world of books via a progression from board books to picture books; to early reader series; to early ‘proper’ books (i.e. with some pictures) and then full ‘proper’ books.

With ‘proper’ books representing the format we associated with capable readers.  We might recognise that progression in the context of story books, but increasingly the same path is being made possible for children more interested in factual material. 

We need to be careful to recognise those first books that are written with the intention that they will be read to a child, but we can identify the changing relationship between pictures and text as being crucial to helping a child progress along the reading path. 

Pictures provide the important visual clues that can be used to provide information as to the meaning of individual words or complete sections of text and a page ‘full of picture’ is much less daunting than a page ‘full of text’.  One little girl told her reading helper, ‘I can’t breathe when there are too many words on the page!'

When children are ready to ‘make the move’ towards reading “proper books”, or “harder books” there are some features of books, that can make the step forwards easier.

Authors/Illustrators – children, just like adults, have favourite authors and illustrators – people whose books they just know they are more likely to enjoy – although they may need help to realise what their choices have in common.  Authors and illustrators often have their own webpages which can provide useful complementary resources, and some authors write for a range of ages and reading abilities so a child can continue to enjoy their work as they progress (e.g. Michael Morpurgo).

Books with ‘me’ in them – children can connect more easily to texts where they can recognise ‘someone like me’ in the story.  We are thinking here of books that cover ‘issues’ that a child can relate to (and not necessarily those that have been written to help a child understand or deal with a problem in their lives) and those written to more fully reflect the richness and diversity of our communities.

Current children’s favouritesAmazon is a good source of information about ‘what everyone else is reading’ with sections on currently popular authors, popular characters, popular series and popular individual titles. Not only is being able to participate in conversations with your peers a powerful motivation in itself, the fact that the material is being discussed means children will have heard, and therefore have a greater level of awareness of, for example character names or plot lines etc. which help them recognise elements of the text.  Film, TV and other commercial character tie-ins need to fall into this category to ‘make sense’ to children… it is the current popularity that is key!

Interactive stories (e.g. pick-your-own path, puzzle adventures) – the element of being in control and making choices (or solving puzzles) to allow the story to progress can shift the focus for some children such that they ‘don’t even think’ about the reading that is required.

Stories with rhyme, rhythm and repetition - children enjoy rhyme because it helps them to predict text and also adds to the fun! Julia Donaldson often writes in this style and it is no surprise that she has a background in song-writing for children’s television. Even the titles of some of her books give a clue to the style (‘Room on the Broom’ and 'The Snail and the Whale’).  Adults often find repetition boring and unproductive but children find it reassuring and enjoyable! Many books use repetition to help the child to predict the text and feel part of the story. One of the best examples of this is ‘Not Now Bernard’ by David McKee.

Traditional tales and classics - many children are familiar with the content of classic and traditional tales, perhaps thanks to having them read to them as younger children or through watching a television or film version (a lot of Disney films are re-tellings of traditional tales!).  Such familiarity helps a child enjoy increased reading success.

And Rude Books - For some reason children seem to be particularly fond of books that are a little bit rude and risky!

If you have any more great tips on how to engage reluctant and struggling readers, then speak to us as we'd love to hear them. Or why not put your tips into action by becoming a Coram Beanstalk reading helper?