Monday, March 5, 2018

Getting to “I GET IT!”: Scaffolding in Nonfiction

Charlesbridge nonfiction editor Alyssa Mito Pusey talks about making complex ideas tangible to young readers. This article first appeared in two parts on Melissa Stewart's blog Celebrate Science on February 2 and 3, 2018.

The other day, my seven-year-old asked me what the Big Bang was. Inside, I panicked a little.

Explaining complex, abstract ideas to anyone is difficult. But it’s especially challenging when your audience is a child. Young children have limited prior knowledge, and they think very literally.

As an editor of nonfiction children’s books, I work with authors to make their writing as concrete as possible. But sometimes, we do need to tackle abstract concepts. They’re the big ideas that really expand kids’ thinking.

So how do we make the intangible tangible? How do we help kids get to that epiphany—to that “Aha!” moment? One key strategy is what I think of as scaffolding—building a support system for the young reader.

In instructional scaffolding, a teacher provides the support needed to help a student learn a new concept or skill. (See descriptions here and here.) In the same way, an author can provide support to help a reader understand a big idea. Tactics for written scaffolding are limited only by the author’s imagination—but here are some of my favorites.

START WHERE THEY ARE: Consider prior knowledge

As a writer, you don’t have the benefit of being face to face with your readers; you can’t know what prior knowledge they bring to the table. But you do know your target audience—the age range for which you’re writing. Think about what kids of that age most likely know, and then start where they are. It’s equally important to consider what kids think they know. Identify common misconceptions they might have and address them.

Author and teacher Anastasia Suen knew from the start that Up! Up! Up! Skyscraper was going to be a book for preschool readers. Thanks to her deep knowledge of her audience, Anastasia was able to break down the complex process of building a skyscraper into a series of understandable steps. Her experience with preschool students informed her energetic rhyming, simple sidebars, and careful introduction of key vocabulary. She also included lots of labels in the art, creating a picture glossary for preschool construction enthusiasts. As she put it, “They want to know what everything is!”

WHAT’S THAT WORD?: Define vocabulary in context

As writers and editors, we know we shouldn’t talk down to readers; we should respect their intelligence and use rich vocabulary. But that language also needs to be age-appropriate, or we’ll lose our readers.

What’s the solution? Predict where your reader is and start there. Identify the high-level vocabulary and technical, domain-specific terms in your writing. Are they all necessary to understand the concept? Which are most important? Define those words in context, providing enough information for the reader to understand them—without disrupting your flow.

In Our FoodGrace Lin and Ranida T. McKneally introduce lots of fortifying vocabulary. A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions, but each word is also defined in context in the main text. For example, after introducing the words pigment, energy, and nutrient, they explain how a plant turns the sun’s light into energy for the plant—and for us. They’re talking about photosynthesis, but they don’t use that word. Instead, they keep the focus tightly on the main idea of the spread: Why are so many vegetables green? They answer this question scientifically yet simply, introducing only one new term: chlorophyll.


MIND THE GAP: Build a progression of ideas

As a writer, your job is to get kids from Point A to Point B—from their prior knowledge to that big new idea. I find it helps to start by thinking about Point B. Try summing up the concept in a single phrase. Then identify the information the reader needs to understand the concept—and make sure all the building blocks are there in your writing. One easy way to test this is to read the text sentence by sentence, preferably aloud. Does each sentence connect to the one before? Can you easily follow the progression of ideas? Are there any gaps?

In Super Gear, Jennifer Swanson tackles the science of nanotechnology. On page 7, she deftly employs scaffolding to explain why nanomaterials have a large surface area.
  1. First, she clearly defines the term surface area, in case it’s new to her readers. 
  2. Next, she uses an everyday example (a potato being cut into french fries) to shows how surface area increases as the potato is cut into smaller and smaller pieces.
  3. She then forges a connection between this example and nanoparticles, which are like billions and billions of ultra-small potato pieces.
  4. Finally, she describes how these billions of pieces give the nanomaterial a much greater surface area than that of a regular substance.
Jennifer’s precisely worded steps are like building blocks, which are placed one atop the other to gradually build a reader’s understanding of the concept.

SHED LIGHT: Make illuminating comparisons

We all know the illuminating power of a good comparison. It can cause a light bulb to go off for the reader. (There’s a tried and true metaphor right there.) But not all comparisons are equally effective. It’s easy for a simile or metaphor to be so tried and true (like the light bulb) that it’s boring. An analogy can be belabored—so elaborate that it’s difficult to follow. Mixed metaphors can be confusing.

One master of comparisons is Melissa Stewart. In Feathers: Not Just for Flying, she starts with simple similes: “Feathers can warm like a blanket . . . or cushion like a pillow.” Shen then expands to unexpected comparisons, likening feathers to umbrellas and sunscreen, backhoes and forklifts. Each comparison is clear in both text and art; the reader instantly makes the connection. The simile leads the reader to a concrete understanding of the concept, triggering an “Aha!” moment. Best of all, the comparisons surprise and delight—individually and collectively. Who knew that feathers served so many different purposes? Scaffolding like this can help kids develop a deep understanding of a complex concept. And if you can help convey just one big, important idea, then you’ve given your readers a gift for life. 

What did I do when my son asked me about the Big Bang? After briefly panicking, I recalled a beautifully scaffolded picture book I once edited, took a deep breath, and dove in. “Well, thirteen billion years ago . . .”

Credits: Photograph courtesy of Alyssa Mito Pusey; Up! Up! Up! Skyscraper: Text copyright © 2017 by Anastasia Suen; illustrations copyright © 2017 by Ryan O’Rourke; Our Food: Text copyright © 2016 by Grace Lin and Ranida T. McKneally; illustrations copyright © 2016 by Grace Zong; Super Gear: Left image copyright © by Deep OV/; right image copyright © by Binh Thanh Bui/; Feathers: Text copyright © 2014 by Melissa Stewart; illustrations copyright © 2014 by Sarah S. Brannen.


Lauri Meyers said...

Great insights into bringing nonfiction ideas to the readers were they are.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful examples in this clearly written explanation on supplying information that will not only be fun to read, but also understandable at a wide range of reading levels.

Carrie A. Pearson said...

I'm late to the party but wow! What an educational post. I'm sharing with my blog readers today.

Janet Mendelsohn said...

This is an exceptionally helpful post--clear, concise, great examples--that speaks directly to nonfiction writers for children, among others. Thank you.

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