How do I use non-fiction texts to inspire and engage my EAL learners?

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How do I use non-fiction texts to inspire and engage my EAL learners?

Many open books lying flat before a blue background with various formulas and letters.

Author: Gemma Fanning, EAL Specialist

Learners in classrooms are often faced with the challenge of carrying out research for class project work. Often, schools invest heavily in non-fiction readers, which can be used for such projects. Non-fiction books are a good vehicle for learning all sorts of information about life and the way the world works. These books are also invaluable in helping EAL learners develop a range of literacy skills, of a different type to those developed by fiction books (Lines, 2009). In this article, we consider ways to make these non-fiction books inspiring and engaging for EAL learners.

Before selecting a text, consider how difficult it may be to use. Can a learner access most of the non-technical language? Does the book have accessible pictures, to enhance understanding? Care needs to be taken when selecting books, to ensure they are accessible, relevant and conceptually interesting for EAL learners. Many non-fiction readers can be used at a range of levels and ages, depending on how you choose to exploit them (Brewster et al, 2012).

Washbourne (2011) highlights the importance of EAL learners ‘reading for meaning’. You may wish to consider some of her suggestions:

  • consider the cultural knowledge needed when choosing a text
  • consider choosing a text from an EAL learners’ cultural background
  • encourage EAL learners to guess the meaning of words from the sentence they are reading
  • pre-teach any relevant vocabulary
  • encourage learners to ask ‘why’ questions
  • model the behaviours of good reading.

The chart below is an adaptation of Washbourne’s ideas. You may find it useful when introducing your non-fiction text:

Before reading * Show and discuss the cover and opening picture. Inspire the readers to want to read the book.
* Ask the learners questions, to help them understand the text. e.g “What animal do you think eats plants?”, “Do any animals eat meat?”
* Ask the learners what they might do if they come across a difficult word – point out some of these.
* Learners complete a game or activity with key words from the text.
During reading * Read a section to model good reading, then learners read a section – you can ask learners to read aloud at their own speed and walk round the group listening to each read in turn.
* Ensure you leave plenty of time for learners to look at the pictures and assimilate what they have read.
* Ask the learners to read the book again. If you have a class set of books, let learners look at their own copies.
* Talk about the pictures – but don’t forget that there is often no right answer. A question may just be provided to spark the imagination and help learners access higher levels of thinking, such as evaluating or creating their own opinions.
* In groups, ask learners to point out the images that show the main topics, such as animals or habitats, and comment about each.
* Follow up with learners sharing their ideas with the rest of the class, giving plenty of time for further discussion.
After reading * Create a display based on the topic, where learners write captions using pre-taught language structures. Give students images of topics that inspire their writing.
* Create a fact file book: ask learners to complete a fact file about the topics. Create a glossary of words for the fact file, expecting learners to use some of the pre-taught language structures and the key vocabulary from their glossary. Put the fact file sheets together into the class book.
* Make a class poem book: ask learners to complete a poem, using the topic language structures and words. Learners can also illustrate their poem. Put the poem sheets together into the class book.

In addition, consider the access learners have to higher-order thinking when developing their reading skills. We can use Bloom’s taxonomy to help us focus on the cognitive goals of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, which are used for more complex and ‘higher’ levels of thinking, in contrast to questions that ask for knowledge, comprehension and application, which demand less complex and therefore ‘lower’ levels of thinking (Fisher, 2005). Consider creating Bloom’s taxonomy ladders as a tool to engage and challenge your learners, with questions phrased in such a way as to make reading non-fiction texts more interactive. The resource attached is a sample of levelled questions that you can adapt and use in your classroom.



Brewster, J., Ellis, G., and Girard, D. (2002). The Primary English Teacher’s Guide. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Fisher, R (2005). Teaching Children to Learn. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Linse, C (2009). What about nonfiction? IATEFL Young Learner and Teenager Special Interest Group Publication 2009-1.

Washbourne, A (2011). EAL Pocketbook: Tools and Techniques to Create Inclusive Learning Environments and Lessons for Students with English as an Additional Langauge. Alresford: Teachers’ Pocket.

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