A fresh look at non-fiction from OUP

OUP's (Oxford University Press) recently-launched TreeTops inFact series brings 35 non-fiction titles to its existing TreeTops scheme for primary readers. We asked teachers and librarians to review the series for us.

It's always good to see non fiction given some fresh attention. OUP's TreeTops scheme, which aims to encourage independent reading and reading for pleasure, already includes non-fiction titles as well as fiction and graphic novels but the new inFact strand brings a fresh look to non-fiction and introduces new curriculum-matched topics to the series, including books about history, art, geography and science.

The themes covered in the inFact series ranges from fashion and art to weather and Darwin, and the books are leveled to match the Oxford levels. The series is aimed at Years 3 to 6 / Primary 4 to 7.

The inFact series is edited by Greg Foot, a Wellcome Trust fellow and science presenter on TV programmes such as Blue Peter, who has made a name for himself explaining complex concepts to children in an accessible and entertaining way.

Wide appeal to readers

Primary and secondary teachers and librarians have been 'road testing' some of the new TreeTops inFact titles for ReadingZone and have found that the books appeal to a broad spectrum of readers and could support a range of activities in the classroom, including topic-based work as well as independent and guided reading. The books can also be used as home readers.

Sarah Radakovic, a primary teacher and a librarian, felt that the inFact books would appeal to both reluctant and able readers. "The content is interesting and would appeal to readers of different ages," she says. "They would be suitable to use with children according to their reading ability rather than their chronological age."

A number of features in the layout, including broken-down text, lots of pictures, information boxes and interactive sections, give the books their appeal, and there are supporting features such as the help given in pronouncing unusual words, "something that can put children off reading in depth", Radakovic adds.

The series will also find a place in the school library says Dawn Woods, a specialist schools librarian. "Each book includes a contents page, a glossary and an index, with increasing detail for more fluent readers, so they all stand up as a reference book." She also liked features such as the quiz at the start of each book, encouraging children to read on to find out the answers, and suggestions for further titles on the same level for children to look out for.

Reading specialist Camilla de la Bedoyere liked the range of topics and the strong titles given to each book. "A strong title is essential for children's non-fiction - if it's boring even competent readers won't give a book a second glance," she explains. "Complex language and concepts, presented in an uninspiring format, also put readers off. So a series, like this one - with its colourful, well-designed layout, interesting titles and a range of topics - is always welcome."

In terms of readership, the inFact series is targeted at Key Stage 2 primary school readers although some of the highest level books in the series (Book Band Red/Oxford Levels 17-20) could also be used with pupils further up the age range in KS3 says de la Bedoyere.

Using the inFact books in class

The topics covered in the inFact books are linked to the new curriculum and our reviewers felt there is scope to use them in a variety of ways in the classroom, in particular with topic and research-based work and especially when working with groups of children of differing abilities.

Individual titles can inspire different ways of working around the curriculum. Radakovic points to the Myths and Legends Kit, a genre commonly taught in year 5. She says, "In class I would probably have it as part of a topic box. It might also be possible to use the book as a writing stimulus whereby the children could use the formula described in the book as a way of generating ideas for their own myth."

Meanwhile, The Misadventures of Charles Darwin by Isabel Thomas and Pete Williamson (illustrator), could be used to inspire work around social media, says Woods. "This is an accessible biography of Charles Darwin that also emphasises the importance of his discoveries in the context of the time; children will not necessarily be aware of the controversy Darwin's theory caused." Had Darwin been alive today, the author suggests he'd have loved social media. This could be used to encourage children to write blogs or tweets from Darwin during his voyage, suggests Woods.

Another title, The Story of Our Lives by Sue Graves, links the family history of the Hancock family from Liverpool to historical events over the past 100 or so years and could be used as a way into exploring history including local history says teacher Sue Wilsher. "This is a very attractive book, cleverly combining family pictures and artefacts with photos of world events." A time line at the foot of each double spread, showing the chronology of events, is useful.

She adds, "This text would be particularly useful for guided reading as it offers plenty of opportunities for discussion, exploring the features and style of a non-fiction text and independent tasks. It could also be used as a way into exploring history with a class using a similar model - perhaps for local study. Touching on events in this way, the book is a great starting point for further research."

The cross-curriculum signposts and suggested activities on the covers of the books are useful says de la Bedoyer and, with a bit of preparation, others could be easily organised. "Mayan Mysteries, for example, mentions glyphs and a mathematical system using base 20 and children would enjoy practical work around these topics." Other potential activities include scanning and skimming for facts, creating quizzes, posters or preparing team presentations on certain topics within the books, she adds.

Books for home

Many of the inFact titles could support independent reading in the class but our reviewers also felt they would work well as home readers. Woods says, "These books would be ideal for children who prefer non-fiction to Biff and Kipper travelling through time with their magic key. As a parent I would have been pleased for my child to have brought home one of these titles and to read it with them as they have the right amount of information for non-specialists to digest as a bedtime read."

A great classroom resource

With the variety of topics covered and their appeal to a broad range of readers, the TreeTops inFact books scored highly with our reviewers. At a time when non-fiction is often overlooked in our classrooms and school libraries, it is good to be reminded how inspiring well-crafted non-fiction texts can be for both teaching and for individual readers.

A fresh look at non-fiction from OUP
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