Nonfiction Book Reviews: Scaffolding Biographies with Secondary Readers

Teachers already know that students dislike reading non-fiction, and biographies seem especially tough for kids. In this blog post, I'm sharing a few tips for scaffolding biographies for secondary readers to make them more accessible and enjoyable.
I've got biography on the brain this spring - mostly because my eighth graders just finished doing research on the lives of their Confirmation saints, and the seventh graders are wrapping up their Living Wax Museum projects.

But more importantly, my co-teacher and I require students to read biographies as part of their independent reading, and it's a bummer when we see them choose books that are far too easy for them.

(You know, the dreaded Big Head Biography books... which have their place, but students like to "stall" in these instead of progressing to other books.)

You already know my theories on why students don't appreciate non-fiction enough, and you know that I'm attempting to recommend good non-fiction titles.

So if your students also struggle with getting through biographies, here are some great titles to scaffold their endurance up to a secondary grade level:

#1: Start with short, highly visual anthologies.
For low-level or reluctant readers, start with something that will feel quick and easy, even if it's not actually fluff.

I really like Superstars of History because it is fact-dense but is in web form instead of full paragraphs, so it's a quick read.

Superstars of History
Click for Amazon
#2: Move to longer anthologies
Less visuals, more text, still easy to digest. Try titles like...

...favorite fiction writer's Jane Yolen's stab at non-fiction...
Bad Girls by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple
Click for Amazon
... or Scholastic's "10 True Tales" series, which is often war or action oriented:

10 True Tales: Heroes of 9/11
Click for Amazon
#3: Upgrade to short, single-person titles
Okay, so here's the hard part. A lot of new non-fiction targeted to students is harder than it looks. Sometimes it's short but REALLY dense, or looks long but is so full of pictures that it's actually easier.

Here's a tip: during this phase, let students abandon books they don't like, and figure out what they can tolerate. Try this book first to gauge if you need to go "up" or "down" from here:

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Click for Amazon
#4: Invest in tougher individuals
...BUT, make sure that the first "long" biography a student reads is still an appropriate length and about someone the student cares about. This new level of difficulty needs to be a POSITIVE experience, or students won't ever want to do it again, and this whole ladder of books will have been less meaningful.

(Don't hand a student Walter Isaacson's biography about Steve Jobs too soon, even if the student wants to read about Jobs. I actually like the one below better...)

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different
Click for Amazon
....OR, if you aren't SURE if your students are ready for more adult biographies, why not tackle a class read together, splitting up the "work"? Try my Chapter Study Guides/During Reading activity for Non-Fiction books, in which students each take a chapter and present it to the class.

Want more help bringing in consistent non-fiction in an independent reading program next year? Try my non-fiction Book of the Month program for middle school (which can also be adapted for high school).

See you next month with another non-fiction book review!

No comments

Back to Top