While early writers are often eager to write fiction stories, they usually need a bit more guidance when it comes time to writing nonfiction work. A good entry point is how-to books. A how-to book, like the name implies, gives detailed step-by-step directions on how to accomplish a task. The tasks can vary by interest and level. Young writers should stick to simple tasks, such as “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” or “How to Tie Your Shoes” while older writers can take on more complicated tasks such as “How to Knit a Scarf” or “How to Dunk a Basketball.”
As in most writing projects, it’s best to start by having your child explore mentor texts. Ask your child’s teacher or a librarian for some examples of how-to books that your child can study at home. Read over the books together and discuss what makes a good how-to book. Be sure to talk about the importance of specific, clear directions. Children should also note that the directions are often provided along with detailed pictures of each step. Many how-to books number their steps as well.
Once you’ve had a chance to explore how-to books with your child and identify the qualities of such books, it’s time for your child to pick something he’d like to write about. As with most writing, your child will be most engaged in the process if he picks the topic on his own, instead of it being assigned. Help him think of things he’s good at doing, things that come easy to him. For younger writers, encourage your child to pick something that doesn’t have too many steps. Older writers could be encouraged to pick more complex tasks.
To get started with the writing, ask your child to carefully think of each step required to complete the chosen task. This is often when your child will need your help. It’s very common for children to skip some obvious steps. For example, if a child is writing the steps to making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich she may write, “1.) Get out of the bread. 2.) Put peanut butter on the bread. 3.)Put jelly on the bread. 4.) Eat the sandwich.” If you look at those directions more closely, the writer isn’t being as specific as she could be. For example, she didn’t explain how to put the peanut butter or jelly on the bread. She also skipped the step about putting the two slices of bread together to form the sandwich. An improved example would be, “1.) Take out two slices of bread. 2.) Use a knife to spread peanut butter on one slice of bread. 3.) Use a knife to spread jelly on the other slice of bread. 4.) Put the two slices together with the peanut butter and jelly facing in. 5.) Eat the sandwich.”
When your child has completed writing the steps, test it out with him. Follow each step literally and see if you can accomplish the task. Often this exercise will lead your child to realize he wasn’t specific enough or that he skipped a step. (For example, in our first peanut butter and jelly example, you wouldn’t put the slices together because the directions didn’t say so.) Be very literal at this stage so as to catch any problems.
Once the steps are all completed, encourage your child to make a book. She should write the steps carefully, one on each page, and then make a detailed drawing to accompany each step. Allow time for your child to color in the drawings to make it look more professional.
How-to books work at any level, and are great practice for this specific type of nonfiction writing. The topics are endless, as is the fun of this experience.