Friday, February 2, 2018

Getting to “I GET IT!”: Scaffolding in Nonfiction, Part 1

Today, I am excited to feature the first of two posts by editor Alyssa Mito Pusey about scaffoldinga nonfiction craft move that doesn't get as much attention as it should. Thank you, Alyssa.

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. I'll  discuss two today, and then two more tomorrow.
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 level 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 Food, Grace 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.

Come back tomorrow for two more tactics.  

Credits: 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


  1. Thanks, Alyssa! Off to read part deux now. Love the whole idea of scaffolding. Hadn't thought of it that way before (at least not consciously).:)

  2. Thank you for breaking it down so clearly! Great reminders

  3. Great reminders, perfectly broken-down! Thank you.
    Sharon Eberhardt