Saturday, February 3, 2018

Getting to “I GET IT!”: Scaffolding in Nonfiction, Part 2

Here's a continuation of yesterday's post by editor Alyssa Mito Pusey about scaffoldinga nonfiction craft move that doesn't get as much attention as it should. Once again, thank you, Alyssa.

MIND THE GAP: Build a progression of ideas
As a writer, your job is to get kids from Point A to Point B—from their prior knowledge to that big new idea. I find it helps to start by thinking about Point B. Try summing up the concept in a single phrase. Then identify the information the reader needs to understand the concept—and make sure all the building blocks are there in your writing. One easy way to test this is to read the text sentence by sentence, preferably aloud. Does each sentence connect to the one before? Can you easily follow the progression of ideas? Are there any gaps?
In Super Gear, Jennifer Swanson tackles the science of nanotechnology. On page 7, she deftly employs scaffolding to explain why nanomaterials have a large surface area.
—First, she clearly defines the term surface area, in case it’s new to her readers.  
—Next, she uses an everyday example (a potato being cut into french fries) to shows how surface area increases as the potato is cut into smaller and smaller pieces.
—She then forges a connection between this example and nanoparticles, which are like billions and billions of ultra-small potato pieces.
—Finally, she describes how these billions of pieces give the nanomaterial a much greater surface area than that of a regular substance.
Jennifer’s precisely worded steps are like building blocks, which are placed one atop the other to gradually build a reader’s understanding of the concept.
SHED LIGHT: Make illuminating comparisons
We all know the illuminating power of a good comparison. It can cause a light bulb to go off for the reader. (There’s a tried and true metaphor right there.) But not all comparisons are equally effective. It’s easy for a simile or metaphor to be so tried and true (like the light bulb) that it’s boring. An analogy can be belabored—so elaborate that it’s difficult to follow. Mixed metaphors can be confusing.

One master of comparisons is Melissa Stewart. In Feathers: Not Just for Flying, she starts with simple similes: “Feathers can warm like a blanket . . . or cushion like a pillow.” Shen then expands to unexpected comparisons, likening feathers to umbrellas and sunscreen, backhoes and forklifts. Each comparison is clear in both text and art; the reader instantly makes the connection. The simile leads the reader to a concrete understanding of the concept, triggering an “Aha!” moment. Best of all, the comparisons surprise and delight—individually and collectively. Who knew that feathers served so many different purposes?
Scaffolding like this can help kids develop a deep understanding of a complex concept. And if you can help convey just one big, important idea, then you’ve given your readers a gift for life.

Remember yesterday's post, when my son asked me about the Big Bang? After briefly panicking, I recalled a beautifully scaffolded picture book I once edited, took a deep breath, and dove in. “Well, thirteen billion years ago . . .”

Alyssa Mito Pusey is a senior editor at Charlesbridge, specializing in nonfiction for children.
Credits: Super Gear: Left image copyright © by Deep OV/; right image copyright © by Binh Thanh Bui/; Feathers: Text copyright © 2014 by Melissa Stewart; illustrations copyright © 2014 by Sarah S. Brannen


  1. Great post, Alyssa & Melissa. I especially like making comparisons to things kids already know. Thank you for the reminders.

  2. Very helpful! Great post - thank you!

  3. I love using analogies too, and Feathers is a wonderful example of that :)!