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Introducing Students to the Anatomy of Nonfiction Books

When students understand the various parts of nonfiction texts, they’re more prepared for college or work after high school.

August 19, 2021
High school teacher with book in front of class
FangXiaNuo / iStock

Today’s high school students, often called “digital natives,” generally feel comfortable navigating the internet or learning a new app. On the other hand, these same students may have less familiarity using physical nonfiction books. Many teachers grew up around books and may not realize that students don’t share the same level of proficiency navigating nonfiction texts.

Students will need to be able to use books for research and academic assignments, especially if they plan on college. By teaching the parts of a book, educators can help students become more efficient at reading nonfiction texts.

Hand a student a scholarly book, and two questions pop into their head or out of their mouths: Isn’t this online, and do I have to read the whole thing?

The answer to both questions is “not necessarily.”

Teaching students the anatomy of a book is a lesson that will serve them well in the entirety of their academic and professional careers for several reasons:

  • Not everything is digitized. In college, students may have to enter the library stacks for research.
  • Books have information that the internet doesn’t always provide.
  • Learning how to use a book for research and academic work will help students work smarter and not necessarily harder in any number of professions.
  • Students who prefer hard-copy books cannot search for a term or word with the click of a button and need to know how to expeditiously find information.

Teaching the Anatomy of a Book

Review the anatomy of a book with your class. I have found including this lesson before a writing or research project to be most beneficial. Students then feel there is a relevant purpose to learning about the parts of a book, and they can employ what they have learned when starting the assignment.

In a brief lecture, I have covered the following: title page, edition notice or copyright page, table of contents, appendices, notes, bibliography, index, and author’s bio. This lecture typically takes the form of a PowerPoint with images of each part of the book.

Give a quiz on the material after the lesson, when the material is still fresh in the students’ minds. The assessment can be straightforward with multiple-choice, true-or-false, and fill-in-the-blank questions that fall under the Webb’s Depth of Knowledge level 1 category. Some examples:

  • Where might I find out the author’s credentials?
  • If I wanted to know the titles of each chapter, which section of the book might I want to read?
  • Which section of the book would give me information on what edition I am using?
  • If I wanted to discover the page numbers on which a term or name was located, what section would I want to flip to?

Handing out books to the class may seem overly simplistic, but students sometimes have little experience with nonfiction, hard-copy books (besides, maybe, textbooks). Some students might even be a bit intimidated by what seems to them a dense and daunting publication.

Ask students to make a quiz on their book that features questions concerning the anatomy of a book. Instead of generic answers, these questions would ask for specific information (e.g., “David McCullough,” “page 82,” or “Harvard University Press”). Here are some possible questions you might encourage kids to ask on the quiz they make.

  • Where would you find this specific topic? (using the index)
  • Who publishes the book? (edition notice or copyright page)
  • What is the author’s name? (title page or cover)
  • What is one source the author used? (bibliography)
  • What is the name of Chapter 7? (table of contents)

Then have students pair up and switch their book and quiz with another student. Each student takes their partner’s quiz using the book on which the quiz is based.

Using Books for Research

Once the students understand the parts of a book, explain how this knowledge can make research, paper writing, and other assignments easier and quicker. Stress, for instance, that they don’t have to read the whole book.

Demonstrate how the index and table of contents can help students pinpoint relevant information. Maybe students need only read a chapter or a few pages to extract what they need.

Remind your class that the bibliography, footnotes, and endnotes are gateways to further research—in many instances, their work is done for them. Consider requiring students to add a codex to their paper or research assignment in which they list several sources from the bibliography of a book they used that might help them conduct further research. This will compel students to comb the footnotes, endnotes, references, and bibliography.

Teaming Up With the Library

Often the best resource for teaching these types of skills is the library. Bring your class down to the library and have the librarian or information specialist go over this information.

When I was a high school librarian, I brought my students to a nearby college library. There, the librarians showed my students valuable ways to use books for research. They even had handouts that mirrored my lessons on the anatomy of a book.

Your librarian might have good ideas and resources for teaching students the parts of a book and how to effectively use these parts (games, group work, etc.).

A Lifelong Skill

Whether graduating students go into the workforce or postsecondary education, they will need to know the parts of a book.

Professors may require the use of books for papers and research projects. Knowing how to identify relevant information from print sources in a timely fashion will benefit students immensely, allowing them to reduce the amount of time necessary to complete assignments.

Many other students will enter the workforce, where they will have to locate information in manuals, policy booklets, and handbooks, sometimes hundreds of pages long but often structured in the same way as a book.

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