Informational text: The writing on the wall
By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
From cave drawings to instant messaging, humans are uniquely wired to leave a record of our experiences. So, too, are we uniquely driven to comprehend the experiences recorded by others. In our efforts to make applicable meaning from ancient cave art, we wonder if the symbols depict a complex ritual, document rites of passage, or serve as an informative guide to the best hunting in the area (Grabianowski, 2014). We are intrinsically motivated to understand these most complex records.
As states consider next-generation, more rigorous standards, we note a heightened focus on students’ work with nonfiction and complex text. Often this is expressed as readiness for college, career, and life. As daunting as college, career, and life readiness sounds, let us explore it from this understanding: working with nonfiction and complex texts is an everyday, normal, historically grounded enterprise. Humans do this—always have, always will. It is as clear as the writing on the wall.
The focus on college, career, and life readiness requires that students have greater access to informational text as well as time and guidance in their classrooms to practice with these texts. A key concept here is the idea of practice. As Duke (2004) explains, we are “surrounded by text whose primary purpose is to convey information about the natural or social world.” Success in school and in our careers requires that we understand and respond appropriately to the information in these texts, yet many children and adults continue to struggle to own the information in informational texts. Perhaps practice is the key.
What does practice with informational and complex text look like across grade levels?
Lower grades—Practice as reading to and reading with children
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (Schickedanz & Collins, 2013) offers guidance for introducing emergent readers to informational texts. With these earliest readers, practice includes teachers reading text to children and engaging them in conversations about what they are learning.
Reading informational books and articles to, and with, developing readers builds vocabulary and develops comprehension skills. Young learners find them intriguing, and they tend to select informational texts for independent reading that have been read to them (Dreher & Dromsky, 2000). Digital resources, such as Youngzine, ABDO Publishing, and Nicknews, offer access to relevant and developmentally appropriate informational text for early readers.
Intermediate grades—Practice as building student choice
The power of informational reading gains strength through the intermediate grades as students progress from learning to read to reading to learn. According to Gambrell (2011), 40 percent of school children in the US read only what is assigned. Few read for enjoyment or to learn something of personal interest. When teachers engage children in informational reading, and make informational books and articles accessible in their classrooms, their students are more likely to develop an interest in these kinds of texts.
Middle and upper grades—Practice as engagement and motivation
According to an ACT report (2006), the clearest differentiator in reading between students who are college ready and those who are not is the ability to comprehend complex tests. Further, ACT suggests that this differentiator is the result of students’ lack of experience and practice with reading and engaging in complex texts. Reading engagement at the middle and upper grades results from the dynamic interrelationship of cognitive competence, motivation, and social engagement qualities (Guthrie & Davis, 2006). Students in these grades who lack balance in these qualities may be disengaged from reading—in particular from reading for college, career, and life readiness.
As a result, practice with informational reading must focus on engagement and motivation. In the most impactful classrooms, teachers make goals for reading each informational text explicit, and they teach strategies required to achieve those goals. Further, they provide access to “an abundance of interesting texts” based on real-world interactions. They support student choice and design practice that includes independent and collaborative work. (Guthrie & Davis, 2003). It’s not enough to know that a thesis sentence grounds an article. Students must understand that a thesis requires supporting evidence and that it is their job to find it.
And find it they will. Who knows, one may even find the definitive article that explains what all that cave art means.
As natural as it is for humans to make meaning out of informational text, engaging readers in nonfiction practice that is relevant and developmentally appropriate can be challenging for educators. If you’re already using Renaissance Accelerated Reader® to support your teaching, you’ll be excited to learn that the program, as Renaissance Accelerated Reader 360®, now does much more to help teachers encourage choice, provide built-in instructional skills practice, and gain actionable insight about students’ growth in readiness for college, career, and life.
Looking to engage students in nonfiction? Download our free eBook!
ACT (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. Retrieved from http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/reports/reading.html
Dreher, M. J., & Dromsky, A. (2000). Increasing the diversity of young children’s independent reading. Paper presented at the National Reading Conference, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Duke, N (2004). The case for informational text. Educational Leadership. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar04/vol61/num06/The-Case-for-Informational-Text.aspx
Gambrell, L. (2011). Seven rules of engagement: What’s most important to know about motivation to read. The Reading Teacher, 65(3), 172–178.
Grabianowski, E. (2008, July 1). How cave dwellers work. Retrieved from http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/cave-dweller.htm
Guthrie, J., & Davis, M. (2003). Motivating struggling readers in middle school through an engagement model of classroom practice. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 19, 59–85.
Schickedanz J., & Collins, M. (2013). Why read informational books? National Association for the Education of Young Children. So much more than the ABCs: The early phases of reading and writing (pp. 74–78). Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/books/so_much_more_than_the_abcs/excerpt