Why do we sneeze? How does a shark swim? How do blimps stay in the air? Young children have so many questions about the world around them, and reading informational books is one of the best ways for them to find answers. While many young children, both boys and girls, choose informational texts as their favorite type of book, a surprising number of teachers go straight to the storybook shelf at read-aloud time.
When it comes to shared reading and read alouds, many teachers simply don't think of informational texts, especially in the younger grades. However, education researchers and teaching professionals are increasingly realizing that using informational texts in the primary classroom is a key to student success on standardized texts, in later schooling, and beyond.
What Are Informational Texts?
Informational texts are texts that convey information about the natural world (such as fact books about snakes or trees) or the social world (such as books about building bridges or holiday customs). While the terms “informational text” and “nonfiction” are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same. In my view, informational text is a subcategory or type of nonfiction. Other types of nonfiction include biographies, “how-to” books, and nonfiction narratives.
The Case for Informational Texts
Informational texts are truly scarce in many primary classrooms. In one study that I conducted in first-grade classrooms in the Boston area, classes spent an average of only 3.6 minutes a day with informational texts. Classrooms in low socio-economic status districts spent even less: 1.4 minutes per day on average (Duke, 2000). (See Professional Texts Cited.) The reasons are many. Teachers know that storybooks with strong plot and characters have long proven successful at engaging young readers. Some teachers may think informational text is too difficult, not developmentally appropriate, or that the “right” books will be hard to find.
But interest in teaching nonfiction is growing. Children's book publishers are adding more nonfiction titles to their lists, for even the youngest readers. And the classroom research is beginning to show that there are compelling reasons for bringing more informational text into the primary classroom. Here are just a few:
It's a key to success. Students encounter more textbooks and other forms of informational texts as they move through the grades. The tests they take contain increasingly difficult informational text. If we include more of this type of text early on, we put children in a better position to handle the reading and writing demands of their later schooling. Children need to “learn to read” and “read to learn” from the start.
It's everywhere. Studies have shown that the great majority of what adults read (for work and pleasure) is nonfiction (e.g., Venezky, 1982; Smith, 2000). This is not likely to change and, in fact, in our increasingly information-based economy, it may only increase. For example, 96 percent of text found on the Web is informational text (Kamil & Lane, 1998). To prepare children for this world, we need to be serious about teaching them to read and write informational text.
Many children love it. Different children have different reading preferences. For those kids who prefer it, including more informational text throughout the school day may improve attitudes toward reading, and even serve as a catalyst for overall literacy development. Mary Ellen Moffitt, a first-grade teacher I have worked with, commented, “Some of my kids who were the most excited about reading informational texts are some of my nonreaders. When I pull out one of the informational text Big Books, their faces light up....”
Why Read It Aloud?
Is it “storytime” or “read aloud” time? Is it the next “story” or the next “selection”? Are the children's writings called “stories” or “texts”? It is amazing how much narrative text and its terminology dominates primary classrooms. Using informational text requires new ways of thinking about read alouds and new strategies for reading to and with students. However, research shows that the time invested in this is well spent. Here are some reasons why:
Informational text builds literacy skills. When children read and listen to informational books regularly, they begin to understand the language used in them and how they are organized. This new learning is often visible in students' writing.
In a study of kindergarten children, teacher-researcher Jane Kays and I looked at the way her kindergartners interact with information books. We first asked the children to pretend to read an information book-to look at the pictures and supply their own words-early in the year, and then asked them to pretend to read it again three months later, in December. In the meantime, Kays read aloud information books as well as storybooks every day.
When we looked at the kindergartners' pretend readings in December, it was clear that the children knew what to expect from an information book. Their readings increasingly reflected the language features and conventions of information books, such as using the present tense to convey timelessness. For example, when one child “read” the book in September, she labeled and described the pictures: “tree, house, car, bell.” In contrast, her second reading began: “First people call the firefighter and the firefighters come.” She talked about what firefighters do, in a general and timeless way.
Informational text builds knowledge. Children not only learn language from information book read alouds, they learn content as well. Our study found evidence of this in children's journals. For example, after hearing Potato by Barrie Watts (Silver Burdett, 1990) read aloud, one child drew a potato plant sprouting and was able to describe the process in detail. Another child showed an understanding of the segmented structure of earthworms' bodies through a drawing in his journal after hearing Earthworm (Creative Editions, 1993). This indicates that when children listen to information books read aloud, they remember and incorporate new knowledge about the world.
Read-Aloud Strategies to Try
The key to successful read alouds of informational text is a great deal of talk about the text. In the read-aloud excerpt above (One Teacher's Approach), first-grade teacher Mary Ellen Moffitt exhibits many of these strategies. She regularly stops to ask questions, make comments, and lead discussion. Following her lead, children frequently pose questions, offer comments, and engage in discussion during read aloud and shared reading. Here are some strategies to consider:
Preview the text. Before reading it with your class, examine the text carefully. Think about a theme that will serve as a starting point. Anticipate the class conversation. What kinds of questions might your students have? Which pictures or facts are sure to interest them? What difficulties might they encounter with the text?
Make connections outside the text. As you read a text, use questions and discussion to help your students connect the reading material with what they already know. Encourage children to make text-to-text connections, text-to-self connections, and text-to-world connections (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997).
Use lower- and higher-level questions. As you read, stop to ask your students questions that allow them to restate the text in their own words. But also activate higher-level thinking by asking questions that push them to draw conclusions or make inferences. Asking more higher-level questions has been shown to be successful in helping students with low literacy to make comprehension gains.
Explore opportunities to learn new words. Technical vocabulary can be particularly challenging. In the read-aloud excerpt above, the class explored the words furnace and narrower. Follow up by adding the words to your class word wall or vocabulary list.
Be responsive to student contributions. Have an initial plan and maintain the focus and coherence of the reading and discussion, but be responsive to students' questions and observations. They provide wonderful opportunities for investigation.
Looking to the Future
Expanding your use of informational text can add a new and exciting dimension to your classroom inquiry. Diversifying the genres you read with your students — as well as the genres of the print on the walls, the texts in your classroom library, and the texts students write — can make for a richer learning experience. For a few children, using more informational text may even help them to discover their own love of reading, and send their lives on a new course.
Reading First, the national initiative established to help every child in America to become a successful reader, is shaping some of the curriculum decisions in many, if not most, schools across the country. Reading First legislation supports research-based practices in five key areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. In this feature, one of three Reading First articles originally published in our November/December 2003 issue, Instructor offers powerful, research-based practices that we hope will help every child in your classroom to read and to succeed.