In 2000, I published a study documenting that a mere 3.6 minutes per day of instructional time in first-grade classrooms involved informational text. This helped fuel the argument several colleagues and I had been making for greater attention to informational text in elementary education. In the decade that followed, informational text did receive more attention in publishing, but less than we’d hoped for in classroom practice.
Then along came the Common Core State Standards, which expect a large proportion of students’ reading and writing to center on informational text. An exciting shift? Definitely. However, in the rush to implement more informational text in the classroom, a lot of instructional mistakes and misconceptions are happening, including teachers handing students difficult books on topics that may or may not be of interest to them and requiring students to write essays without authentic purposes.
Enter project-based instruction. Because it is so well suited to teaching informational reading and writing, it may help us avoid many of these pitfalls. Using this approach, students work over an extended period to build or create something, to respond to a question they have, or to address a real need. Projects typically involve a great deal of reading and writing, as well as developing content knowledge. Creating a guidebook for a nature preserve, for instance, would build skills and content knowledge in science and social studies, as well as develop students’ ability to read and write informative/explanatory text.
You can incorporate many effective practices, such as teaching comprehension or writing strategies, into project-based instruction. You can also address a range of literacy standards and so-called 21st-century skills, including creativity and innovation. And research increasingly shows that project-based approaches have positive impacts not only on academic achievement but also on self-efficacy, engagement, and motivation.
Projects typically involve both reading and writing, so project-based instruction can be placed in a reading, writing, or literacy block. Or it can be situated in science or social studies instruction. Another option is to set aside time specifically for project-based instruction. Projects can vary in length; many of those I’ve worked on require 15 to 20 sessions to complete. I recommend a three-part session structure that includes a whole-class lesson (10–15 minutes); small-group, partner, and/or individual work (25–30 minutes); and a whole-class wrap-up (5 minutes).
When projects require students to write informational text, I suggest five phases of instruction. To give you an idea of what a project looks like from start to finish, I’ve used the example of a second-grade project called Super Cool Science Show and Handouts.
The Project Launch
In a Nutshell: Students learn the purpose, text type, and audience for the project.
Making It Effective: Whether the project is student or teacher generated, the launch drives the energy and enthusiasm that keep students engaged in learning throughout the unit. Make sure there is an authentic, thoughtful matching of the final project format, the purpose of the project, and the audience.
Use launch texts to answer What is the problem, need, opportunity, or question we want to address? and To whom will we target our project? These high-interest texts can take many forms, including news articles and videos.
Example: For the Super Cool Science Show unit, you might introduce second graders to a launch text by describing simple science investigations that reveal fascinating phenomena, such as rice on a taut piece of plastic wrap “dancing” to vibrations from a nearby speaker.
After sharing and discussing the text, students can work in groups to conduct one of the science investigations they learned about. Take the opportunity to launch the project by asking the class what they think about putting on a Super Cool Science Show for a class of first graders. Students can perform amazing investigations for the younger children. When the show is over, students will give the first graders a handout they’ve written explaining how to do the investigation they demonstrated. A buzz of enthusiasm is likely to circulate as your students discuss the investigations they might choose. The project is launched!
Reading and Research
In a Nutshell: Students gather information and build necessary background knowledge for the project, while developing their informational reading skills.
Making It Effective: At its heart, the Reading and Research phase is about texts—texts that students locate, evaluate, skim, read, synthesize, and apply to the project. To support this work, students need specific knowledge and skills. During this phase, you will teach comprehension strategies, identification and use of text structures, identification and use of graphics and text features, vocabulary, and more. To teach these lessons, you can use source texts (articles, book excerpts, photographs, videos, interviews, and so on) that you or your students find.
Example: In the science show project, devote some sessions to comparing notes after an investigation and researching why a particular phenomenon happens, using both print and digital texts. Students will get valuable exposure to informational texts, as well as build important content knowledge about science investigations.
Writing and Research
In a Nutshell: Students plan and draft their projects, conducting additional research as needed.
Making It Effective: During these sessions, you can teach specific strategies that support students’ writing development. You can use mentor or model texts—texts of the same genre and written in a similar style to students’ final projects but on a different topic—to develop genre and craft knowledge.
Example: In the science show unit, you can start the Writing and Research phase by modeling how to draft a procedural or how-to text. You might use a mentor text of procedures for investigations (different from the one students will write about) to guide a review of procedural text features. From there, students can jump into drafting their own investigations for their first-grade audience.
Revision and Editing
In a Nutshell: Students refine projects using revision and editing strategies.
Making It Effective: Once students have a final draft, the instructional focus turns to helping them use multiple strategies to revise and edit, as well as giving, receiving, and incorporating feedback on their writing.
Example: During the science show project, students can ask peers to offer feedback on their drafts through a form that asks questions such as Does the draft have all materials listed in order? Students can refer to those forms and revise based on classmates’ feedback. In another lesson, an expert who knows the audience well might offer feedback—in this case, the teacher of the first-grade class. After students are done revising, they can use tools such as an editing checklist to review spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, before producing a final copy of their handouts for the show.
Presentation and Celebration
In a Nutshell: Students deliver the final product to the intended audience.
Making It Effective: During the last session of a unit, students can take the final product to the audience, invite the audience to the classroom, or send out the product using traditional mail or e-mail. However the final product is delivered, it is important to create a ceremony to celebrate what students have accomplished.
Example: To culminate the science unit, your class can invite younger students to their Super Cool Science Show, where they will begin by distributing copies of their procedural handouts to the audience. Students might present one investigation at a time for the entire audience, or you may have students at different tables present investigations simultaneously. For feedback, invite the younger students to ask questions and urge their teacher to discuss the show with them the next day and send feedback to your students.
In my 20 years of researching how children learn to read and write informational texts, I have become convinced that a project-based approach is the best overall framework for teaching literacy skills for informational text. I challenge you to start by developing and teaching just one project-based unit. Even with the wrinkles that come with teaching something for the first time, I believe teaching one unit like this will convince you that it’s an effective, compelling, and invigorating way to teach students to read and write informational text.
Nell K. Duke, Ed.D., is a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan. Duke’s award-winning research focuses on early literacy development. Her areas of expertise include informational text and issues of equity in literacy education. Duke is the author and coauthor of numerous journal articles, professional books, and resources, including Inside Information: Developing Powerful Readers and Writers of Informational Text Through Project-Based Instruction (Scholastic, 2014).
Photos: Hero Images/Corbis