At Highland Park Elementary School in Grove City, Ohio, the fourth-grade classrooms were abuzz with activity as students conducted research for the informational books they were writing. As they worked, I noticed two boys, Jason and Jamie, poring over an informational book about snakes. They pointed at a section of text, laughed, and read the text again. Then they jumped up from their seats, making a beeline for the closest available adult — me! Jason pulled on my sleeve, totally unconcerned with the fact that I was a visitor in his classroom. He pointed again to the text and announced triumphantly “Snakes used to have feet! I´m going to put that in my book!”
Informational trade books, which address a dazzling array of topics and effectively complement content-area textbooks, capitalize on children´s curiosity and can interest even our most reluctant readers. Why is it important for even our youngest students to experience the expository text found in informational trade books? Consider these facts:
- When students explore real-world topics that interest them-whether skeletons, trains, or ballet dancing-they read more deeply and retain more information.
- Between 50 and 80 percent of all standardized test content is expository, or informative-type text.
- Ninety-six percent of text that appears on Internet web sites is expository (Kamil & Lane, 1998).
- By sixth grade more than 75 percent of a student´s school reading demands involve non-narrative materials. In fact, most of what adults read on the job, and off, is informational text (Venezky, 2000).
Writing Information Texts With Students: Three Approaches
When we link reading and writing we help students engage more with texts. Studies have shown that kids have better recall of key ideas and deepen their thinking, asking higher-level questions of the text and themselves (Tierney & Shanahan, 1996).
Here are three proven and learning-rich approaches that can help scaffold students as they create their own informational texts: text innovations, written retellings, and “just-like” books. The first, text innovations, is perhaps the easiest. With this method, the teacher provides a template for student use. With a written retelling, students rewrite their own version of a text, recalling as many details as they can. With a “just-like” book, students study the format of an informational book and use it as a model to create an original book on a subject of their own choosing.
As students create text innovations, recall texts through retellings, and follow the format to create their own informational books, they gradually gain greater control over expositional text and greater confidence in writing expository text.
Approach One: Text Innovations
Then, model for students whole-class writing that involves completing a frame to create an innovation on a particular text. For example, the simple first-grade title Now and Then, by Faridah Yusof, uses a compare and contrast pattern. After reading or hearing the book read several times, students can use their own ideas to fill in the frames, draw pictures next to each statement, and make the book their own. For example, one spread of two pages might read:
In the nineteenth century, people crossed the ocean by _______.
Now, we cross the ocean by _______.
As children become comfortable with the idea of text innovation, gradually require students to supply more and more words in the frame.
Approach Two: Written Retellings
1. Immerse students in text that will be retold through shared book experiences, read alouds, oral retellings, and so on.
2. Read the text aloud several times. Model a written retelling with the group. Prompt students by saying “What happened first? Next? Then? After that? Record answers on sentence strips and arrange sequentially on the white board. Model “text lookbacks,” or quick reviews of the text for forgotten details.
3. Now provide students with their own copies of an easy informational trade book. Read the text aloud as students follow along. Let students re-read the text, jotting notes or creating visual organizers. They then write their retellings.
4. Last, invite students to share their books and talk about their similarities and differences.
Approach Three: "Just-Like" Books
Writing informational trade books can provide interesting alternatives to traditional report formats. Here´s how it works: Students conduct research on a topic of interest and combine their own research with format ideas provided by a published trade book. For example, one fourth-grade teacher wanted her students to learn how to write steps in a sequence. Students brainstormed topic ideas and reviewed books like How a Book Is Made, by Aliki, and How Is A Crayon Made?, by Charles Oz. They then wrote and illustrated their own books with titles like “How to Hit A Baseball,” “How to Ride Motocross,” and “How to Make a PiÃ±ata.”
“Just-Like” Books Step-by-Step:
1. Help students identify interesting topics for their own books. Guide students as they engage in the research process. They can locate library and Internet resources, take notes, and organize information using webs and other rubrics.
2. Give students time to read and review texts that model different formats.
3. After students create rough drafts of their books, conduct writing conferences with students, helping them to edit their work and create engaging book designs.
4. Involve students in writing, illustrating, and binding their books. Then share the books by having an all-class read-aloud. Invite the proud parents if possible.