GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Tosh McGaughy
Building background knowledge. Increasing academic vocabulary. Growing text analysis skills. All of these common goals of literacy teachers are readily and complexly taught with informational texts. As fundamental as we all know that rigorous informational reading is for our learning readers and writers, no other genre is quite so easy to push aside for the more glamorous and engaging texts of just about every other genre. With an academic focus on college and career readiness, state education agencies and universities across the country are also advocating for more informational reading. For example, my state is in the process of revising our state language arts tests to include reading passages that are aligned to science and social studies standards. And, the sophisticated reading passages on the current Reading SAT include two History/Social Studies passages, two Science passages, and only 1 literature passage while the text types in the Writing section of the SAT are argument, informational text, and nonfiction narrative.
Thinking about backwards design from what and how students are assessed on their reading comprehension skills, intentional and spiraled engagement with a variety of informational texts in our Readers Writers workshop classrooms (and in every other content area) must become a standard practice. Connecting the reading skill to the writing skill is how workshop teachers can anchor the informational reading skills to real-world relevance. Providing plentiful mentor texts and examples is crucial, but to keep the texts current and relevant, teachers have to be constantly searching out different informational texts to put in front of students.
Hindsight is 20/20. I was fortunate enough to teach ELAR to my own daughter in 7th grade. (If you know 7th grade girls, you probably can imagine some of the challenges that year posed for me, personally and professionally.) Charlotte and her classmates wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. There was a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories. As I reflect, I wish now that I had pushed her to read more complex informational texts because her ability to write a lovely sonnet did not help her at all when she tried to decipher her first apartment lease nor was it the type of writing she is required to do often in her degree or in her job search as a college senior. By focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.
I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world. After a recent textbook adoption, I have been disappointed by the quality and number of these texts that the big publishers include in their traditional anthologies. I find myself searching for options to include in text sets for my teachers. Some of my “go-tos” resources are below, but I also encourage teachers to teach students to seek out their own informational texts for independent reading and as a support for their content area studies. Tapping into inquiry and research skills to find their own relevant, rich, and rigorous texts is as real-world as it gets.
A Few Resources
My state adopted new Language Arts standards recently, and I created some planning guides to help visualize how to interconnect the strands. This one starts with our inquiry & research strand as the purpose for the informational reading & writing. LINK.
And, inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s work around writing purposes, I have this reference for teachers to remember the many different real-world purposes for effective informational writing that are as far-removed from the state-tested expository essays as they can be. LINK.
Informational Text Go-tos:
Text Sets from the Masters by Gretchen Bernabei, 2016
Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard, 2013
The Quickwrite Handbook by Linda Reif, 2018
Texts & Lessons for Content Area Writing by Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke
TweenTribune by Smithsonian
Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week