04/11/2014 | By Matthew Christiansen
“Students will continue to learn to read and develop comprehension skills for fiction texts, but the lack of preparation for the analysis of informational text looms over the heads of teachers.”
These informational texts have a singular purpose: to convey information. They differ from literary texts in that they are strictly informational; for example, a user manual, a map, and a recipe book could all be considered informational. A “nonfiction text” can be either literature or informational text, depending upon its style and intent. An informational text can be a combination of many elements, including narratives, charts, tables, memos, and maps. They often describe procedures and require re-reading for students to fully comprehend the content.
Why Informational Text?
The ability to read and interpret informational text is undeniably important. The technological demands of the twenty-first century require each of us to regularly read content that is increasingly technical and informational in nature; this shift will become more profound as technology continues to advance. Reading informational text requires a different skill set that many students are unfamiliar with, let alone are able to use effectively. By emphasizing informational text in the intermediate grades, the authors of the Common Core State Standards are attempting to build a foundation for these skills early on and build upon that foundation through the later grades.
This emphasis on informational text is nothing new. It has been at least a decade since the call was raised to increase the use of informational text as part of reading instruction. Early research indicated that students benefited from increased access to informational text in the classroom, and that parents were also motivated to read more as they shared these reading experiences with their children.
Students who are fluent readers of literary texts sometimes struggle with informational text. Although they have little problem decoding the text, they are challenged by tasks that require comprehension or analysis strategies that are unique to informational text. While these students excel in a pre-Common Core classroom, and will continue to excel as readers, they will inevitably struggle with assessments that measure the application of these strategies, as defined in the Standards.
Aligned Content and Rigorous Instruction
Some administrators and teachers are frustrated by this shift, because their current (and often expensive) pre-Common Core reading programs are teaching kids to read, in some cases with great success. Many anthologies include some nonfiction and informational text. The instruction in these programs, however, often fails to rise to the instructional demands of the Standards and will not adequately prepare students for success on assessments that are Common Core-aligned. They simply lack the rigor of the Standards.
The issue is compounded by the fact that many states, schools, and districts either lack the funds to purchase new basal programs or have delayed the purchase of new resources until they have a better understanding of the full scope of the Standards and assessments. Students will continue to learn to read and develop comprehension skills for fiction texts, but the lack of preparation for the analysis of informational text looms over the heads of teachers. Out of necessity, many schools are turning to classroom libraries as a solution to the problem.
How Does the Solution Work?
Building a comprehensive classroom library that includes both literature and informational texts gives teachers the flexibility to meet the demands of the Standards. These libraries are generally a collection of individual trade books rather than a single anthology, and can be customized to meet the needs and interests of students. One key to effective inclusion of informational texts is to make available a variety of informational texts organized around themes or big ideas. This assortment of titles gives students a choice in accessing informational text that is interesting to them and supports daily classroom instruction.
Simply providing the books is not enough. Although access to the books will likely increase the amount of informational text students read, books alone do not provide support for the teacher. To be successful implementing informational text in the classroom, the teacher needs three things:
- Instructional materials for the students. Building a classroom library addresses this need, focusing on student needs and interests through high-interest informational texts.
- Professional development. While many reading strategies are universal for literary and informational text, there are others that apply only to informational text. Addressing the content needs without preparing teachers for the instructional shifts will do little when students are faced with assessments tasks that require critical thinking and analytical skills.
- Teacher resources. Without structured lessons, the reading that students do will not help students become critical readers of informational text. These resources vary and could be as large as structured curriculum maps that tell teachers when and how to utilize the print resources, or as small as teaching cards for each title that provide text-specific prompts and strategies.
As teachers and administrators begin the work of creating classroom libraries, they may wonder where to start. One starting point could be Appendix B in the Common Core State Standards, which provides a list of text exemplars selected based on three criteria: complexity, quality, and range. It is important to remember that the exemplars are just that: examples. The list is certainly not exhaustive, and schools and districts are encouraged to think beyond the list. The authors of the Common Core State Standards note at the beginning of the appendix that, “The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms.” A library that begins with these exemplars is a good start, but additional titles should be considered that address student needs and interests.
Many companies are now marketing classroom library collections in preconfigured sets. When considering these options, educators should consider the following questions:
- Does the collection provide an appropriate balance between literature and informational text? Remember that nonfiction is not always informational text, so some fiction-nonfiction sets may fall short in this area.
- Are there resources for the teacher that support the instructional rigor of the Common Core State Standards?
- Do the titles address the needs and interests of the students in the classroom, school, and community?
- Can the set be customized to provide titles that are more relevant to students? Many out-of-the box libraries are sold one way only, and do not allow for customization to meet local curricular needs and student interests.
Building a classroom library that balances literature and informational text helps meet the immediate needs created by the Standards. A well-configured library will last through future reading program adoptions and continue to provide the kinds of resources that students and teachers need to be successful. While everyone is concerned with assessment scores and student performance, our ultimate goal as educators is to help students become critical consumers of information in any form. With that goal in mind, we need to face informational text with optimism and hope for every learner.