“If we are going to prepare children for this world, we need to be serious about teaching them to read and write informational text. It may not be difficult to convince children of the need for this, as we draw their attention to the informational text that surrounds them in their world.”
(Duke, K., Bennett-Armistead, V. (2003), Reading and Writing Informational Text in the Primary Grades. New York, NY: Scholastic Incorporated)
When I began my career as a (naïve) educator, I started as a substitute, and I had the opportunity to watch many primary-grade teachers do read-alouds with their students. I recall that at least ninety-percent of the teachers I observed just read the book straight through, rarely pausing for discussion or reflection. I also recall that not one of the teachers at the school where I started my career, read informational text to their students, even though several did have a few informational texts in the classroom. “Nonfiction still tends to be scarce in classrooms” (2003, Routman, p. 70).
The journal article in the packet that Professor Irons gave us entitled “Why Include More Informational Text in Primary Classrooms” gives six reasons why we should.
1. Informational text is the key to success in later schooling.
“Expository texts are the primary reason by which students in grades K-3 acquire academic knowledge. Students' failure to comprehend these texts amasses an increasingly cumulative knowledge deficit as children progress through the grades” (Block, Rodgers & Johnson, 2004). Standardized state tests and SAT tests use informational text—students need to become familiar with this kind of text long before they take these tests. Much of the material we read in high school, college, and adult life is informational. I find myself reading appliance manuals, how-to books, and graduate-level textbooks. Going to school in the evenings and working two jobs, I find I have to 'force' myself to to make time to read a fictional book. All of the expository text I read, however, increases my understanding of the world around me, and this is precisely why we, as educators need to have our children read more expository text.
2. Informational text is ubiquitous in society.
The authors of the article remind us that ninety-six percent of the text on websites on the Internet is expository. Students of all ages spend a great deal of time on the Internet and we need to encourage them to read more informational text, so that they may become more familiar with the expository language that they find on websites. I like Tricia's idea of keeping 'closed-captioning' on her television so that her son sees the words as they are spoken. The 'crawls' at the bottom of the cable news screens also give more information to the viewer than the news anchors give. Tricia said that sometimes she turns the sound down, so that her son will have to read the words. This idea is excellent, especially on the channels that children frequently watch, such as the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, etc.
3. Informational text is preferred reading material for some children.
Our 83-year-old remedial reading instructor at my current school (who, obviously, has many years of teaching behind her!) asks her students to take a 'reading survey' to see what interests them. Then, she buys the books (with her own money) to make sure that she has something that her children will be interested in—and it's mostly expository text. She strives to improve their literacy with books that will pique their interest and curiosity, and I take many of my cues from her. “In truth, students often prefer non-fiction” (2003, Routman).
4. Informational text often addresses children's interests and questions.
As a child, I liked to read and I liked to write—I still like to do both, but I find the time I have for them is increasingly diminishing. Because I enjoyed writing as a child, I found myself, at the ripe age of nine, being 'published' in the school newspaper. What did I write about? Since my Dad is a retired firefighter, I had a keen interest in fire safety, and I entitled my entry “Fire Prevention”. Did I know that I was writing expository text? No, I just wanted to write about this topic for my classmates. To this day, I still prefer to write expository text, and, as I look at my home library, I see that I have many more informational texts than narrative ones. Some of my technology students are interested in cars, tennis, wrestling, and sometimes I find them 'sneaking' to websites that have this information, so, I know that children have a thirst for non-fiction writing, as I did as a child.
5. Informational text builds knowledge of the natural and social world.
“Not only do students learn a vast amount about the world as they are learning to read, their test scores are exemplary” (2003, Routman, p. 70). Professor Irons said her friend believes she coined the term: The more you know, the more you grow. The book I am currently reading is called “Ghost Map” which is a non-fiction book about the deadly spread of influenza in Victorian London and and I have learned more about bacteria, germs, lifestyles, and obsolete medical practices than I thought were possible—and I doubt that I could have learned about them any other way, for the book is not just interesting, but entertaining. Both the natural and the social world made it possible for the flu to spread from person to person. And, although it's not fiction, entertaining informational text like this would help our children enjoy learning about the world around them. The reason why the “...For Dummies” books are so popular, is because people have a need for informational text and their readers want to know more about the world around them, and these books do it in an entertaining and 'non-threatening' way.
6. Informational text may help build vocabulary and other kinds of literacy knowledge.
I had to really think about this last reason for including more informational text in our classrooms. I had to ask myself why would informational text help build vocabulary more than a narrative work. Is it because the context clues are more intuitive in a narrative work? Or, is it because there are more unknown terms in expository text forcing the reader to look up definitions? (Again, this is another reason why the “...For Dummies” books are so popular--because they are written in easy-to-understand English, with difficult, unfamiliar terms singled out on the page with easy definitions.) Whatever the reason, I feel that after reading this article, perhaps, there should be more expository books in our classrooms than fictional ones. I understand that there is a place for both, but this article makes a strong case for the former. I always wince when I see some teachers 'punish' children by making them open a dictionary and write down definitions. As a child, I would have dreaded doing this. Why make learning vocabulary words a punishment, when a definition should be something that should enlighten a child?
This article opened my 'literacy eyes' to use expository text to improve student knowledge. As a technology teacher, I will use this knowledge in my lab; I have found many interactive online fiction books for my students, but I now realize it is my duty to search for online interactive informational text as well. If I am not improving literacy, I am denying them many opportunities to further their learning, and that means I am not doing my job and wasting their time and mine.
Block, C., Johnson, R., & Rodgers, L. (2004). Comprehension Process Instruction, Creating Reading Success in Grades 1-3. New York, NY: The Guilford Press
(the book I won in class!)
Duke, N. & Bennett-Armistead., S (2003). Reading and Writing Informational Text in the Primary Grades, New York, NY: Scholastic Incorporated
Routman, R. (2003). Reading Essentials, The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishers