By Cindy Downend
Walk into almost any primary level classroom these days and you will almost be certain to find teachers and students reading, writing, and talking about informational texts. To me, this is one of the most exciting and important outcomes happening due to the implementation of the Common Core Standards in classrooms throughout the country! Teachers and their students, especially boys who have been reluctant to write, are finding so much joy in this often-neglected genre of writing. As I observe all of this work with young children writing informational texts, I can’t help but think about how crucial it is to help students leverage this enthusiasm in order to write from their own unique perspectives. So often a child’s delightful voice can get lost when they begin to “report the facts.”
So what am I seeing as teachers begin to focus on writing informational texts with their students? One of the greatest challenges for children when they begin to write informational texts seems be sharing the information in a way that reflects their own perspective on the topic. Kids can get so bogged down by reporting all of the facts that they already know or are learning that they end up writing texts that sound like the dullest, driest of textbooks.
The Common Core Standards for informational writing in grades K – 2 are very broad. For example, the first grade standard states that students “write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure.” In my opinion, that’s a really bare bones direction: which of course, was the original intention of the Common Core Standards (CCS). The CCS were designed to provide teachers with the “what” to teach, not the “how” to teach. I think this notion is so exciting because it leaves teachers with the opportunity to truly teach in a way that engages and motivates their students.
Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland offer us some sound advice in About the Authors on “the how” of helping students to include their voice as they begin to write in the genre. Ray and Cleaveland suggest using the guiding question, “How might we write books that are fun to read but also teach readers about something?” (Page 194) I have to admit that I have seen my fair share of young children’s informational texts in which the “fun to read” part has been neglected.
As with all of Ray’s immersion studies, we are encouraged to help students learn more about informational texts by studying the techniques of mentor authors. By noticing and charting what published authors do in nonfiction mentor texts to keep the writing interesting, students can eventually try out what they are noticing in their own writing. As Ray frequently states, students can “stand on the shoulders” of other writers.
Another challenge that teachers face is helping students understand how to express their ideas about newly learned information using their own language, rather than copying down exactly what other authors say verbatim. Teachers can model how to do so through interactive or shared writing. After reading and discussing an informational text during interactive read aloud, a class might choose to write about what information was new to them. Through the negotiation of the text, the teacher can help the students collectively shape the information learned into their own words. Students need many opportunities to summarize information with teacher support before we can expect them to be able to do it on their own.
Helping children to write in a unique and surprising way can often be a challenge. But if we use nonfiction writing to tap into children’s innate joy for learning about their world and let them write about topics that are important to for them, we will do much to foster their voices. If the Common Core Standards has been the nudge to get this work started, than I am joyful that they have come to be.