By Jessica Sherman
Primary Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative
As you may have noticed in our recent posts, we here at Lesley University’s Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative have embraced the attention that the new Common Core State Standards have placed on reading and writing informational texts. Knowing that these texts appeal to young children’s innate sense of wonder about their world, to their desire to enthusiastically take on new learning, and to their sense of pride in sharing what they understand, we have encouraged reading and writing in this genre.
When taking on a unit of study in writing informational texts, it is easy to get bogged down by the idea of the author as researcher. In the past, with this mindset and certainly with best intentions, I have exhausted and frustrated myself trying to turn my first graders into a certain type of researcher that uses printed resources to support their writing. I’ve tried to locate leveled books to match the topics of the 25 first grade readers in my class (impossible!). I’ve tried to group students into “topic groups” (some kids do not care about sharks no matter how hard you try to make them!). I’ve conducted endless lessons about “putting ideas into your own words” (they still copied!) and how to use a graphic organizer to take notes (disaster!). Because of my own understanding of the genre, I was pushing my kids to behave like tiny college students.
As I study the Continuum of Literacy Learning and the Common Core State Standards, I realize how misguided my efforts have been for my primary students. I had imposed a narrow view of an informational writing task on my students rather than using what I had learned about them to build on their strengths. If I could do it again, I would help writers do the following:
See themselves as people who have already experienced, observed, and learned about their world. Despite their limited time on this planet, they have surely taken in a lot of information on a variety of topics. They know about families, babies, pets, playing games, food, places they’ve traveled, favorite spots in their community, art class, kindergarten, etc. The list is endless!
Identify which topics best suit them based on their interests, experiences, and understandings. Kids often confuse interest with knowledge about a topic. They need help understanding that readers seek out topics they are interested in learning more about and writers teach others about things that they have already come to understand.
Think about ALL of the ways they might become a little bit more knowledgeable about their topic. If kids are showing us that using books independently for research is too difficult, let go of that task. Help them see that writers conduct research in many different ways – observation and interviews are valid methods of investigating a topic. In the meantime, continue to model “book research” during shared writing experiences. With repeated exposure and eventually with explicit instruction, they will be ready to take this step in their own work.
Become immersed in the genre so that they notice how features of informational texts help readers understand the topic better. If kids are truly interested their topic they will care about making sure that their readers understand the topic. They will want to try out using features of informational texts (such as page numbers, labels, heading, and bold print) in order to convey their message clearly.
Unpack the work of authors in this genre to learn about how they might craft a piece of writing that engages readers in learning. When students are encouraged to notice the way that authors infuse joy and passion into their work, they will certainly follow suit. Passion about a topic evokes a strong voice in the writer and in turn pulls readers in. The idea of getting a reader excited about a topic that the author already loves can be extraordinarily motivating.
Becoming a proficient writer of informational texts requires many, many tiny steps down a variety of very long paths. It is up to primary teachers to inspire the youngest writers to begin this journey fueled by a determination to joyfully and thoughtfully share the things that really matter most.