A New Approach to Problem Solving for Middle School

Informational Text, Anyone?

To become skillful readers, young children need experience reading both narrative (fictional) and informational (nonfictional) texts.

Current standards for the English language arts (CCSS-ELA) break fiction and nonfiction out into two separate strands.

Grade 3 reading standards for fiction, for example, ask students to "determine the central message, lesson, or moral" and "describe characters in a story." Students are also expected to use terms such as "chapter, scene, and stanza," and to "distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters."

Grade 3 reading standards for nonfiction ask students to "identify the main topic and retell key details of a text" and "describe the connection between events, ideas, or pieces of information in a text." (CCSS-ELA, pp. 13-14)

Success in school, the workplace, and society increasingly depends on our ability to comprehend informational text. Yet, despite current language arts standards, informational text often gets short shrift in primary grades classrooms. One study of 20 first-grade classrooms showed that nonfiction books constituted less than 10 percent of the classroom library and that students spent less than four minutes per day reading informational text. (Duke, 2000)

The Benefits of Reading Informational Text

Researchers have concluded that students should begin reading nonfiction selections as early as possible in their schooling. The benefits of informational text are numerous:

  • It prepares young students for success in later schooling. Students' early exposure to informational texts prepares them for reading content-area textbooks and informational passages on tests in the later grades.
  • It prepares students to handle real-life reading. Adults, both at home and at work, read a great deal of informational text in their daily lives. With our increasing reliance on information in all forms, students more than ever need to be able to read and write informational text.
  • It appeals to readers' preferences and interests. Young students have a natural curiosity about many things. Multiple studies have shown that reading for the purpose of addressing students' real questions tends to lead to higher achievement and motivation. Moreover, some students simply prefer informational text to fictional stories. Using nonfiction texts in the classroom may improve those students' attitudes toward reading and even their overall literacy development. (Caswell & Duke, 1999)
  • It builds knowledge of the natural and social world. The background knowledge gained through informational texts can help readers comprehend subsequent texts. Overall, the more background knowledge readers have, the stronger their comprehension skills are likely to be. (Wilson & Anderson, 1996)
  • It strengthens vocabulary and other kinds of literacy knowledge. Studies have shown that parents and teachers focus more on vocabulary and literacy concepts when reading informational text aloud to children versus when they read narrative text. In addition, gleaning information from diagrams, tables, and other graphical presentations contained in narrative texts may develop students' visual literacy.

Strategies for Success

So what can teachers do to foster their young students' interest and skill in reading informational text? Researchers and educators recommend the following strategies:

  1. Increase students' access to informational text. In other words, stock the classroom bookshelves with books on weather, the ocean, insects, animals and reptiles of all kinds, firefighters, and other topics that fascinate young readers.
  2. Increase the classroom time spent reading informational text. Familiarize your students with the characteristics and conventions of informational text by reading nonfiction selections aloud to them. Research suggests that students are more likely to choose informational text for independent reading if their teacher has read it aloud to them. (Dreher & Dromsky, 2000)
  3. Explicitly teach comprehension strategies. It's not enough to give children access to informational text. They must also learn strategies for comprehending it. These include asking questions, summarizing, clarifying, and making predictions. Research has shown that teaching even one comprehension strategy can lead to improved comprehension. (Pressley, 2000)
  4. Use informational text for authentic purposes. When students read informational text to obtain information they want or need to know, they show higher growth in reading comprehension and in writing skills (Purcell-Gates & Duke, 2003).
  5. Pair fiction and nonfiction texts for greater comprehension. Pairing narrative text with informational text on a related topic (for example, a story about a pet lizard with a nonfiction book text presenting facts about lizards and other cold-blooded reptiles) is a way to dig deeper into a topic and enhance comprehension. Reinforce understanding with a Venn diagram listing how the fictional and informational presentations of the same topic are similar and different.