Helping students to understand the features of informational texts by creating these features in their own writing.

by Justin Minkel

Grades K-2, Grades 3-5

Introduction

I think that one of the best way kids can learn to read and understand informational texts is by learning to write the features that compose them.

Kids are natural storytellers. They understand the sequence and chronology of a narrative. But many students find informational texts more challenging. They must make sense of features they’re not accustomed to seeing in stories—components like diagrams, captions, headings and maps.

The research project I introduce to my class is in most cases my students’ first research experience. I ask them to read with purpose, to take notes, and to organize their notes into sub-topics that subsequently become the headings in their research paper. They support facts within each heading by creating their own diagrams, maps and drawing captions.

Creating these elements ensures kids better understand the purpose of each feature. To support this understanding, I ask students to:

–Begin with “Think Alouds,” where I model how I read representative informational texts, and I make transparent with my students my understanding of what I’m reading;

–Work with a partner to complete a research project; and

–Continue independently to research a project, ask questions, and visually organize the information they uncover.

Students understand what they create. If kids can create diagrams and headings, and their own index and glossary, then they can really understand these features when they encounter them in their later reading.

 

Reflections

What I did well…

I helped participants understand features of informational text by creating those features themselves. First they used features like headings, the Table of Contents, and the index to locate information relevant to questions they had generated. Going through this process reinforces the idea that informational text is organized in a fundamentally different way than fiction—by topic rather than a sequence of events. Having the participants organize their notes into clusters, name those clusters with a heading, and augment the facts with a visual diagram highlights the reciprocal connection between reading and writing. As learners, we tend to have a deeper understanding of what we have created. By creating a Table of Contents, headings, diagrams, an index, and a glossary, learners develop an understanding of how informational text works, and they will better understand those features they have created as writers when they encounter them as readers.

What I would do more of, better, or differently…

I would include more time for participants to generalize the idea of understanding by creating to other content areas. This lesson was focused on understanding the way informational text is structured and how to use features that don’t exist in fiction (like headings or the index) to efficiently locate relevant information. But the larger idea is that a constructivist approach to teaching, in which students create the concepts they’re exploring, tends to elicit deeper understanding than more passive learning. For example, students can create the multiplication table by cutting out arrays, or can use graphic organizers to plan their writing as well as to distill information they read. Students spend a lot of time in school in a passive mode, reading and listening. If we shift from that receptive mode to a more active, expressive mode by having them do more talking, writing, and creating, they develop a deeper understanding of the concepts we teach. 

I still want to grow in this practice by…

I want to continue to find meaningful ways to integrate technology into the research project. Through Skype Classroom, students could ask a renowned scientist questions about an animal she or he studies, face to face. They could observe dolphins or cheetahs in their natural habitat in real time. They could also collaborate on a research project with students in China or Kenya who are interested in the same animal. The possibilities are limitless, and they go way beyond simply substituting digital text for print. Students can collaborate, inquire, and present what they learn in dynamic and visual ways with an audience anywhere in the world.

About Justin Minkel

Justin Minkel believes our job as teachers is to help students live the lives they dream. Justin has taught first through fourth grade in high-pove...

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