There is no disagreement that literacy skills are critical to academic success and life opportunities for every child, as well as being central to curriculum and instruction in elementary years and into the middle grades. Students from lower economic strata (at-risk students), students with learning disabilities, and English language learners (those children who are in the process of learning English in addition to another language) are more likely to demonstrate difficulties in literacy, particularly in comprehension and vocabulary acquisition.
The reasons are many and varied. English language learners and children from lower socioeconomic strata may meet with topics in which they lack prior knowledge and experience. They are likely to rely on conversational language that is inadequate to understand content and technical terminology, resulting in limited comprehension even as they master decoding skills. The structure and organization of various text genres may not be obvious to these students. All children, and especially students in these groups, benefit from a variety of opportunities to practice their literacy skills in purposeful contexts and a range of authentic activities.
One means of offering such experiences is by differentiating instruction through genre; that is, through the systematic use of informational texts. Here, the term informational texts, also referred to as nonfiction trade books or non-narrative texts, includes factual books that are not textbooks nor reference materials. These may include content-based books in science, social studies, and fine arts areas, biographies and autobiographies, and books made up of narrative text woven with factual information usually targeted for young children. For adults, it is estimated that eighty-six percent of reading is drawn from factual text to gather information.1 It is not surprising, then, that developing skills that build comprehension from informational text have been cited as an “urgent priority” currently lacking in literacy curriculum and instruction.2
Differentiating instruction can be thought of as a means of providing opportunity — deepening and broadening the content that may be explored in a classroom as well as providing a range of formats in which students can learn and demonstrate their knowledge.3 Using informational text is one means of differentiating content and offering new avenues for process and assessment. Literacy experiences in elementary and into middle school classrooms have traditionally been provided through fiction and the allure of story, with far fewer opportunities for students to interact with informational text to support literacy.4 Textbooks make up the bulk of nonfiction resources utilized for content areas. Increasingly over the last several years it has become evident that the use of informational text provides significant benefit in supporting literacy development for all students, but may particularly assist at-risk students, English language learners, and students with special needs by addressing gaps in comprehension and vocabulary.
Three reasons are explored here for using informational text with students in special populations. The first is the potential for increased engagement in reading by differentiating the content in the classroom. The second is tied to understanding the specific structure and elements of this genre in supporting literacy skills. Finally, the use of informational text is offered as a support to an inquiry approach to content knowledge, opening doors to a variety of ways to utilize and demonstrate student knowledge.
In Mrs. Collin’s5 second grade classroom, Ty, once identifying as an at-risk student and reluctant reader and writer, is leading a weekly book club discussion about space exploration with three classmates. Ty is the classroom expert on the topic and has compiled an impressive notebook, much like a field guide, that includes illustrations of equipment, missions, destinations, training requirements, and details on astronauts. He has garnered this information from the many informational texts he has read on the subject. Today, he refers to his notebook as he describes the storms on the surface of Jupiter to his wide-eyed peers.
Informational text offers the potential for increased engagement by students. For Ty, and other students like him, adding these books to the menu of reading opportunities in a classroom is a simple means of addressing individual interests to foster active, engaged readers. This increases the amount of time spent reading, which ultimately contributes to comprehension.6
Every teacher wants students to understand the value and wonder of reading, but traditionally the route to a love of the written word has been paved through fiction. Adding nonfiction texts adds a new dimension of reading material tied to the personal interests of students.7 This can be especially appealing for students whose life experiences do not mirror the lives of fictional characters portrayed in traditional literature. In fact, many children are motivated to read texts that respond to their own natural inquisitiveness around a particular topic, issue, or concept. In reading to satisfy self-generated questions, students find new incentives for reading — satisfying curiosity and building knowledge.
Informational text also provides opportunities to extend the range of topics explored in a classroom, tapping connections to prior experiences or building new understandings about the world. These sorts of topics, usually from science and social studies areas, are generally not found in fiction. If they are covered at all in the classroom, they are likely to be addressed through textbooks, which are often criticized for lacking depth and for a dry and uninspired delivery of facts. In the example above, Ty and his peers learn about space exploration through examination of natural sciences, physical science, history, and biography. They will have multiple and extended opportunities to read about the broad topic.
For many students this is likely new information, developing content knowledge in areas they may not have had any previous experience. This is particularly critical in addressing knowledge gaps for children of poverty8 or students new to our country and culture.9 Further, informational text is increasingly available across a range of reading abilities with appealing illustrations that act as visual cues as well as drawing the reader into a fascinating new world. Students with limited reading ability can still access information about the natural world, local history and culture, or hero figures from history as they build their vocabulary and comprehension.
Informational text is also appealing because of its unique content elements, which allow for differentiation in terms of learning modalities. For example, kinesthetic learners are drawn to descriptions of process, such as reading and testing recipes, putting together a product by following directions in designing paper airplanes, or learning how things work, as with David McCauley’s book by the same title.10 Visual/spatial learners benefit from the use of organizers, maps, photographs, and charts in informational texts. In these forms, content information is offered and structured in concise pieces of information that may be more manageable for students in special populations with evolving reading skills.
Mr. Alexandro prepares to read aloud from Nic Bishop’s Butterflies and Moths.11 He begins by pointing out the distinct features of the informational text including the interesting use of varied print size and color, the glossary and index, and discusses the use of photographs rather than illustrations. “This is good stuff,” he tells his class; “Great pictures and this gives us information about the butterflies we’ll be hatching and it does it in a way that’s easy to find and understand.”
Reading informational texts goes beyond simply luring students into reading and expanding their knowledge base. It also provides the basis for particular academic skills in which children from special populations may require additional support. Informational text differs in structure and purpose from fiction and requires different sorts of knowledge about reading and comprehension skills that are unique to the genre. This is critical knowledge for all students as it is considered the key to success in later schooling where the focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.12
Students with limited access to and experience with books and children with learning disabilities may not necessarily be aware of the differences in structure and purpose in various genres, which hinders comprehension. A combination of explicit instruction highlighting these differences and multiple opportunities to interact with nonfiction text has proven to be particularly helpful for students who demonstrate difficulty with reading comprehension.13 Understanding how writing is organized and presented provides strategies for students to find and organize information.
In the example noted above, Mr. Alexandro explicitly shares the structure and format of the book with his students. He discusses the purpose of the table of contents, glossary, and index and later models how to use these features to find specific facts about monarch butterflies. As he reads aloud, he models a variety of questions as he pauses for discussion. He pauses occasionally to have students do paired sharing, discussing questions about the material. He encourages children to use the vocabulary from the text as they share with their partner, supporting academic language acquisition. Later, he also develops a word wall for key vocabulary and adds pictures as visual cues so that his Spanish-speaking English language learners can more readily identify the words in later reading and writing activities.
In the following days, he will read a series of books about butterflies through the unit — books that feature the life cycle, books that follow migration patterns, and books that highlight various species. Students will choose from multiple texts on the topic for use during independent reading. There will be multiple opportunities to hear, see, and engage with the text as the students anticipate their butterflies emerging from their cocoons.
In addition to understanding the structure and function of informational text, these activities also support the development of new vocabulary — words that will never appear on a high-frequency spelling word list. These sorts of words are in the language of content-area subjects — the nemesis of at-risk children, English language learners and many children with learning disabilities. These students tend to rely on conversational language, which camouflages limited experience with content-specific language, especially words from science and social studies areas. Given that the expectations for understanding such vocabulary increases over time, it is critical that these students have regular opportunities to utilize informational text with explicit attention to vocabulary building that will fill gaps, develop strategies for reading this kind of text, and strengthen comprehension.
Ms. Mason is currently teaching a unit on China in her seventh-grade social studies class. Working in small groups, her students are researching key historical figures who lived and traveled through what is now China, asking questions about how the geography of the land impacted their lives and work. They have chosen figures such as the first emperor, Xin Shi Huangdi; Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk who traveled to India; Zhen He, the famous seafaring explorer; Ghenghis Khan, the invader from the north; and Marco Polo, the merchant who traveled from Europe to China.
As a final product, the students have a choice of preparing a PowerPoint presentation, creating a poster presentation, developing a travelogue from the historical character’s perspective, writing and performing a readers’ theater script, or making a children’s book to share with younger students. All presentations must describe the geographical features of the regions traveled, provide an analysis of how geographical features impacted their efforts, and highlight the successes or challenges faced by their historical figure as influenced by geography. Their projects cover a wide range of literacy skills including reading, writing, communication, research, technology, and using evidence to evaluate their arguments.
Ms. Mason has enlisted the help of the school librarian in locating informational texts that offer material about the geography of China, historical figures, maps, and translations of primary documents. At the end of the unit, students will come together to discuss how modern China is influenced by the geographical features of the nation.
Increasingly through the intermediate and middle school grades, students are expected to use literacy skills for critical thinking, moving beyond reproducing facts and figures. Content-area experts emphasize this shift. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), for example, insists that learning should be an active process, grounded in critical thinking. They note, “Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experiences is the central strategy for teaching science.”14
Likewise, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) calls for “skills necessary to help our students thrive in a world of continuous and accelerating change…These include discipline-based literacy, multi-disciplinary awareness, information gathering and analysis, inquiry and critical thinking, communication, data analysis, and the prudent use of twenty-first century media and technology.”15 Competent students, then, are prepared to ask questions and use multiple informational texts in conjunction with other resources in research and writing. As students engage in activities that address content knowledge they must also build the skills and dispositions of an inquiry approach to learning. Therefore, the effective use of informational text is central to the development of an inquiry approach in the content areas.
Opportunities to use multiple texts support and encourage questioning, research, comparing multiple perspectives, and presenting information in the content areas. These are activities that are not emphasized in fiction-based literature exploration,16 nor are they supported through the minimalist approaches taken by textbooks. Inquiry-based exploration is an active process, requiring that students read, comprehend, and bring together content from a variety of sources in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. In the example above, students use informational text to find facts about a historical character, examine maps and photos for knowledge about geographical features, and then analyze the information as a whole. A set of skills is honed along with a deeper knowledge base. In the course of their work the students will question how we have come to know this information, examine multiple perspectives on the same information, and inquire about details that remain unknown.
For students who are challenged by literacy skills, relying on appropriate informational texts — working beyond a textbook and encyclopedia — can simultaneously support literacy skills, content knowledge, and an inquiry stance. An array of texts on a topic can be provided at reading levels for all students, including at-risk students, English language learners, and students with learning disabilities. While the reading level may be controlled, key information and the process of inquiry are still emphasized in the learning process.
In utilizing multiple texts on the same subject, vocabulary is reinforced, connections to prior knowledge developed, and content knowledge established. The nature of these sorts of projects guarantees that students will have extended engagement with written and spoken language. Thus, for students in special populations who struggle with comprehension and vocabulary, using informational texts from an inquiry perspective supports learning as students engage with content material at an appropriate level while taking part in the experiences that support critical thinking, even as language skills are evolving.
Inquiry-based projects also provide opportunities to demonstrate knowledge in a variety of ways, through differentiated assessment. Students who have limited literacy and writing skills can exhibit their knowledge using formats that are polished and content-rich, but work within the boundaries of known language without reaching frustration. For example, a PowerPoint presentation uses concise, abbreviated language that highlights key content vocabulary while limiting the length of writing. The addition of visuals, graphs, and organizers allow students to show critical information from texts and present orally with the support of visual prompts.
In another format, writing and performing a readers’ theater script within a group of students can provide an English language learner with practice in multiple readings for improved fluency in language that is controlled by the writer. For all possible assessments, the informational texts themselves can provide vivid, succinct models of key information and ways to present the material. Through differentiated assessment with informational text as key resources, students in special populations receive support and scaffolding as they utilize their skills to demonstrate what they have learned.
Using informational text as an approach to support literacy skills and content knowledge provides a vehicle for differentiating content, process, and products that supports special populations in developing literacy skills. Increasingly, researchers are highlighting the benefits of using informational texts, particularly with students who need support in comprehension and vocabulary development — as do so many students identified as at-risk, English language learners, or children with learning disabilities.
Simultaneously, many more engaging informational texts are available on a wide range of topics included in state curriculum standards, at a variety of reading levels. The benefits are clear and the resources are available. Informational text can and should be a central part of literacy education to engage students, as a means of explicitly providing instruction across reading genres, and to invigorate the curriculum across content areas. Benefits for at-risk students, English language learners, and students with special needs include support in areas of reading comprehension, vocabulary enhancement, and enriching content knowledge to reduce knowledge gaps.