The key to bringing informational texts to life in the classroom is to focus on their rich array of text features, according to literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen, who have experienced their own struggles with engaging students in informational texts.
“When I looked at a piece of informational writing that my students had done, I noticed two things. One, it was often copied, so the text was just as it was. And secondly, it didn’t look like a rich, informational text. It wasn’t full of the features of informational texts,” Sharon explained on episode 33 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy.
“So the struggle for me then was thinking ‘how do I elevate informational writing outside just one structure of writing? How did I help students to become feature rich in their writing to really elevate the readership?’
“And I realised I was just modelling a very basic structure, but I hadn’t opened the doors to it, to what could be included in informational text.”
Sharon firstly emphasised that this struggle can often arise from teachers providing the wrong type of books that don’t showcase the different features of informational texts beyond the main body of text.
“There’s one thing to be quite mindful of when we’re pointing students in the direction of texts to gather information from. Sometimes they are very text heavy and it’s very difficult for students then to gather that information and think ‘how do I translate that into anything other than more text?'” she said.
“But if I’m given a text that’s got lots of different features, then I can bring those together … and if we understand the purpose and function of these text features, it actually improves their comprehension. So when we are taking information from text, it shouldn’t just be the written text alone.”
Phil and Sharon revealed there are three types of text features – print, graphic and organisational features.
“First of all, there’s print features, which means anything that is text that supporting the writer. So they’re things like headings, titles, subheadings, tallix, bold print and captions,” Sharon explained.
“So it’s the print itself. It’s bold. And that’s cueing us into, ‘why is that in bold? What is that referencing? Is it an important word or does that link to a glossary?’ But it is giving us some support in some way.
“Then there’s graphic features, and they’ll be things like diagrams, tables and maps. So graphic features are image-based and they may or may not include print as part of them, but it’s the image itself. And it’s the way that’s presented that helps the reader understand the text.
“Finally, organisational features are not only texts that support the reader, but their structure is like a table of contents or an index. So they have a particular structure to them.”
Once students understand these different features and examples, Sharon said teachers can then move on to exploring within informational texts through mini lessons. A key exercise to start with is ‘name and notice’.
“We would come back to that workshop structure. So first of all, we’re going to name and notice ‘what is the text feature?’Then as a teacher, I would model and explain through a think aloud how readers gain information from that feature … and of course, then we want students trying it out so that they can choose and use that feature as they need,” Sharon said.
“Now, if we think about a print feature like a heading there, I can absolutely talk about how a reader uses that information. What does a heading tell us? The heading tells us what comes beneath. The heading is intentionally chosen for that body of information.
“So these explorations, we want to explore together and we want to discuss together. So it’s not just the teacher doing the talking … so we can go on feature hunts and look in the books that we’ve got at the moment or the ones we’re working with. Where do we see that feature? So that is the opportunity then for us to practice identifying, looking for naming it and working out what it’s doing.”
To support this literacy learning, Sharon and Phil recommend teachers include a wide variety of informational texts in their classroom libraries.
“It’s not just a static collection for different units of work that we’re doing, or different concepts and topics that we’re studying. We also want to bring in lots of informational texts so that students have got their eyes on the page and are looking at how pages can be organised and intentionally orchestrated using these features,” Sharon said.