Students can use different text types to find joy in reading informational books, rather than only seeking them out for an assignment.
This is the experience of experienced Adelaide teacher Giselle Pulford, who joined literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen on episode 47 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy revealing her previous struggles with engaging students in informational text.
She said her problem was not placing enough emphasis on these text types beyond the purpose of researching for an enquiry.
“I think that I’d forgotten to show students how much pleasure there is in finding information … so I thought about how do I bring those texts in for the joy of themselves as a text and then guide students into using that,” Giselle said.
“I had little people at home who were in their early reading stages, and so many of the early reading books are non-fiction … but then we sort of lose track of that a little bit as the joy of reading and just look at them as, oh, ‘this is a book you need for your research’.
“So I wasn’t letting them see that information reports and information texts have so much value on their own as a piece of writing, let alone using that as a tool to develop our own writing.
“So for me, it was about tapping into [a child’s interest] and going, oh, ‘[this book has] touched on this whole area that you actually really do enjoy and I know you enjoy it, but I’m not letting you enjoy it because I’m forgetting to show you what’s available for your reading in that sense, and I’m only telling you that you can use those books when it’s time to do your research project’.
“And that was doing a disservice to my students about their reading choices and about their reading skills.”
Giselle said a surefire way of unlocking student interest and wonder with an informational text is choosing books which appeal to the majority, such as sports.
“[For example], DK: The Sports Book goes through not just the Olympics. It goes through team sports, ball sports, animal-based sports, extreme sports, winter sports, motor based sports etc. It’s phenomenal for anyone who enjoys sports. But as a tool for talking about text features, this book could be everything because many students will be engaged by sport,” she said.
“So you can take a page out of this book to ask students ‘which category are we in right now? How can we tell we’re in the category of motor sport? What’s this diagram showing us, what’s this table about?’ And we can get them to highlight what else is on that page.”
But it’s also about finding engaging material, with Giselle talking about one of her most memorable lessons that involved a collection of 50 Olympic posters from a South Australian newspaper during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“So when we were talking about information texts and pulling out text features, I said, ‘well I’ve got these and I really want to use them’. Their eyes just lit up because these posters are simply amazing for looking at text features. They’ve got tables, captions, diagrams, timelines, cutaways etc. It was just amazing, and each pair of students had a different sport and we weren’t all looking at the exact same swimming poster,” she explained.
“And they’re the kind of thing that could come out multiple times. It didn’t have to relate to the Olympics, but they’d come out multiple times because there’s so much reading in there. There’s so much interest, there’s history, there’s current rules, current uniform. Besides the dates and times of when each sport was going to appear in the Olympics, the posters also don’t date because it’s an information text that’s pretty well the same for those particular sports.”
But perhaps most importantly, Giselle explained the right informational books need to be used to open conversations and provide an entry point into further research and questions from students.
This will avoid the issue of students copying and pasting slabs of information from the internet for their assignments, without fully understanding the content.
“We’d be doing a unit or a topic in a particular subject area, say it’s history or geography, and their first point is to go straight to the internet and type a keyword into the search and try and use whatever comes up. And they’ll either get streams of texts that are hard to navigate and to sift through, or they’ll have directly typed in the enquiry question and they’ll write whatever Google tells them the answer,” Giselle said.
“So I think it’s about shifting that perspective for students of saying, ‘ok these are our questions or this is the unit that we’re trying to explore, what do we already know and where can we find a point to start about this particular thing that then brings more questions’.”
One recommended informational picture book to help achieve this is Amazing Treasures: 100+ Objects and Places That Will Boggle Your Mind by David Long.
“It begins by asking ‘what do you consider a treasure?’ And it might talk about something ancient from history but survived. But then it also talks about the Arctic ice. And so the book is set out into sections about what people have valued throughout history,” Giselle explained.
“But because it’s brief, it becomes that starting point for students. And so we could read out one of those sections in class, and then at the end of the day, just read one of them as our farewell, and then ask students to write down a question that you have now and where would we go to find out more about this? What else would we want to know? And it’s just about capturing their interest and capturing their wondering.
“You’re sharing that moment together as a class by reading that small section out, putting it back on the students to ask what question do you have that wasn’t answered in that little bit, and really making them do some thinking which then leads to them doing better enquiry work around that type of thinking.”
Sharon added: “Rather than it being we’re studying this topic and so these would be the questions that you’re going to be asking, it’s more about actually ‘what are you wondering? What are you thinking about?’
“All of these things really should be opening the doors. So I think it’s more about that idea of we can bring information texts into the Read Alouds and open up that thinking and conversation and wondering. We’re building inquirers rather than, ‘oh so I just have to find these set things or I just type in my enquiry question to find things out’ … it’s a more free flowing piece rather than it only ever happens within a unit.”
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