Information Writing: Upping the Ante on Text Features
It’s likely that in many writing workshop classrooms, the year is launching with narrative writing. Coming just around the bend, perhaps very soon for teachers who began the school year in early August, is expository writing. The first expository unit may come in the form of any one of a multitude of types of essay units, or perhaps, in the form of information writing. With the Common Core Standards’ emphasis on information writing, this genre has finally gotten its place in the sun.
When launching an information writing unit, we can ask students what they know about this kind of writing. If they’ve had some experience with it, they will likely name text features as one of its hallmarks. Certainly, text features are one of the most enticing features of information writing for many young writers.” You mean we get to draw pictures? Or do google image searches?” they say.
Finding images that go with what one has written is one way to approach text features. This is appropriate when a student is just learning about this genre. But sophisticated information writers know that text features aren’t just pictures plopped on a page. Text features have a job to do. They are there to teach information that cannot be conveyed in the text, and they are there to help underscore the ideas and information that the writer really wants to highlight. It is this second purpose of text features that can and should inform the teaching of text features in a unit of study for more experienced information writers.
To demonstrate this principle, take, for example, the following snippet of writing, from a teacher text in a research-based information writing unit:
One of the first things that happened after the massacre was that Patriots, like Paul Revere, wanted to convince people that the British soldiers were at fault. There was lots of propaganda being published that was trying to convince people that the soldiers killed people on purpose. For example, Paul Revere did an etching that showed soldiers shooting right at innocent people. He did this to make people angry enough to want to fight the British.
A teacher using this text to demonstrate ways information authors use text features to highlight ideas could first list some of the ideas that could be popped out in this section of writing. Is the most important idea that people were getting angry at the British? Or that Paul Revere was an active Patriot? Or that propaganda was used to convinced the colonists to fight?
Then, the teacher could demonstrate how she chose one idea (in this case, the final one in the list), and used text features to highlight that idea for readers. She could show students how she added a definition off to the side with a term to which she wanted to draw readers’ attention (propaganda), and how she used a timeline to convey an idea about the importance of propaganda. She could point out that she didn’t just choose any old image to plop on the page, like an image of the shooting at the Boston Massacre, but instead chose an image that fit with the idea she really wanted to convey.
This lesson could also be done using an inquiry-based format. A teacher could guide students to study nonfiction mentor texts with rich text features, such as those by Seymour Simon, or those in the National Geographic Kids series. Students could study the text features closely and ask themselves questions such as:
- What information is the author using this text feature to convey?
- Based on the text features, is there an idea that the author wants me to understand about the information?
- How does the author use the text features to convey information?
- How could I try something like this in my own writing?
For more on using text features to convey importance and further ideas, see Bringing History to Life, in the 4th Grade Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins and colleagues.