Using Qualities of Information Writing to Guide Students to Set Goals: Diving Into Information Writing Blog Series

Diving Into Information Writing Blog Series - November 2015
I am thrilled about this blog series in particular because information writing is one of my favorite topics in all of literacy. The ability to impart information well in writing and in speaking is crucial, not just in school, but always. Most adult literacy researchers posit that the vast majority of reading and writing adults do is nonfiction, with some estimates as high as 85%. This makes information writing a very important genre indeed. Also, many students delight in information writing once they realize it need not be formulaic or bland. It gives me great joy to watch students pour their hearts and voices into writing about their chosen topics.

Teaching Students Qualities of Good Information Writing

One of my favorite lessons in the entire Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues (Heinemann, 2013) is in Colleen Cruz’s 3rd grade book, The Art of Information Writing. It is the very first session in the book. In it, students choose topics on which they have expertise and teach each other about these in small groups.

Then, they are channeled to do an inquiry of sorts of their own teaching. They consider some of the techniques the teachers used that made the content easier to understand. With a teacher’s support, students can often generate a list that includes ideas like: the teacher began by giving a little preview of the information, the teacher used images or gestures to explain, the teacher explained what hard or fancy words meant, the teacher said a lot about each part.

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Qualities of Good Teaching and Good Information Writing Chart

The best part of this lesson is when the teacher helps the students to realize that many qualities of good teaching are the same as qualities of good information writing. And that they didn’t need to do extensive research to figure out what those qualities were.

This lesson would also certainly work if students studied mentor information texts and gleaned qualities that make them great. The list would likely be similar. But there are three things that are wonderful about asking students to study their own teaching as a mentor for information writing. First, this lesson underscores that the purpose of information writing is to teach. Also, because students are generating the mentor, they automatically see themselves as able to create the kind of content needed to be successful at information writing. Finally, if students are writing about topics of personal expertise, their teaching helps to generate a great deal of content they can use as fodder for their initial drafts. 

Once students have generated a list of qualities of good information writing, it helps to guide them to place these qualities into categories. There are two main categories that are crucial to information writing, to any writing, really: structure and elaboration.  

For example, you and your students might generate a list that looks like this:

Good Teaching and Good Information Writing:

  • Gives a preview of what’s to come at the beginning 
  • Sums up the most important information at the end
  • Groups information about each subtopic together
  • Uses visuals to explain, like pictures, diagrams, gestures, and charts 
  • Gives plenty of examples
  • Helps listeners/readers understand how the teaching/writing is organized, maybe with subtitles or with a short introduction to each section
  • Uses stories or interesting details to teach
  • Sometimes includes the teacher/writer’s opinion or tries to persuade listeners/readers of something
  • Includes a variety of information, like comparisons, statistics, and quotes
  • Defines hard words or words that go with the topic

Next, you could show students how you might to separate these qualities into the two broad categories, structure and elaboration. You might start the list, and then invite them to work with partners to categorize the others.

Structure

  • Gives a preview of what’s to come at the beginning 
  • Sums up the most important information at the end
  • Groups information about each subtopic together
  • Helps listeners/readers understand how the teaching/writing is organized, maybe with subtitles or with a short introduction to each section

Elaboration

  • Uses visuals to explain, like pictures, diagrams, gestures, and charts
  • Gives plenty of examples
  • Uses stories or interesting details to teach
  • Sometimes includes the teacher/writer’s opinion or tries to persuade listeners/readers of something
  • Includes a variety of information, like comparisons, statistics, and quotes
  • Defines hard words or words that go with the topic

And voilà, you and your students will have created a checklist that will serve as a guide and a set of shared goals for the unit.

Guiding Students to Self-Asssess

In the Units of Study, students are channeled to complete a piece of information writing in a single class period at the start of an information writing unit of study. This gives the teachers a way to assess students’ writing and plan accordingly, but just as importantly it also gives students a way to study their own writing and to set goals right from the start.

To set this up, you might give students a day or two to mull over a topic. If you teach grade 4 or higher, you might suggest they do a bit of research, or find a book they can use to support their writing. Then, on the day of the assessment, ask them to do their absolute best work on a piece of information writing about the topic. (For much more detail on this, see the Writing Pathways book in any of the Units of Study kits or the standalone Writing Pathways book, Heinemann 2014.)

Guiding Students to Set Goals 

Once students have completed a piece of on-demand writing, you can spend a session asking them to study their writing alongside the list of qualities you generated together. It might have felt a bit like cheating to discuss what makes information writing great with your class before they did the on-demand assessment, but odds are great that many of your students will still need support to demonstrate all of the qualities in their writing. Also, by teaching them a little bit or reminding them of what they already know about good information writing, you can ensure that their on-demand work is the best it can possibly be. This way, you’ll already have raised the level of what your students can achieve by the end of the unit.

What is most important at this point in the unit is that students study their writing honestly and that they understand the qualities of good writing well enough to determine whether they demonstrated them in their writing. Invite students to make tally marks each time they demonstrated one of the qualities, rather than to simply check off each quality, as true mastery comes from repeating a practice over and over.

Finally, ask students to set goals for themselves based on the qualities they did not yet demonstrate or the ones they are just starting to try. Celebrate these goals widely and emphatically.

Join us on Twitter! We’ll be wrapping up this blog series with a Twitter chat on all things information writing on Monday, November 9, 8:30-9:30 EST. #TWTBlog to join.

Let’s chat on Monday, November 9th at 8:30 p.m. EST, when the eight of us host a Twitter Chat about information writing. Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.

Let’s chat on Monday, November 9th at 8:30 p.m. EST, when the eight of us host a Twitter Chat about information writing. Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.