How-To Writing for All Ages: Expand the Possibilities of Genres You Teach
My ten-year-old daughter sat at my computer, typing away. She was working on something she had titled “Splatoon 2 Info Text,” a piece of writing she was working on for fun. It was information book, all about a new video game she has been crazy about for the past few weeks. I peeked over her shoulder. There were lots of screenshots of the game and detailed descriptions of each of the characters, as well as the world that the characters live in.
“Have you thought about putting a ‘How-To’ section in there? Like some tips on how to play the game?” I asked.
She wrinkled her nose and looked at me as though I were suggesting the most ridiculous idea ever.
“What? Why not?” I couldn’t help but laugh a little. Information on how to play the game seemed like a fairly obvious choice for a book like hers.
“How To’s are for kindergartners!” she exclaimed and waved me away.
This was news to me. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that she viewed it this way. She had spent quite a bit of time learning to write How-To’s in kindergarten. It shouldn’t be surprising that she now views them as something she’s outgrown. And I wonder how many teachers also think of How-To’s as something that is too easy for older writers.
I happen to adore How-To writing for all ages, as a reader and a writer–but it’s important to have a clear purpose, and it helps to have good mentor texts and examples for inspiration.
I tend to think about How-To writing in two basic categories. The first are How-To books, which are whole books with each page comprising a step in the directions. The second type of How-To writing is when just a section of a larger informational writing text is written in a procedural format — a How-To chapter, or section.
When beginning writers create How-To books, one supportive way to teach them to structure their writing is to plan one step in the procedure for each page. You can teach them to plan by touching each page and rehearsing aloud what the words will say — perhaps rehearsing multiple times. Young writers can also make a quick sketch on each page to plan what will go there — for beginning writers sketching tends to be easier and faster than writing words, so this provides a way to get the ideas down on the page before they are forgotten. Then the writer can go back and take as much time as they need to write each word and sentence.
How-To books can be simple, with just one sentence per page, or more elaborate, with entire paragraphs or more per page.
Mentor texts for this type of writing abound! Here are a few examples:
Of course, the most powerful mentor texts are the books or charts you create together with students. A fantastic way to launch this type of writing is to write a How-To book together as a class. Once you’ve written one together, writing them on their own will be much easier for students.
The concept of a simple How-To book can be elevated to a more sophisticated level, simply by showing students how each page or step of the text can include more detail, elaborating by including examples, tips, warnings, and more descriptive language. Each page becomes more like a chapter or section.
HOW-TO CHAPTERS OR SECTIONS WITHIN LARGER INFORMATIONAL TEXTS
Beginning writers as well as older, more experienced writers often create informational texts that are divided into “chapters” or sections. Each chapter is one page, and each page contains new information related to the topic of the text as a whole. For example, a child writing a book titled “All About Dogs” might have three pages, “Dog Food,” “Dog Toys,” and “Dog Tricks.” Beginning writers might just have one sentence on each of their pages, while more experienced writers might have full paragraphs, or even multiple pages per chapter.
A powerful way to lift the level of this type of expository informational writing is to teach students to include a wider variety of text structures — this is where How-To writing comes in. Adding a section of the book that is a “How-To” chapter or section is a step toward writing a text that incorporates multiple text structures. The student who adds a section called “How To Walk Your Dog” is on their way to learning that different text structures can fit different kinds of information. From there, students can add other types of text structures to best fit the information they want to share: compare/contrast, pros/cons, life cycle, timeline, cause/effect–you name it.
Procedural writing, or How-To writing, can be an in-road to more sophisticated information writing for many students. Because of the nature of this type of writing, students can dramatize or act out each step to generate more ideas to write down, and can get instant feedback from peers by reading the directions to their peers who can follow along to see if the directions really “work.” The writing is related to action, unlike some types of information writing, making it accessible for many writers who otherwise might find informational writing too abstract or uninteresting.
Perhaps in your next informational writing unit, you too will be able to find some examples in favorite magazines of How-Tos that inspire your students. This might include favorite recipes books that are essentially giant How-To books, as well as gardening books, and parenting. Even your professional texts for teaching might be examples of big, long, adult How-To books. How-To’s can be a great in-road to informational writing for students that are otherwise turned off. They can be engaging, visual, and even humorous– and sometimes they just simply make sense when you’re writing about certain topics.
- This giveaway is for a copy of each of the following books: Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre by Matt Glover and Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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