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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.

Screenshot from Splatoon 2, a video game where opponents race to cover as much territory as they can with paint.

“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.

HOW-TO BOOKS

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:

Made with Padlet

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.

Click to see a small taste of how Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure is organized.

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. 

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • 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.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Craft and Process Studies and Focus Lessons, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 10th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EXPAND THE POSSIBILITIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

14 thoughts on “How-To Writing for All Ages: Expand the Possibilities of Genres You Teach Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for this inspiring post, I think “ how to” writing is inherently supportive of kids who struggle with engagement, generating ideas, organizations and structure, and elaboration. And, many kids watch “how to” videos on YouTube, and are therefore familiar with the structure, and excited to orally rehearse, even if it is just a pretend video you are making. I love that your post inspires me to think about ways to include “how to” writing in every genre and at every level. Thank you!

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  2. What a great post! I just came back to read it again. I teach fourth grade and we’re planning on writing How-to texts with our Kindergarten reading buddies. You’ve given me some wonderful new mentor text ideas! I’m also thinking more about how my students can incorporate How-tos in their informational writing. Thanks!

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  3. This is really helpful to think about. One of the units I need to do with students is a research report, and in previous years I haven’t yet figured out how to help students find their creative voice within the report structure. This post is making me think about ways I can encourage kids to play with the structure to be more creative. Thanks!

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  4. I adore this post, Beth! Your mentor text recommendations — for both kinds of how-to-writing — are plentiful and helpful. (BTW: Anna bought Isabelle a copy of How to Be a Big Sister when Ari was born. It became a beloved book!)

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    • Thanks for this question! I work K-8! The Gutsy Girl example in the post is a YA/adult example of an informational text that incorporates How-To (procedural) writing. Examples of this kind of informational text abound for middle school! The difference in grades 6-8 is how students are learning to choose from a wide array of text structures to best convey the information (rather than being assigned or explicitly told what to do, or only having a limited repertoire of text structures to choose from). Middle schoolers are also learning to pull from a range of text structures to write with increasing sophistication – really crafting their writing instead of cobbling separate sections together to make a whole. Many middle school teachers I work with teach a “companion books” unit in which Ss create an informational text to go alongside a novel they have read (see the Stranger Things mentor text I just added in the padlet contained in the post) —these texts lend themselves really well to using many text structures and informational text features. Also, incorporating a graphic novel feel to info writing can be incredibly engaging to MS students who are otherwise not enthusiastic about writing an informational text. And, of course, any report-writing or research-based informational writing lends itself to using an array of text structures as well.

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      • We (sixth grade) are just finishing up an Informational Text unit and we use Rube Goldberg machines as engineering design (along with patents, diagrams, etc), and then tap into How To informational writing to explain how the simple-task-made-incredibly-complicated works.
        Kevin

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  5. By reading your posts….my writing instruction has elevated! The results certainly show that slight changes and adjustments to my teaching match my students needs! Thank you!

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    • This post is inspiring! I think “how to “ writing is supportive of kids who struggle with engagement, generating ideas, organization and structure, and elaboration. I think it holds so many opportunities to invite kids to write. So many kids watch “how to” YouTube videos, that oral rehearsal opportunities seem really natural, too. As always, thank you for your practical and inspiring post. It makes me see the possibilities for including how to writing in any genre and at an endlessly broad range of levels of complexity

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  6. Beth, I’m always so inspired by your posts. I love the connection to text structures for older students and specific author moves. Your padlet of mentor texts is one I will share with others. Thanks for some great inspiration!

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