A couple of my teacher friends stopped by this week to talk about the first days of school and what we were all putting into place for the year. Part of our conversation centered on using more informational text and how I was incorporating some things I've learned through reading and attending conferences into my classroom environment and practices. One of the teachers, Mrs. S., emailed me later the next day. She'd been thinking about our conversation and said that she really thought her kids would be excited to have more informational text used in her room. She asked if I had any thoughts to help her get started...of course I do!
In their book Reading & writing informational text in the primary grades: research-based practices, Nell Duke and V.Susan Bennett-Armistead say that many early elementary kids naturally gravitate toward informational text. I will admit to being a little surprised about how many of my kids do indeed do this. This year I deliberately set up my classroom library to have more informational texts organized more effectively. I've also been reading aloud more informational texts and have been careful to highlight baskets of texts from this part of my library. Remember that Duke suggests that we think about read alouds and classroom libraries in thirds--one third narrative fiction, one third information, and one third other stuff like poetry, repetitive texts, etc. Already this year, there are some days I have more kids reading information books than anything else!
Duke also differentiates between nonfiction and information. Essentially she says informational text is a type of nonfiction, but since nonfiction includes things like biography and memoir and how to, she wanted to be specific. In terms of thinking about the benefits for building general background knowledge, this makes sense to me.
In considering Duke's work and the what I know about organizing classroom libraries, one thing I did was to consider how I organized informational text. First, I quit putting everything into one big tub called nonfiction (do not underestimate the importance of this!). I tried to organize my information books into categories that made sense. After putting them all out, I did have quite a few that were animals, so I put them together. I almost have enough about birds to do that. Insects and spiders went together since I had a few of each. One basket is tools, machines, and buildings--only had a couple of each, but they seemed they could go together. I do have one tub of miscellaneous--these are the ones that are really interesting, well-done texts that did not fit any other category but I wanted to have out. My filter was essentially to consider how to put texts together so that kids who are really into mechanical type stuff could find things, kids who love weather could find things, etc.
I also tried to have at least a couple baskets of informational text authors, mirroring what I do with fiction. A couple good ones for early elementary are Melvin and Gilda Berger and Gail Gibbons. Seymore Simon has a few that would be good for younger kids, though many of his are more appropriate for older kids.
Another thing we often overlook is magazines. For informational text in engaging formats, this can be a good way to go. Of course, access can be tough. Luckily, my parents had given my youngest son a subscription to Your Big Backyard, which is the precursor to Ranger Rick. Since he's moved on to Ranger Rick, I took the issues of Your Big Backyard to school and made a basket of them. As they fall apart, I plan to cut out some of the pictures with captions and some of the articles and either display them in my library's information section or laminate them and return them to the basket.
Now for the most challenging part of getting started: where do we get the texts? Especially high quality, engaging ones? Mrs. S. had already hit on the easiest source--the school (or public) library. Using that also allows you to have rotating collections that hit different topics and can be responsive to what your kids are finding interesting over the course of the year. Book orders have also started offering more and more informational text the past few years, and some of these are pretty nice. They are also more likely to be pretty accessible, though the text may be somewhat controlled in some of them. Look for stuff with beautiful photographs and topics that kids find interesting. I got a set several years ago that tells about a day in the life of different workers like police officers and veterinarians. Book orders also have regular picture books that are informational too. Another plus in using book orders is that you earn bonus points and can get more books!
Another source might be library book sales and garage sales, but be careful--some of these books may be out of date. You might also consider partnering with another teacher--if you each have some baskets on different topics, you could trade them at the end of a grading period or semester, bringing new life to each of your libraries. Of course, you'll want some baskets to stay year round. Also check the rest of your classroom library--remember that literary nonfiction looks like and reads like fiction, but is actually be informational text. I found quite a few books "hidden" among my fiction collection.
Remember this is just a start. It seems like the first step is to begin to think deliberately about using informational text and start gathering texts together. Then once we've started reading aloud more of these books (and magazine articles!) with kids, we can start to think about our interactions with kids during that time. There is a lot we can consider with teacher language during read alouds and shared reading, with including information writing during interactive writing and writing workshop, and with inquiry or exploration during center time.
I'm off to find more books about frogs--as requested by my kids.