Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How Do I Choose Informational Texts for my English Classroom?

by Derek Spencer

The advent of the Common Core State Standards has spurred a good amount of discussion about the role of “informational texts” in the classroom. But what exactly do the Standards mean when they refer to informational texts, and how do you choose informational texts of high quality? We’ll do our best to answer those questions in this article. If you’re teaching in a state that has adopted the Common Core, here’s a quick guide to what you need to know.

Standard 10: Range, Quality, & Complexity

Standard 10 details three aspects that educators should consider when selecting informational texts: Range, Quality, and Complexity. We’re going to tackle each of these items one at a time.


Standard 10 groups English Language Arts texts into two major categories: “Literature” and “Informational Text.” Informational Text includes a range of broad genres: literary nonfiction, historical texts, scientific documents, and technical accounts. The one thing these genres have in common is that they’re all nonfiction.

The standard divides these large genres into several subgenres, including arguments; essays; biographies; journalism; and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts. Texts in this last category must be “written for a broad audience.” We interpret this to mean that standards-appropriate texts in this category present the author’s ideas in language that people outside the author’s discipline can understand. Jargon should be kept to a minimum. Where jargon is necessary, it should be clearly defined and thoroughly explained when introduced.


Of these three aspects, quality is the most subjective. When you’re examining a text’s quality, one of the first things to consider is the text’s importance or significance, whether cultural or historical. For example, the Declaration of Independence is highly significant, both historically and culturally. These qualities, along with the Declaration’s complexity, make it an excellent informational text. As a general rule, a text’s importance correlates strongly with its quality.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should exclude contemporary works — certainly not. However, selecting contemporary texts may be more challenging, especially if a consensus hasn’t been reached concerning the text’s quality. Here are a few questions you might ask yourself while examining a contemporary text:

  • How likely is this text to be historically or culturally significant? 
  • Does this text say something important about human nature?
  • Does this text say something important about the natural world?
  • Does this text say something important about society?
  • Does this text present a philosophy/ideology/technological advancement that is likely to change the way people think, work, live, etc.?

This list is, of course, non-exhaustive; please feel free to add and discuss entries in the comments.


When it comes to the standards, we can think of complexity as a synonym for “difficulty.” As students progress through the grades, the complexity of the texts they’re assigned should increase. Supplementary information about the standards presents three attributes educators should evaluate when measuring text complexity: Qualitative factors, Quantitative factors, and Reader and task considerations.

Qualitative factors are those elements of a text that are best measured by human readers, e.g., irony, purpose, multiple meanings, etc. Consider Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. A human reader will discern that Swift is not actually advocating that the Irish sell their children as food; a computer will likely interpret the satirical essay as straight-faced economic advice.

Texts that have multiple layers of meaning, take unconventional structures, use figurative or ambiguous language, and/or assume a high level of knowledge on the reader’s part are complex. Texts that have a single meaning, use conventional structure and direct language, and always present the reader with background on unfamiliar concepts are not.

Quantitative factors are those elements of a text that are best measured by a computer, e.g., word and sentence length — items that can be counted. Several measures have been established to measure quantitative complexity, with Flesch-Kincaid and Lexile measures being two of the more popular evaluation tools.

Reader and task considerations are those best measured by teachers. As a teacher, you know your students best — you know who excels and who struggles when it comes to reading tasks, and the standard allows (and yes, expects) you to tailor your curriculum to your students’ specific needs.

You have the freedom to choose the texts you want to teach; as long as your texts meet the qualitative and quantitative requirements described above, you’re good to go. The Standards do include a list of what they call “exemplar” texts — texts that meet the qualitative and quantitative requirements — but you don’t have to teach a text if you determine it won’t be appropriate for your students.

Take Range, Quality, and Complexity into account when selecting informational texts for your English classroom and you'll never go wrong.

For further reading on text complexity, check out this link:

For a list of text exemplars and sample performance tasks:

If you’re looking for help in teaching informational texts we have a series titled, appropriately, Reading Informational Texts. Each book contains several passages from informational texts, complete with qualitative and quantitative measures of text complexity, annotations, contextual vocabulary definitions, and short-answer and essay questions. Take a look and see what you think!

We welcome friendly discussion in our comments section. If you see any errors or misconceptions, please let us know — we want to hear from you so we can serve you as well as possible. As always, thanks for reading!

No comments: