Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Student Benefits of Informational Text

by Derek Spencer

As you probably already know, the Common Core State Standards require that 70% of student readings across all subject areas must be nonfiction (or, in the parlance of the CCSS, "Informational Text") by the time students reach 12th grade.

Luckily, English teachers don't have to bear that heavy load on their own, as readings in other classes count toward that 70% threshold. And thank goodness for that, because a world in which fiction was eliminated from the ELA curriculum would be rather dull, yes?

Still, it's likely that if you're in a Common Core state, you'll have to teach a little more nonfiction in the future. This may be a big shift for some, but it might be worth the work — studying nonfiction can have big benefits for students. Here are a few reasons informational text matters.

1. Some students prefer nonfiction.

Some students find that reading fiction simply isn't interesting. The reasons are varied as the personalities of the students themselves, but some people don't enjoy reading about events that didn't happen in reality. Nonfiction works can help these readers become more interested and engaged in what they're reading.

Of course, we don't want students to abandon fiction altogether. We want them to appreciate reading fiction for its own sake, but recent research implies that reading fiction might also increase a person's capacity for empathy.

For those who prefer nonfiction to fiction, perhaps reading a nonfiction work that centers on an individual with a powerful story (such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass), someone with whose struggles readers can identify, could also produce this effect.

2. Nonfiction promotes vocabulary development.

Students reading nonfiction — especially older nonfiction &mdash will inevitably come across several words that they haven't learned. These may be complex, challenging words used to convey complex, challenging ideas. Just look at this passage from George Washington's Farewell Address (borrowed from Essential American Documents and Speeches, Vol. 1), in which he enumerates the effects of "the spirit of party" on government and society:

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.

Enfeeble, agitates, kindles, animosity, foments, insurrection. Several of these are words that most readers won't encounter over the course of a single day, but they're all interesting and useful. A student who doesn't know the word "enfeeble" might use "weaken" in its place — which is fine, but "enfeeble" better conveys the severe degree to which Washington believes "the spirit of party" weakens the nation. Students who know words like this one can use them to more precisely produce a tone or mood that will evoke the emotional response they desire. And as a result . . .

3. Nonfiction readers tend to become better writers.

Once students have dissected (with your help, naturally) nonfiction works and closely examined the various elements that writers use to precisely convey meaning, they can begin to employ these elements in their own writings. Producing a powerful argument doesn't just happen, it's a result of painstaking attention to detail and  tireless craftsmanship.

A piece as powerful as Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is just as much a work of art as Things Fall Apart or Hamlet. Nonfiction texts can be more than just an assortment of facts or points in an argument — they can be poetic, emotional, even hilarious (just read Governor Adlai Stevenson's "Cat Bill Veto" for proof of this last). Once students recognize the capacity for expression nonfiction texts contain, writing them becomes a more interesting proposition.

4. Students engage with informational text every day.

This is likely the most important benefit for your students. How do your students know whether they can trust the contents of a given text? Authors often write to persuade others to accept their viewpoint, and if students don't understand the techniques authors use to persuade, they will be vulnerable to all sorts of demagoguery. With so much information coming at us at a faster pace than ever before in history, it's essential that students are well practiced in nonfiction reading.

As always, thank you for reading! Doubtless the list I've written is incomplete; if you can think of any other benefits for students, please let me know in the comments!

Derek Spencer is a Marketing Communications Associate at Prestwick House, publisher of Reading Informational Texts, Reading & Analyzing Nonfiction: Slant, Spin & Bias, and other textbooks that help students understand nonfiction texts.


Anonymous said...

I don't have any "additions" really, but more an expansion on #4. Nonfiction as a genre is really very broad. There are several types of subgenres within the category of nonfiction: biography and autobiographies, technical writing, textbooks, manuals, etc. It goes on and on. In this category there is so much that is poorly written. The field of technical writing, for example, conveys all the information in the world. It takes technical information and puts it into words the lay-person can understand. Errors in this type of writing can lead to operator error or equipment malfunction resulting in lawsuits and maybe the ruin of a business and the loss of lives.

Derek Spencer said...

Very good points; thank you for commenting. I can't tell you how many times I've read procedural documents that either glossed over important information or omitted it entirely. Unclear figures or illustrations can have just as detrimental an effect!

I can imagine some scenarios in which even very basic proofreading errors might result in the sort of errors or malfunctions you reference -- something as simple as the omission of a decimal point in a manual explaining calibration settings for a machine or instrument, for example.

Process description is fascinating stuff.