Once upon a time, elementary school teachers nurtured children’s budding literacy almost exclusively with stories. In the modern classroom, educators increasingly are introducing information books in the reading mix and asking students to write about information in the early stages of their writing development.
“Although there has been growing stress on using information books in elementary schools over the past decade, there has been relatively little research on information writing development to support teachers’ efforts in this area,” write the researchers. “
Our research indicates that students’ writing progresses along various continua toward a mature form,” write the researchers. “Our studies of students and their writing supply unique insights into these intermediate forms of young authors’ information writing. From them, we have created a framework of development and instruction to enable teachers to provide enhanced support for the structural and linguistic aspects of students’ informational report writing.”
To support their students’ development in informational writing, teachers first should collect writing samples and place each student’s writing in one of the 8 categories. Then the teacher should plan how to prompt the student to move to the next level. Children’s information books can provide both teachers and students with good models of these 8 stages of information writing.
8 stages of development
Here are the 8 stages of development of information writing, with a brief description of each and samples of student writing that illustrate the stage:
Categories 1 and 2: Labels and Fact Statements. A student’s first steps in information writing typically involve the labeling of a picture the student has drawn. (“This is a girl in the grass and flowers.”)
Fact statements go beyond the pointing aspects of labeling and usually feature use of the present tense and of specialized vocabulary (volcanoes, cubs). Students use the present tense to state specific information or to present general information about a topic. (“Dinosaurs are dead.”)
Distinguishing between labels and fact statements is important and not always easy. Sometimes, teachers need to consider a student’s picture to determine whether the text is a label or a fact statement. If a student writes “I can play soccer” and the picture shows the student playing soccer, the text would be considered a label. If the picture shows a more general soccer scene with players in their positions on a field, the text would be considered a fact statement, a possible prelude to a longer informational piece.
Teachers who want to further clarify for themselves the distinction between labels and fact statements should examine information books written for emergent readers. Captions in these books frequently contain both labels and fact statements. These books can serve as models or mentor texts for students’ own writing, reinforcing connections between reading and writing.
Categories 3 and 4: Fact Lists and Couplets. The next stage in a student’s development in writing are sentences that use lists to convey more information. The ordering of facts is unimportant at this level. (“They like to swim in pools and they like to nibble on your finger and they don’t fly that good and they like to splash and that’s all.”) This sentence could easily be reordered without losing any meaning.
“Cohesion–how ideas are linked across a text and within sentences and paragraphs—is maintained in this text through repeated naming of the topic, bats, and the use of the pronoun they.”
Students use a more sophisticated form of cohesion in “couplets.” Sentence clauses are coupled together through order, related ideas and other more abstract forms of organization.
Unlike fact lists, reordering the clauses or sentences results in meaning changes. (“Do you know where turtles swim? They swim in the ocean under the sea.”) In the example sentence, a second-grade girl, uses both pronominal (through pronouns) and lexical cohesion (swim is repeated in the two sentences.)
Categories 5 and 6: Fact List Collection and Couplet collection. As they progress in writing, students add breadth to their compositions by including multiple subtopics. For example, one student presents information on multiple animals in the format of a fact list collection. (“Pigs are slippery. Pigs eat slops. They oink. Cows give milk. They eat grass. Some are brown. Sheeps give wool. They go baa. Some are brown.”)
Couplet collections contain 2 or more couplets serving as subtopics. Although order is important within the couplets, the order between couplets is not, the researchers write. One student’s writing about hot air balloons provides a good example of couplet collection structure.The couplets include descriptions of attributes (shapes and colors) and characteristic events (what makes balloons rise).
Cohesion is maintained by the repeated naming of the topic (balloons) as well as by the use of pronoun, they. (“They have special shapes. There are many shapes like T-Rex, a stork, and a shoe. Some balloons are all red. Some balloons are all colors of the rainbow. Balloons go up early in the morning. They go up when it is cold and we wear coats. The balloons glow at night. The burner shines in the dark.”)
Categories 7 and 8: Single and Unordered Paragraphs. In the most advanced stages of development, students create paragraphs in their writing. The researchers define a paragraph as a sequence of 3 or more sentences supporting 1 clearly identifiable point. The difference between paragraphs and couplet and fact list collections is not always obvious.
Unordered paragraphs differ from ordered paragraphs in that subtopic paragraphs can easily be rearranged without disrupting meaning.
“In many well-written compositions, paragraph order is not critical. In fact, many information books on general topics, such as weather or animals, include unordered paragraphs,” the researchers write.
Ordered paragraphs must follow a sequence to accurately convey the writer’s meaning. The student who wrote about hot air balloons went on to describe how hot air balloons are filled, how passengers ride the balloon and then how the balloon is emptied. Time connectives (first, then, at the end) show that these paragraphs must appear in this order.
The researchers offer a list of texts providing good models of information writing for K-5 children:
- Time for Kids
- Click, Ask, and Muse
- Appleseeds and Cobblestones
- National Council of Teachers of English’s Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children winners and runners up
- American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award winners and runners up
- Designs (Robinson, 1996) Patterns in the animal world
- Water (Canizares and Chanko 1998)
- HarperCollins’s Let’s-Read-and-find-Out Science 1-3 books
- Ants (Berger & Berger 2002)
- DK Eye Wonder Weather (Mack 2004)
“Supporting Informational Writing in the Elementary Grades,” by Carol Donovan and Laura Smolkin, The Reading Teacher, 2011, Volume 64, Number 6, pps. 406-416.