An example

Ask anyone who has spent time reviewing the Common Core Standards; informational writing is one of today’s hot topics in the world of writing instruction. Given its emphasis in the Standards, many teachers are assigning more informational writing than ever before–but assigning, of course, is never the same as teaching. And as a result, some of that writing winds up looking and sounding like the following excerpt from a middle school paper:

In my opinion, Abraham Lincoln is my favorite president. His father got a divorce which he remarried another widow and Abe talked to his stepmother a lot. Abe was said to be goodf with axes when he chops wood. Even though he was strong he disliked killing animals because he liked them. I think Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in the world.

In fairness, this is an excerpt from a longer piece–so there’s more. However, more isn’t always better–sometimes, it just takes longer to read. What’s missing? If we look at this through the eyes of the traits, we might say that the piece could use more detail and expansion. Ideas are tossed at us, but not developed. This leads us to another problem: organization. This is a kind of tidbit stew, where divorce is intermixed with wood chopping skill and love for animals.  And certainly the fluency could use some work. Having this sort of discussion (identifying strengths or problems within a piece of writing) can be enormously helpful in teaching writing. Students need to see what works and what doesn’t so they have a mindset for revision. The problem is, it’s not enough. The real trouble with a paper like the one on Lincoln begins (I think) well before the writer even begins to compose. That’s what makes revision so hard. The problem isn’t really in the sentences or the order of details, so no amount of reordering will help. The problem is with the research.

With that in mind, here are 7 tips for strengthening informational writing from behind the scenes–that is, even before the actual physical composition begins:

1. Teach students how to choose good topics. Many pieces fail (miserably) because students choose topics (or are assigned topics) in which they have no interest. True, some topics become interesting as we learn more about them. All the more reason to have a period of exploration during which students do some light research (reading, talking, Internet browsing) to come up with (a) an interesting topic, and (b) an interesting question to pose and answer.

2. Expand students’ definition of research. My favorite informational writers (Bill Bryson, Sneed Collard, Craig Childs, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery) are field researchers–every one of them. This doesn’t mean that they never crack a book or go online. It just means they don’t depend exclusively on a traditional midnight oil burning model of what true research is all about. Outstanding information can be gathered through observation, experience, experimentation, and interviews–yet how many of our students know to include these processes in their work?

3. Make sure students know where and how to access information. A good early conference might focus on two questions: (a) What question (or questions) will you attempt to answer through your work? and (b) Where will you look for that information? Make sure students know where to look, that they plan to use various research processes in their search, and that they are comfortable with technology. It’s easy to assume that students are computer savvy. Many are. Some are not–and may be shy to ask for help when their friends and classmates seem so adept at browsing the Web and knowing which sites are legitimate or helpful. Small-group mini lessons to build computer skills can give many students a leg up.

4. Make sure students know how to take notes. So often, students read about a topic (like Lincoln) and then try to tell us everything back. But writing isn’t like Jeopardy. Memorization will only take you so far. We don’t want to hear everything; we want to hear the good stuff. The mind craves new information. This is why researchers (except for the very youngest students) need to explore several different sources, pull the best from each one, and then reassemble the collection into something new and vibrant.

 To check note taking skills, give your students a one-page summary of any topic. Anything at all. Have them highlight the 5 most important details–and you do the same. Then write them up as “notes.” Compare what you did with what your students did. It can be enlightening–and can offer you immediate insight into how best to teach note taking. (Note taking is one of the behind the scenes essentials for good informational writing, yet even college students struggle with it.)

5. Show students how to keep a piece manageable in scope and size. Let’s say I assemble a collection of 100 facts and details about Lincoln’s life. Unless I’m writing a book, that’s way too much. For a two-page or even a five-page paper, I’ll need to trim my collection substantially. This is VERY hard for beginners, who are reluctant to toss anything. Ever have a neighbor who really, really needed to trim a tree–but he just couldn’t bear to cut a single branch? It’s the same idea. So you’ll need to practice trimming skills. You don’t need 100 facts or details for this, but you might begin with a list of 20. Then have students, in small groups, trim that list to the top 10. (By the way, the Write Traits Kits include lessons designed to build this very skill.)

6. Read aloud from the BEST informational writing you can find. Do NOT settle for textbooks and encyclopedias as models. The writing in such sources can be overly compressed and lifeless. It’s reading we do because we’re looking up specific information–or because it’s assigned and we have no choice. That isn’t what we want from our students–is it? You want to inspire them, excite them. Imagine yourself going home with thirty student papers you simply cannot wait to read. If all your students wrote like Craig Childs or Nicola Davies, that’s exactly what you’d have. Students tend to write what they read–or what we read to them. If most of what we read aloud is fiction, we cannot be surprised when our students are more comfortable with narrative than with other genres.  Expand the horizon.

7. Help students gauge the audience. Readers are not all the same. It’s one thing to write for people who already love your topic–say it’s global warming. It’s another altogether to write for people who find global warming the dullest topic ever, or who are prepared to question every last thing you have to say. Age makes a difference as well. Many students who write for an adult audience of one (the teacher, that is) would actually do better if they shifted audiences to write for their peers–or even for younger students. Writing for younger readers can force a writer to think through issues more carefully in order to make them clear and to search for words that make meaning accessible. It’s also important, at times, to write for readers who don’t have to read your work if they don’t want to. Face it: the teacher (usually) has no choice. What if he or she did? What if the writer had to hold the reader’s attention? That’s a challenge every writer needs to face from time to time.

Two final thoughts . . .

You will find much, much more about teaching informational writing in the upcoming 6th edition of Creating Writers, due out in spring of 2012. The final publication date will be posted right here.

For an outstanding example of informational writing you’ll enjoy sharing with students in grades 4 through 8, check out Gaia Warriors by Nicola Davies. We will be reviewing this book right here at Gurus later this week–and offering several suggestions for using this remarkable book to spark good discussions and initiate strong informational writing. Meantime, you might do a little pre-research of your own. Look up “Gaia” or James Lovelock on line. More to come . . .