Informational writing is a BIG deal in the CCSS. In this post, we take a close-up look at what informational writing is, what the CCSS expectations are, and what—precisely—students must do to succeed on next year’s writing assessments.
Definition. By definition, informational writing teaches us about the world. Purists will tell you that informational writing is a little different from nonfiction, even though the latter is fact-based and true-to-life. Nonfiction may take a narrative form, though—as in some news stories, for example, or a biography. It’s also important to distinguish between informational writing and exposition, which is the free-wheeling exploration of a topic. Exposition can come right out of the writer’s head; it’s a product of imagination, philosophy, observation, and personal perspective all combined, making it ideally suited to on-demand writing. Informational writing, on the other hand, also relies on observation and experience, but the information presented must be supported by research.
Purpose. All three umbrella genres defined by the Common Core serve important instructional purposes. Narrative teaches the art of creating a setting and characters readers care about. It also offers experience in dealing with the most challenging of all organizational structures: plot. This is the organizational design writers agonize over—because it has to be good. Really, really good. No matter how strong other elements may be, if the plot is weak, implausible, or disappointing, a story falls on its face.
Argument teaches writers to examine an issue from more than one side, to take a definitive stand, and to defend that position through credible and compelling evidence. Above all, crafting an argument teaches writers to think.
Informational writing encourages writers to dig for hidden or little-known details, and present them in a way that expands others’ knowledge and understanding. This process turns writers into researchers and teachers.
Informational writing merits special attention because while a few of our students may become poets or novelists, and a few more may become attorneys, virtually all will engage in some form of informational writing: reports and summaries, articles of all types, definitions and explanations, product descriptions, newspaper journalism, photo journalism, posters, pamphlets, websites, CD-ROMs, educational materials, historic summaries, Internet features or blogs, and more. Much more. To really appreciate just how much, try keeping a comprehensive list of all the things you read in a month, big and small. Chances are—even if you’re a poetry buff or a lover of mystery novels (as I am)—the majority of reading you do focuses on information in its many forms. Teaching students to both read and write informational text is essential in preparing them for Twenty-First Century life.
Following are the explicit requirements of the CCSS related to informational writing at grade 5. (Please check
for requirements specific to your grade level.) Notice that the first standard is complex, involving several different skills. The remaining four are more focused.
1. W.5.2.A: Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
What’s required here?
• Know your topic. Know precisely what your topic is and be able to express this to a reader using concise, understandable language.
• Start with a killer lead. Introduce the topic clearly and directly, setting up the discussion that follows in an engaging manner that tells readers this topic is both important and interesting.
• Keep it focused! Focus on your topic section to section, paragraph to paragraph. Don’t wander!
• Get organized. Group related information in a logical way. Put things together that go together, and begin and end with key, relevant information. Think about putting things into a four-drawer chest. You want socks in one place, tee shirts in another—not everything jumbled together. But in addition, you need to decide what should go in the very top drawer, the very bottom drawer, and right in the middle.
• Provide visual clues. Use formatting to guide the reader: e.g., subheads or bulleted lists. Everything you do should be designed to make your document EASY to read.
• Enhance the message as necessary. Use illustrations or multimedia—photos, charts and graphs, maps, but also video and audio as necessary. Note: Keep in mind that writing may be a part of assessing other subjects, such as math, making visuals like diagrams or charts invaluable.
2. W.5.2.B: Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic
What’s required here?
• Define the “range” of your topic. Get a sense of how “big” your topic really is. You won’t be able to tell everything, so try to identify the three, four, or five subtopics that matter most. This initial planning makes it much easier to zero in on details you want to showcase.
• Choose details wisely. Don’t tell readers what they know: Elephants are big, They live in Africa and India. Dig for things readers may not know: Elephants can remember trainers and other humans for decades, Elephants can learn complex behaviors just by watching other elephants, Females elephants protect all young—not just their own.
• Understand the nature of detail. Detail takes many forms: descriptions, facts, images, history, research findings and knowledge or insight from experts (via quotations). Use a variety to make your writing interesting.
• Back claims with specific examples. For instance, if you say weather has changed markedly in the last ten thousand years, explain what you mean. Are deserts expanding? Temperatures rising? Are water tables drying up? What’s happening to ocean currents? Good examples should be both specific and verifiable through recent and reliable research.
3. W.5.2.C: Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).
What’s required here?
• Use transitions effectively. Transitions are word bridges, taking us from thought to thought, paragraph to paragraph, or chapter to chapter. Where links are less than obvious, use transitions to take your reader by the hand and guide him/her through your thinking. Don’t overdo it, though. Beginning every sentence with a transitional phrase will drive readers crazy.
• Understand what transitions are. Transitions serve a purpose. They guide readers from point to point, like signage in a park or museum. The word Obviously takes readers down one path. The word Amazingly takes readers in another direction entirely. Choose transitions with care because like hand gestures or facial expressions, they influence the way readers interpret your message.
• Sometimes, one word will do it: however, next, specifically
• Sometimes it takes a phrase: on the other hand, to look at the problem from a different perspective, which brings us to the primary point, looking back in time, imagining the world a hundred years from now, at the end of this period in time, to everyone’s amazement
• Transitions can even be whole paragraphs: We’ve seen how the Industrial Revolution changed completely and forever the way people interact with one another and with nature. But make no mistake. The next 50 years will witness changes far greater than anything we’ve experienced in the past five centuries combined. Following is a preview.
4. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
What’s required here?
• Choose words carefully. The first word that comes into your head may or may not be the best for expressing a thought. In the preceding sentence, I chose to write first word that comes into your head. But what if I wrote something different? I could change the tone of that sentence by writing first word you think of or first word that occurs to you or first word that manifests itself. Take time to kick around options so you wind up saying what you mean to say—and in the tone of voice that’s right for your document.
• Don’t fall victim to thesaurus syndrome. The words big, enormous, vast, spacious, expansive, and humongous are related—but they’re not interchangeable. You can’t wear a vast hat or eat a spacious sandwich. Choose the word that fits your precise intended meaning.
• Use the vocabulary of the content area with ease and understanding. Every topic has a specialized language to go with it. For example, when writing about the Cosmos, a writer needs to use terms like galaxy, black hole, pulsar, gravity, super nova, relativity, or elliptical orbit with confidence and accuracy.
• Explain any terms that might be unfamiliar. Most readers understand gravity, but terms like pulsar or quark could be new for some, so the occasional specialized term might need explanation.
5. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.e Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.
What’s required here?
• End with a bang. The ending is your final opportunity to create an impression, so make it count. Don’t settle for banality: That’s why the Cosmos is important to us all. Yawn. Instead, create an ending that’s effective, that provides satisfaction, and that leaves the reader with something to think about: “Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos. 1980, 345).
• Go with the flow. Make sure the ending flows logically from information presented. A surprise is one thing—going off topic or raising new issues that seem disconnected with your primary topic is another.
• Don’t repeat. Don’t repeat what you just said as if you think the reader wasn’t really paying attention. Think creatively: e.g., Reveal a detail you’ve held back for last, surprise the reader, pose a question yet to be answered, suggest something to keep in mind for the future, or wrap up with a quotation from someone with a bit of wisdom on your topic. At the end of her chapter on hawks, biologist and author Sy Montgomery closes her discussion with the “unspoken rules” by which hawks live their lives: “Hunt hard. Kill swiftly. Waste nothing. Offer no apologies” (Birdology, 2010, 148). No platitudes there.
What about older students?
As all fans and followers of the CCSS know well, expectations grow increasingly demanding with grade level. By grades 11 and 12, students are expected to do everything noted above, plus the following:
• Ensure that each new element (think “detail”) introduced builds on what has come before, so that the whole piece has unity and creates a conceptual scaffold that takes readers to an increasingly heightened understanding of the topic.
• Choose only the most significant and relevant facts and details to use in developing the topic.
• Incorporate such literary devices as metaphor, simile, and analogy to clarify meaning.
• Maintain a formal style and objective tone (think lively and engaging, but professional—and never biased).
• Use the conclusion as an opportunity to articulate the significance or implications of the topic.
Goals and Pitfalls
The School Improvement Network has issued rubrics developed (by a company called Tunitin) for use in scoring student writing in upcoming CCSS writing assessments. (Note: This information is NOT just for English or writing teachers. Writing may also be required in math and other assessments, where similar rubrics will likely be used.) These may change, of course, prior to testing. But they’re still worth looking up and sharing with students because they offer great insight about what raters will be looking for. Simply type “Common Core Writing Rubrics” into your search engine to find printable copies.
The so-called “Informative” rubric spans six traits: focus, development, audience, cohesion (primarily use of transitions), language and style, and conventions. (Note: If you teach the 6 traits—the original ones—these new CCSS “six” correlate to the original 6 traits as follows (CCSS term on left):
• focus = ideas and presentation/formatting
• audience = ideas and voice
• development = organization
• cohesion = organization
• language and style = word choice and voice
• conventions = conventions
Scores on the CCSS rubrics range from a high of 5 to a low of 1, and are defined by these headings (in order): Exceptional, Skilled, Proficient, Developing, and Inadequate.
How should you use these rubrics in the classroom?
Here are six suggestions:
1. First, print copies for your students. They will improve more rapidly and consistently if they know precisely what CCSS raters are looking for.
2. Discuss “Exceptional” (Level 5) descriptors. This is the CCSS ideal—for now at least. So this is your goal. Discuss these with students to see if anything is unclear—and also how close they feel they come to meeting each of these high level goals in their own writing. Think also of the literature you share as a class. Which professional writers meet the top goals? Their work can serve as a model.
3. Score some papers as a class. Almost nothing you do will enhance your students’ understanding of good writing more than this simple lesson—and students of all ages enjoy it immensely. Use anonymous copies of student work (from other classes, if possible). But also score a few professionally written essays (and don’t assume they’ll all get 5s, either). As you score, begin with Level 5. Does the piece you are assessing meet the requirements outlined there? If not, drop down point by point until you find the level that fits best. Don’t be surprised if your students do not all agree on the most appropriate scores. Excellent discussions emerge from these disagreements.
4. Ask students to score essays of their own. If they do not meet the Level 5 requirements according to their own assessment, ask them to work out a revision plan—and to follow it in revising their own work. They cannot always go from 1 to 5, but even a one-point revision shows progress.
5. Be cautious about that term “inadequate.” Negative terms can hurt—and actually impede progress. Think of Level 1 as a “beginning.” The writer has put something on paper.
6. Pay particular attention to problems identified at Levels 1 and 2. Any of them could result in lower scores. Following is a brief summary of the major pitfalls in informational writing:
Pitfalls for Informational Writing
• The topic is unclear—or the writer doesn’t really have a topic yet
• Information is limited
• There are few if any facts or examples to explain or expand the topic
• The conclusion is missing or weak
• The writer does not seem “in tune” with the informational needs and interests of the audience
• Graphics and formatting (e.g., subheads, bulleted lists, illustrations) are missing, confusing, or simply not helpful
• The writer uses few if any transitions—and does not link ideas to one another or to the main topic
• Word choice is vague
• Words are used incorrectly
• The writer makes limited (if any) use of metaphor or simile to clarify ideas
• The tone is not appropriately objective and professional
• The text contains multiple conventional errors (according to handbooks published by the MLA, Modern Language Association, or APA, American Psychological Association)
“Must Have” Skills Students Need to Succeed
Research: Students must be capable of identifying sources of information, setting up a research plan, and following it to gather data.
Note taking: Just finding a good source is not enough, whether it’s a book or person to interview. It’s important to zero in on what’s important, ask the right questions (whether of an interviewee or just in your own mind), and take good notes that will later translate into riveting text. This means capturing what matters and not overloading yourself with trivia.
Organizing information: Many students find piles of data daunting. They don’t know what to write about first, next, or last. Just telling students to “get organized” is of no help. You need to walk them through it step by step. Try this: Create a list of informational tidbits (about 20 or so) on any topic at all, then model the organization of that information. Begin by crossing out what you don’t need: e.g., what’s less interesting, what most readers likely know. Then group remaining tidbits under two, three, or four subheadings. Next, organize the information within each of those subhead categories. Write a strong lead and ending for your piece. Come up with a title for the piece. Once you’ve done this, give students a second set of informational bits on a whole new topic, and have them go through the same steps you just modeled—perhaps working with a partner.
Using transitions: Identify transitions in the reading you do together and discuss how they work. Share lists of transitions, but don’t depend on lists. That’s like teaching math by giving students a list of numbers. Instead, have them search for passages in books, newspapers, or Internet articles where transitions are used well—and talk about why. Talk about what happens in your mind as a reader when you encounter transitions like Suddenly, Just then, Worst of all, Luckily, Just out of sight, and so on. In the CCSS assessment, the trait of “Cohesion” is largely defined by the effective use of transitions—so using them skillfully is vital. (See our December 9, 2013 post on the CCSS Writing Assessment for tips on teaching effective use of transitions.)
Writing strong conclusions: Students often rely on formula, repeating their three main points. That isn’t going to be good enough. Just reading the words “In summary” could be enough to make a reader think, “Cliché, formula, score of 3 or lower.” Writers will need to be creative. Study endings from the best informational books and articles you can find. What are the alternatives to formula and predictable re-hashes of points already made? Create a class list of strategies that work—and practice writing model conclusions.
Editing and citing sources: Conventions will need to be top-notch. This means students must spell, capitalize, and punctuate correctly, use proper grammar, and know how to cite sources—books, periodicals, interviewees, or whatever. Practice in editing is essential—and any practice of less than ten minutes is probably going to be only minimally helpful. Note that the CCSS requirements for conventions rely on MLA or ALA handbooks, so it is a good idea to have one of these in your classroom and teach students to use it as a resource. Look something up every day and know the guidelines for citing sources. (Note: Check Amazon for a series of affordable pamphlets that combine MLA and APA Guidelines in a compressed format. Author: Thomas Smith Page/Inc. BarCharts.)
Update on Machine Scoring
Discussion continues about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in scoring writing assessment samples. As you know if you’re a regular reader, at Gurus we object adamantly to machine scoring—for a host of reasons (See our post from 11/7/2013 for an extensive review of this issue). The primary advantage with AI, of course, is speed. Quick (think “scan and done”) scoring radically reduces cost, and unfortunately, cost reduction is an almost unparalleled motivator. It’s important to keep this possibility in mind when preparing your young writers for upcoming assessments because machines are not very good at nuance. As an example, they’re very good at identifying advanced vocabulary, but not quite as good at determining whether those big words are used well. Further, no one can seem to figure out how to program them to score “voice.” (What?! Machines cannot detect when something touches the human heart?) Similarly, they have laser-like accuracy when it comes to spotting conventional errors, but no sense of humor whatsoever regarding conventional creativity. (Imagine e. e. cummings in a writing assessment.) For more on this ongoing debate, see “Automating Writing Evaluations” by Caralee Adams in Education Week “Technology Counts,” Mar. 13, 2014 (Vol. 33, #25, p. 13, 15), http://www.edweek.org
Recommended Mentor Texts
Use of mentor texts is invaluable in teaching informational writing—and luckily, there are many more to choose from than were available even a decade ago. You don’t have to rely just on books; many periodicals—Scientific American, National Geographic—feature Pulitzer Prize-worthy writing by some of the best authors around. Read aloud to students (of all ages) frequently from the best informational writing you can find, and use selected pieces as mentor texts to illustrate things like—
• Strong leads
• Effective conclusions
• Good use of detail
• Artful use of transitions
• Appropriate tone and style
• Striking word choice
Between the two of us, Jeff and I could easily list 100 or more outstanding informational books. The following is a more manageable list of particular favorites. We’ve noted general reading levels, but please keep in mind that you can read small passages from any book (including those aimed primarily at adults) to even the youngest students. You might read the whole book, but you can be selective in choosing passages to share.
• The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife—word choice so striking you’ll read some passages several times.
• Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) We may not love them, but we sure love hearing about them. Simon has all the gory details.
• At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Wonderfully detailed history of how homes and their amenities, from phones to windows to bathtubs, evolved.
• Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Beautifully researched, dramatic stories of courageous people who formed a network of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust—striking layout featuring artwork, numerous photos, and maps.
• Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Big Blast of Science by Bill Nye (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Clear and simple explanations of various aspects of physics.
• Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Informational, adult) Details and word choice so captivating, this one is hard to put down—many, many excellent read-aloud passages.
• Black Gold by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Concise review of oil’s history, and its impact on world economics and politics—good for illustrating the value of research.
• The Brain by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Good model of clear science writing.
• Buried in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Fascinating blend of U.S. history and forensic science, filled with revealing photos (some graphic).
• The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (Informational, adult) Everything you ever wanted to know about cockroaches, and then some.
• Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Informational, Grade 9 and up) Sure, a lot has happened since Sagan wrote this landmark book, but his gift for rendering astro-physics poetic remains unmatched.
• The Deep Sea Floor by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) One of the best leads you’ll find in a science text. Also excellent for modeling good use of terminology.
• Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Detailed, often hilarious accounts of how our hardiest creatures survive extreme conditions.
• In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Combines multiple genres: informational, descriptive, personal narrative, travel writing, history in a seamless fashion—makes you want to visit Australia immediately. You can choose from among hundreds of fine informational passages for read-alouds your students will love.
• Just the Right Size by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) A simple math concept turns into a delightful chapter-by-chapter essay on how animals evolve into just the right size—excellent example of Informational voice.
• Lizards by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Illustrated with the author’s own photos—check out the table of contents to see how well organized this one is.
• Next Stop Neptune: Experiencing the Solar System by Alvin Jenkins (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Photos, art, and text work together to relay intriguing details.
• Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 4 and up) How could an author who feared rats as a child write a book this intriguing? Grade 1 through adult, listeners can’t get enough.
• Our Planet by the MySpace Community (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Well-researched book on going green, with many sections useful in modeling argument.
• Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Easy reading, highly engaging—filled with choice details about unusual animals.
• Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam (Informational, Grade 4 and up) No matter where you are, there’s a spider close by. That’s just one of dozens of spidery facts Margery Facklam taught me in this book.
• Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (Informational, graphic sections, Grade 10 and up) The stunning story of how sugar drove the Atlantic slave trade—filled with voice and striking word choice.
• The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Clear, detailed writing with photos vivid enough to make you jump.
• Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns (Informational, Grade 6 and up) You won’t believe how much plastic floats in our seas.
• Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman (Informational & poetry, Grade 5 and up) A terrific book for showing how to deal with a given topic in more than one genre. Informational essays and correlating poems pay homage to nature’s toughest species.
• What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Highly readable account of
parasites—detailed (almost too detailed in parts!), with excellent use of terminology.
• Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife and conservation—Quammen is an informational writing master.
• World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Essentially a 171-page argument for rethinking our fishing practices—exceptionally well-written and useful for illustrating most writing standards of the Common Core
• Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 6 and up) A well- researched account of factors leading up to the Dust Bowl, life during this period, and projections for future Dust Bowls planet-wide; excellent for showing how a professional writer can deal with a vast array of information and display it in multiple forms: facts, essays, songs, maps, photos, and more.
Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills
If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons on choosing an informational topic, researching, choosing the best details, writing with professional voice, using words well, editing copy, formatting effectively, and more, we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Next time around, Jeff returns with reviews of some outstanding new books. He’ll have many classroom teaching tips you won’t want to miss.
Meanwhile, if you’re concerned about meeting Common Core standards in informational writing—or any genre—we can help. We’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We know the standards inside and out, and we can help you connect them with writing process and workshop—as well as outstanding mentor texts for all ages. Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.