Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Informational Text: Or How Thin Can You Slice the Salami


As most of you know, the common core state standards (CCSS) make a big deal about informational text. Unlike typical state standards, CCSS treats the reading of informational text as being as important as reading literary text. That is a wonderful shift and one that could bear real benefits for children.

Of course, this is not a new issue. When I was in graduate school (a long time ago), one of my advisors, Richard Venezky, published a wonderful article entitled, Crossing a Chasm in Two Leaps. In it, he detailed how children were confronted by the problem of literacy. They first had to learn how to decode and read literature and then if they accomplished that successfully, they then had to master informational text. His not-too-subtle point was that when jumping over chasms one should try to get all the way across on the first jump: students needed to have more experience with informational text from the get go.

Importance of Informational Text 
Why is informational text so important? First, is its role in learning. Look at a typical high school curriculum. Students take an English class where they read literature, but they also take a World Culture class, a biology class, an Algebra class, etc. In other words, most academic learning opportunities involve the reading of text that is not literary. Of course, it is even clearer in the workplace. When was the last time your boss asked you to read a novel, short story, or poem? From the most basic health and safety forms, to the detailed reports and specs of various jobs, one finds nary a poem.

Another reason is that many kids prefer informational text to stories. That one upsets many reading teachers and English teachers because we so resonate with a good story. It is hard to accept that many kids prefer to curl up with a good book about computers or dinosaurs. It takes all kinds.

Needless to say, I’m happy the CCSS emphasize info text (and the new assessments are going to treat informational and literary texts as co-equals, too).

However, I’m getting queries from educators about the right mix of texts. David Coleman and his crew put out specifications telling what percentage of daily reading needs to be informational, and all of a sudden I’m hearing that reading textbooks have to be 50-50 or 60-40 in their mix of literature and information. (The Chicago Tribune even did a front-page story on this because it is such a big deal in the schools).

What does the research say is the best mix of text to foster optimum student learning?

Research on the Mix of Literary and Informational Text 
The research is silent on the issue. No one has any evidence that one mix or another is best or worst. It is certainly clear that our predominant emphasis on literary texts in elementary schools and English classes makes no sense, given that our kids do worse with informational text than literary text (according to PISA, the international comparisons). Earlier in the decade analyses indicated that elementary reading textbooks were about 80-20 in their emphasis on literature, and in schools where textbooks weren’t used, the imbalance was often even worse.

When someone tells you 60-40 or 50-50 or anything that specific you can be absolutely certain that they made it up. Ignore made up statistics or at least ask for a source of evidence. Given the certainty in these prescriptions I’m surprised we haven’t been told that the right mix is 53.65%-46.35% (with rounding of course).

Let’s get down to basics. The whole idea is to provide kids with a really good mix of literary and informational reading experiences so that they have sufficient opportunity to gain both sets of skills.

Coleman and company called for a 50-50 split between literary and informational text in the elementary school. But that doesn’t mean a core program has to include a 50-50 split of materials, since Coleman’s estimate has to do with all classroom reading, including reading subject matter materials in science and social studies.  

Text Throughout the Curriculum 
In other words, you can’t just look at the books themselves. How much reading are students actually doing throughout their school day? This is often quite limited–even just a few minutes a day according to some studies (teacher’s often don’t use textbooks in those other subjects—some districts have even stopped providing such texts; and even when they do the teacher may be doing the reading—which doesn’t count).

It is a rare school district that has any idea how much reading its children are engaged in throughout the day in the various subjects—and it varies quite a bit by classroom. To ensure a 50-50 split in student experience would require knowing those statistics (in fact, studying the classrooms would be every bit as important as studying the textbooks themselves).

In a classroom with lots of other reading, it would be okay to have a reading program that had a larger proportion of literary text than informational, while in a classroom with little such reading, something more in the range of 50-50 would be essential to give kids anything like the envisioned experience.

What is Informational Text and How to Count It
Another complication is that not all non-fiction selections are informational text. Informational text is text that provides information about the social or natural world, and deals with classes of objects and experiences rather than individual instances. Thus, an article about spelunking would be informational, but a narrative that tells the story of someone’s actual spelunking adventure would not be. Or, an article on porpoises and how they communicate would be informational, but Flipper’s life story falls into the literary pot (even though it might be a true story). In many cases, people are counting up all their non-fiction and claiming it as informational. Frankly, the skills needed to read a fictional story and a true life story are not so different; making sure that kids get a lot of non-fiction reading experience won’t suffice. Of course, if educators and publishers don’t know the difference between non-fiction and informational text, any text counts they provide will be misleading.  

Another counting complication has to do with whether you count words, pages, or selections. Two programs may have a 50-50 mix of literary and informational text when counted by selection, but even with that students could end up spending too much time on literary text because the literary selections average 20 pages each and the informational ones only 5. If the short reads are informational and the extended ones literary (including biographies, autobiographies, true narratives), then your program is not balanced.  

I think the notion that there is a specific mix of texts that has to be included in a program is just too simplistic and it trivializes what the common core is getting at (remember there is no research on what the mix should be in terms of kids learning). Coleman put out those 50-50 estimates to emphasize the equal value of these texts in student learning, and that reading/literature programs could not continue to be as imbalanced as they have been.

The Real Point
The real point is that students must be engaged in a substantial amount of reading experience with both literary and informational text. If a program obviously provides that it would be foolish spending a lot of time trying to make sure that they are balanced in any particular way. It is essential that we beef up informational text learning, and kids have been getting too little experience with such texts (perhaps some imbalance will be needed for a while to allow kids to catch up with informational text). But the common core does not require any particular mix of texts in a reading program or a literature program, nor should it.

That the elementary reading experiences should be substantial and roughly balanced in its attention to informational and literary text is fair guidance. As is the idea, that secondary reading experiences should be even more substantial, and should accord even more attention to informational text (perhaps two-thirds to 80%).

If you are an elementary teacher or principal and you are trying to select a textbook or to assemble your own units, you need to ask yourself:  Given the amount of reading that our students are engaged in throughout our curriculum, will this new material be sufficient to ensure that students will learn to deal with both literary and informational texts. No one can tell you the exact mix that should be there and counting all of this is complex, but I would say anything in the 60-40—40-60 range is likely to be appropriate depending on how much reading students are engaged in all of their subjects. Trying to come up with something more exact than that is like slicing the salami so thin that it can’t be tasted.

In terms of high school literature anthologies, again, attention must be given to how much students are reading in their subject area classes. If they are reading very much there, then a literary anthology would only address perhaps 20-40% of the students’ school reading. If I do the math right, then by the guidelines being bandied about, an anthology could include zero to 25% informational text. But that would be problematic, too, since 0% might mean that students would get no experience in analyzing the rhetoric of speeches, and the reading of essays, journalistic writing, and literary non-fiction. That obviously is too little even though it falls within those general guidelines. But 25% seems too high to me; in such a school that needed to devote a quarter of English instruction to those types of text, I would work harder to get the rest of the faculty to beef up their text use rather than reducing the reading of stories, plays, and poems.

Please pass the bologna. 

11 comments:

Mark Isero said...

Thank you for this post. As a high school English teacher, I am confused about the definition of "informational text." You suggest here that a text with a narrative (like a memoir) would not be considered informational. What about a biography about Benjamin Franklin that discusses his scientific experiments. Would that be informational about Franklin but not about his experiments?

This is confusing to me. How about op-ed pieces from the newspaper? They offer some information about the world but they also present an argument. Most of the exemplars from the CCSS are famous historical arguments, so those would be considered informational, correct?

Though I am confused by terms, I do agree with you that more nonfiction reading needs to happen in schools. Too often teachers are bypassing text to cover curriculum more quickly or because they believe students can't comprehend challenging material.

Tim Shanahan said...

Mark--
You are uncertain about the terminology, but you are definitely not confused. For example, the Ben Franklin example is wonderful. I can say that autobiography doesn't count as informational text (because of its narrative structure and language), but your example points out that just because the term autobiography is used for the overall collection, that doesn't mean that all selections in it are narrative. Essays and op-eds definitely fit into the informational text mode (usually these are about the social world, though Lewis Thomas wrote lovely scientific essays). I, for one, am a believer that the essays of E.B. White or Lewis Thomas could easily belong to the English curriculum ("literary non-fiction") and would beef up the daily dose of informational text.


Tim Shanahan said...

I posted this comment to myself without any editorial changes for my friend, Sandra Stotsky.

Tim,
I tried to add something to your blog and it seems I was not successful. I'm glad to read that you agree there is no research at all bearing on the "right" mix of informational and literary reading in K-12 needed for college-readiness.

I wonder if you could address, specifically,the division of Common Core's reading standards into 10 for informational texts and 9 for literary texts for grades 6-12. That is where the damage is being done to the literature curriculum. English teachers are not trained to teach "informational" reading, and their anthologies have always included (maybe 20%- 25%) speeches, essays, and biographical or autobiographical excerpts--as genres of nonfiction. What is happening now, and the Fayetteville Public Schools (very progressive in orientation are a a good example) is that what is taught in the English class (never mind elsewhere) must be about 50/50. This means a huge reduction in literary study.

It doesn't matter what David Coleman and Sue Pimentel intended, they don't know the English curriculum nor did they consult a body of English teachers for curricular advice. The proper content of the secondary English curriculum is literature, not information. If you and others think that half of the English class's reading instructional time should be devoted to "informational" reading, please suggest what information you think is the proper content of the English class.

I happen to favor the teaching of informational reading by the elementary classroom teacher and built into the MA English language arts standards half and half in K to 6-8. The standards are there for every educational level or grade span. I've been talking and writing about this since my dissertation on vocabulary in 1976. The question is what the content of the English class is. That is what needs much more discussion, as schools order grade 12 English teachers to teach 70% informational reading. It won't help poor readers, if that's what's behind this 50/50 split. As NCTE suggests, those "informational" texts will be about "computer nerds, fast foods, and teen-age marketing." Not the stuff of subtlety and ambiguity.

I hope reading researchers will also see the need to preserve the secondary literarure curriculum. Literature isn't taught anywhere else.

Sandy

Tim Shanahan said...

Sandy--

Any very specific prescription for the amount of experience students need with each type of text is just made up. If students are reading discipline-appropriate materials in science, history, and math, etc. (and I don't mean "math poems"), it would make no sense for an English teacher to spend 70% or even 50% of the time having students read informational text in the English class. I do believe that the rhetorical analysis of essays, speeches, journalistic writing, criticism, literary theory, etc. should have their place in the English class (not just the stuff that would appeal to the computer nerds, but challenging, meaningful, quality texts). However, that niche in the English class does not need to be as big as the one for novels/
stories/plays/poems.

ACT reported that the amount of challenging reading that students did in middle school and high school mattered in terms of college readiness--and that was particularly the case in English and science. Literary reading is important, something that both David Coleman and Sue Pimentel really do get and that they are both deeply committed to. I think they have gotten themselves tangled up on this one by trying to give guidance/help that was too specific. School principals, teachers, and curriculum directors were almost certain to end up misusing those figures to set text doses for particular classes or particular instructional programs (neither of which was done by Sue and David).

Sandy, I repeat, if approximately half of the reading load in elementary school is informational text and 2/3 to 3/4 of the reading load in secondary school is informational, then one would expect that most of the reading in an English class would be literary. (In fact, I suspect that to meet the percentages set by David and Sue, one could ban informational text from the English class altogether and still get there. But that would be just another problem of such specific percentages: because even if it were to bump the amount of informational text reading over the percentages that were set, I would still want the English teacher dealing with informational texts some of the time).

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Here is another comment sent to me directly, which I sought permission to add here:

I enjoyed your recent post which, among other things, clarified the meaning of informational text as not including literary nonfiction. Given your role in helping review PARCC assessment items, I would direct you to Smarter Balance's item writing powerpoint entitled English Language Arts Grade Level Considerations for Grades 3-5 (linked here, midway down the page) that advises teachers on the kinds of items appropriate to assess Claim 1 (Reading). On slide 9, you'll notice that "literary nonfiction" is included as an example of informational text.

By pointing this out, I'm not trying to challenge your interpretation of informational text. However, isn't it important that those providing guidance on designing Smarter Balance and PARCC items speak clearly as to what constitutes informational text?

Thanks,
Ted Caron

Tim Shanahan said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Ted.

You are correct that PARCC and Smarter Balanced are classifying true stories as informational (I just looked it up). NAEP, on the other hand, deals with this issue by dividing literary and informational text, but then further subdividing informational text into exposition, argumentation, and persuasion (making it pretty clear that non-fiction narratives lack the structures or features of other informational texts). Similarly, I can’t think of anyone’s work on this that has been more primary than Nell Duke’s, and she, too, is careful to keep true stories out of the informational text drawer. I think both PARCC and Smarter Balanced are making a mistake on this (and examining the articulations of the literary and informational text standards in CCSS just increases my certainty on this—the testers will need to stretch the standards descriptions to fit these badly classified texts).

The whole point of increasing students’ experiences with informational text is to improve their abilities in dealing with text features not likely found in literary text. Stories are important, and kids should read a lot of them (fictional ones and factual ones), but student reading experiences should be broader than that. That is one of the important points of common core. If two different forms of stories (e.g., stories that I made up, stories that I remembered) are divided across the two categories, then teachers and publishers can appear to address the standards without actually improving students’ exposure to informational text. That makes it easier for everyone, except for the kids who may find themselves reading biographies of mathematicians and scientists rather than Algebra and Physics. Boo.

The term “literary nonfiction” is a tricky one. It pulls in a wide swath of texts, that cut across a lot of categories. I know research studies on narrative texts, expository texts, persuasive texts, stories, genre such as historical fiction, etc. I don’t know of any studies on literary nonfiction, and I think this is because it is not a very meaningful category in terms of the cognitive aspects of reading and writing). I certainly have no problem with essays, criticism, speeches, and the like being accorded the status of “literary non-fiction”, and each of those certainly does belong in the informational text realm… however, whether a story happened to an imaginative character or a real one doesn’t change the demands on the reader. Perhaps PARCC and Smarter Balanced should think about moving literary narrative (fiction or non-fiction) over to the literary category.

melissaebartlett said...

So in what category would texts such as Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Paine's essay "Crisis #1" fall?

melissaebartlett said...

So - in what category would Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine's essay "Crisis #1" fall?

Tim Shanahan said...

Essays are always informational text--they don't try to tell a story, they don't have a narrative (time sequence) structure.

Cindy Cochran said...

I agree with Sandra Stotsky and would love to see someone do a great triangulated study on the benefits of mixing informational texts with more traditional literary texts.

But I also want to take issue, Tim,with your point that essays do not tell a story or have a narrative line. What?! Think of Orwell, E.B. White, Alice Walker, and so on. Many essays do tell a story and many have a narrative line.

We really need to start educating our students about the many genres and sub-genres, and help them see how beautiful writing, clear writing, informative and argumentative writing cross and re-cross.

Tim Shanahan said...

It would be an easy study to do. More than 80% of ELA teachers already teach texts that are not literary in character--that is pre-common core. You won't have any trouble convincing English teachers that including informational texts in their curriculum is a good idea since they have already been doing. I'm not sure why Sandra, and you apparently, reject that idea.

Of course, there are hybrid texts--but the point is the same. Selecting essays that are like stories is not going to give kids experience with the range and depth of materials that they need if they are going to build their abilities sufficiently. Essays are not usually written like stories, nor is criticism.