Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Behind the Books: The Importance of Text Format in Expository Literature

Many high-quality expository titles, especially science-themed picture books, make skillful use of layered text, which consists of a short, simple primary text that conveys main ideas and a more substantial secondary text that provides supporting details.

As you read books like When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone by Dorothy Patent Hinshaw (Walker, 2008) and Pink Is for Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfect Pink Animals by Jess Keating (Knopf, 2016), you will notice that the primary text, which is set in larger type to let children know that they should read it first, can stand on its own and provides a general introduction to the topic. It whets the reader’s appetite, inspiring children to continue reading, so they can find out more.

The rich, provokative primary text of A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston (Chronicle, 2007)  and the surprising comparisons in my book Feathers: Not Just for Flying (Charlesbridge, 2014) awaken a child’s sense of wonder, while the playful, interactive quality of the primary text in How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) invites students to read and explore and discover.

This engaging, kid-friendly format allows a broad range of students to access the book. It also helps students learn to differentiate between main ideas (the gist) and supporting details, which is an important goal of the Common Core State Standards.

As a result of the recent popularity of graphic novels, authors are experimenting with nonfiction in a graphic format too. Many of these titles present information within the context of a storyline, but a few notable exceptions are entirely expository. These ground-breaking titles include Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks (First Second, 2015), Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, 2013), and How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin, 2013).

How can we encourage students to think critically about the text format of the expository literature they read and experiment with various formats in their own writing? I'll provide a helpful activity on Friday.


  1. At some point I'll learn to just open my library's catalog when I open your blog posts in my email. I just placed several more books on hold.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  2. So true! I love to use it in my own work as well. And I LOVE Blobfish--what a fun book!