When I was in school (okay, many years ago), we did a research report nearly every year. Teachers were pretty explicit about their process (which wasn’t always the same), and we just had to learn to follow the rules to get a good grade. It was a simple, albeit time-consuming, game.
Across years of teaching, I have learned to look at informational writing through a different lens. As a matter of fact, I don’t know if lens is the right word since it seems there are so many possible ways to write an expository piece. Thanks to today’s children’s authors, there is a much greater breadth of possibility out there for young readers and writers.
Interestingly, you will still find standards that ask students to participate in a “research process.” I like to think the outcome of these projects is very different from the research reports of long ago. How do we help young writers to find innovative ways to share their research with others? It seems that today’s expository texts can help children imagine new possibilities.
In expository texts we read, a writer’s purpose often drives their decision making. We can help students to envision different types of expository writing by creating opportunities to read like a writer while asking these questions:
1. What did the author want us to know?
2. What did the author do in the text to help us understand the message? (craft)
3. What can we learn as writers from the moves the author made?
A Closer Look at Craft
One way to help younger writers see this is by comparing different writing across a similar topic. By keeping the topic similar, students can begin to understand the decision making they have to consider as a writer when sharing their learning with others. To show one way we might look across texts, I’ve selected the topic of frogs. Let’s look at the decision making of authors across these five books.
Frogs Sing Songs by Yvonne Winer (Charlesbridge, 2003)
The illustrations in this book are sure to take any reader’s breath away. Each frog is presented with a rhyme and an illustration. For most of the book, the pages move back and forth between rhyme and illustration. The expository text is actually placed in the back of this book. With some careful study, you can find the information that helped the writer shape each short poem. Yes, the author wants us to know that frogs sing songs, but more importantly, we learn that a variety of frogs sing songs from different places around the world.
Fabulous Frogs by Martin Jenkins (Candlewick Press, 2015)
This book is also beautifully illustrated with art that support the text. Across the pages, the author shares many general facts that help us get to know about the life of a frog. He also highlights some of the different frogs around the world. The text in this book seesaws back and forth between general information about frogs with more in depth captions alongside to tell the reader more. The reader could just read the general frog text, or could learn more from the small captions along the way. The last two pages give more information about all the animals featured in the book. Though the animals are sorted by the way they move, the author shares much more information about each one.
Flying Frogs and Walking Fish: Leaping Lemurs, Tumbling Toads, Jet-Propelled Jellyfish, and More Surprising Ways That Animals Move by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2016)
I would absolutely save this book for the middle of the collection because titles can be deceiving. This book isn’t just about frogs or fish. Instead, the author shares the myriad of ways animals move about in the world. Frogs are just one example. The way the author looks at similarities across animals could lead to some interesting discussion. Would students have titled this book something else?
Frogs by Nic Bishop (Scholastic, 2015)
In this book, Nic Bishop uses photographs and text to share facts about the more than 5,000 different frogs around the world. His careful arrangement of text alongside photographs gives the book a clean organization and structure that is easy to discuss with young writers. He uses a photo index which would be an interesting topic of discussion with students.
National Geographic Kids: Frogs! by Elizabeth Carney (National Geographic, 2009)
This book doesn’t stray much from the norms of photo-illustrated expository writing, especially the types of text we have grown accustomed to seeing for students. To engage readers, the author uses interesting headings, jokes, fun facts in captions, labeled photos, and diagrams. Young writers can see a variety of possibilities for helping to clarify their message and delight their readers.
Interestingly, many of these books share identical facts arranged in different ways. In the first titles, the author has a more tailored message about frogs. Sharing a collection with a similar topic allows us to discuss the author’s message, crafting techniques, and effectiveness of these decisions in supporting the message for readers. Additionally, students can start to notice the types of writing that they find most interesting and share those techniques that catch their attention.
After sharing a same-topic text set, you could try grouping books by author or text structure and encourage students to notice patterns and differences that might help support their informational writing. Thanks to the authors that surround us each day, we have more ways to grow in our writing of expository text.
A Side Note
There are, of course, many other titles that would work to deepen this study. When planning this type of work, I also like to consider the digital possibilities. Here are some examples:
Video: Watch a Real-Live Ninja Frog Kick Away Predators at National Geographic
Cathy Mere is the elementary literacy instructional leader at Hilliard City Schools in Ohio. Cathy is the co-conspirator of #cyberPD, #pb10for10 (in August), and #nf10for10 (in February). She is the author of More Than Guided Reading: Finding the Right Instructional Mix K-3 and a contributor to Choice Literacy. She believes in the power of children to shape, not just our future but, our today. She blogs at Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community.