Monday, October 7, 2019

Writing Expository Nonfiction that Sings, Part 5

For the last few Mondays, I’ve been posting  about the importance of understanding the key elements of finely-crafted expository nonfiction and helping students identify those features as they read and include them as they write.

First, I discussed how starting with a question can help writers come up with a focused topic, which allows for more engaging and creative writing. Then I focused on why writing tends to be stronger when we make a personal connection to the topic we choose and the approach we take. Last week, I wrote about the importance of an irresistible hook. You can scroll down to read those posts.

Today, I’m going to shift gears and talk about text format. Why is breaking up fact-filled expository writing into distinct chunks a good idea? Because it makes the text easier to read and understand. It encourages children to pause briefly, giving them time and (white) space to digest the ideas and information.

The Dorling Kindersley designers and editors who developed the Eyewitness Books series back in the 1980s were the first to understand the incredible benefits of combining lavish illustrations with heavily formatted expository text. These books contain an astonishing amount of visual and written information, and yet the reader feels excited to explore rather than overwhelmed.

In addition, the standard design of Eyewitness Books and the many other browseable books and series they’ve inspired is comforting to young readers, allowing them to easily locate and access information. The consistency also helps children compare similar content from page to page and book to book.

The layered text we now see in many expository literature titles offers the same benefits—time to pause and ponder and a comforting consistency that helps young readers organize ideas and information in their minds.

To understand how different authors utilize layers and get a sense of the range of possibilities available to writers, let’s take a look at six expository literature books about birds:
Birds of Every Color by Sneed B. Collard, III

A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Aston Hutts

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart

Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why by Lita Judge

Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward

A Place for Birds by Melissa Stewart

All of these books include two layers of text on each double-page spread. The short, simple main text, which is set in larger type to let children know they should read it first, can stand on its own and provide a general overview of the topic. It also captures the imagination of young readers, inspiring them to continue reading. 

In the first four books listed above, the main text presents main ideas, while secondary text provides supporting details. In Mama Built a Little Nest, the main text is a charming, tightly-construct poem that conveys interesting information, while the secondary text reinforces the main text with a more straightforward explanation.

In A Place for Birds, the two layers of text have different text structures. The main text has a cause and effect structure that lets young readers know how thoughtful human actions can help birds survive and thrive. The secondary text has a problem-solution text structure that presents a specific challenge a bird population faced and describes how scientists and citizens worked together to protect those birds.

While the main text in Birds of Every Color is clear and straightforward, the main text of the remaining three books use language devices that enrich the writing. A Nest Is Noisy features intriguing personification, while Feathers: Not Just for Flying includes thought-provoking similes and Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why utilizes fun exclamations and invitations to the reader.

The next time your students are working on a nonfiction writing project, encourage them experiment with format. They can use some of the books included in this post as mentor texts and let their imaginations soar, or for a more structured lesson, try this activity developed by Fran Wilson (@mrswilsons2nd) for grades 2 and 3 or this activity developed by Amanda Schreiber (@MsAPlusTeacher) for grades 4 and 5.

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