Learning Through Reading and Writing: Informational Texts
Author(s): Andrew Philp
Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material
Reading for Information
Helping children to access knowledge successfully from informational texts involves teachers in providing strategies which enable the pupils to interact successfully with texts on a regular basis:
• setting up meaningful contexts and tasks which involve consulting sources of written information
• establishing (through brainstorming or concept maps) what the pupils know about a topic, what they are confused about, and what they want to know
• helping the pupils to establish more precisely what exactly they need to know from information texts, through, for instance, having them set key questions to be answered, or by using KWL grids:
What do I KNOW?
What do I WANT to know.
What have I LEARNED?
• locating and re-organising information through marking or highlighting sets of features on texts, using cloze or sequencing activities, making time-lines, diagrams, maps, etc.
• communicating the information through reports, maps, graphs, diagrams, role-plays, pictures, etc.
These approaches have been discussed in various recently published materials for teachers, such as the SCCC booklet, "Into Print" by M. Stephens; the North Lanarkshire Council Reading materials, "Taking Another Look at Reading"; and the National Literacy Strategy materials, "Reading and Writing for Information". For that reason, we deal with it in less detail here than is given to functional writing.
Learning through Functional Writing
Such reading for information leads naturally on to writing for functional purposes. The process of writing information texts by pupils in schools can be seen as both an internal and an external process. Children learn to assimilate knowledge internally through making notes in writing , as well as recording more detailed information for further use in the same activity. In the process of writing for themselves they are involved in the learning process, and in making it personal.
At the same time as operating an internal process of writing for learning, children are often also using writing externally, to provide written information for others to access. These external purposes (which are in fact the broad purposes of the basic genres of writing set out below) are:
• to provide accounts of events for others
• to describe features of people, objects, creatures or other phenomena
• to explain processes to others, including hypothetical processes
• to give directions or instructions for the operation of a process
• to persuade others of the need for a course of action
• to set out both sides of a discussion
Incidentally, Bereiter and Scardamalia in "The Psychology of Written Composition" (1987) called these internal and external functions respectively ‘knowledge transforming’ and ‘knowledge telling’.
The Australian Approach to Genres of Writing
The purposes of functional writing in our society are now frequently seen as giving rise to specific ‘genres’ or ‘text-types’. This approach, which originated in Australia, is now also familiar in Britain through the Language in the National Curriculum (LINC) Project of the early 1990s and the more recent National Literacy Strategy (NLS). This approach can be seen as an extension of the 5-14 English Language Guidelines approach to developing Awareness of Genre. It identifies text-types, but goes on to describe these in terms of their conventional generic structure and also their typical language features (the features of grammar, vocabulary and layout that are the realisation of these purposes in writing).
This approach has been set out in the SCCC publication "Learning to Write, Writing to Learn" (SCCC, 1988) and the NLS Teachers’ booklet "Reading and Writing for Information" (DfEE, 1998). A useful brief introduction to the Australian approach can be found in Beverly Derewianka’s "Exploring the Writing of Genres", Minibook 8 (United Kingdom Reading Association, 1996). A fuller introduction by Derewianka is "Exploring How Texts Work" (Primary English Teaching Association), 1990.
What are the Genres of Writing?
The basic genres will be outlined below, followed by some points about the teaching of genres, and several examples from primary classrooms.
Recounts ‘tell what happened’. As, for example, the frequent ‘stories’ with titles such as ‘Our Day at the Zoo’. Recounts can be subdivided into personal, factual and imaginative. They have a structure of Orientation (setting the scene), Series of Events and often some kind of Personal Comment. They refer to specific events, and the selection and ordering of happenings is important. Being statements of behaviour they have past tense verbs and linking words or phrases connected with time. Newspaper ‘reports’ are often Recounts, in fact.
Factual Recounts, such as reports of science experiments or of historical events, are objective reconstructions of experience. Concentrating on specific details of time, place and manner, they avoid mention of personal involvement, often by using passive verbs, so as to move the focus from the ‘doer’ to the activity, e.g. ‘Two regiments of foot soldiers were moved up under cover of darkness’.
Narratives are Accounts with a twist – stories with Orientation, Complication, Resolution structures (sometimes now called Setting, Problem, Resolution.) They contain specific reference to characters, actions, thoughts, feelings, ideas, places and events. They incorporate descriptive passages and frequently use statements in past tense, and linking words and phrases connected with time. Children should, and do, imitate the many variations of narrative form they encounter, and internalise them for future use.
Descriptions (personal, imaginative or factual) refer to specific individuals, objects, events, and have a structure of Classification followed by separate elements or paragraphs of Description. Descriptions tend to use statements with linking verbs such as ‘to be’, ‘to have’ or ‘to become’. They do make use of adjectives but not to the extent that is often supposed, and their statements of behaviour are often in the present tense.
Factual Descriptions are often found in environmental project work. Like Factual Recounts they use objective language and avoid personal feelings. They use technical language and moderating terms (‘quite often’, ‘mainly’) to avoid sweeping statements.
Reports (or Information Reports) are generalised factual descriptions, providing information about a class of creatures or objects. They usually have a structure of Opening General Statement/Classification, Facts about various Aspects of the Subject, and a General Conclusion. They provide generalised treatments of creatures or objects, unlike Factual Descriptions which are always particularised. Like Factual Descriptions, however, they tend to use precise factual statements; technical terminology; ‘moderating’ terms (e.g. ‘mainly’) to avoid inaccuracy; and an impersonal, formal style.
Reports also share some language features with Personal and Imaginative Descriptions: for example, descriptive statements with linking verbs (e.g. ‘is’, ‘has’), usually in simple present tense, and statements of behaviour, also usually in present tense. Compare the following two texts. The first is part of a Personal Description and the second is part of a Report.
a. ‘There is an old lion in the zoo. He is called Sandy. He is light brown, but he has a big black mane around his neck. He just sleeps in his cage all day and he only wakes up when the keeper comes to feed him.’
b. ‘The male lion is tawny in colour and has a shaggy mane. Lions hunt by day and night, preying mainly on antelope, buffaloes and zebras.’
Explanations give an account of how something works or of the reason(s) for some phenomenon. There are two types: Explanations of How and Explanations of Why. They have a focus on process and logical sequence, rather than, as in Reports, on phenomena and their features. Their structure, therefore, usually consists of a Statement about the Phenomenon with a sequenced Explanation of How/Why Something Occurs. They tend to focus on generalised objects; they have statements of behaviour in simple present tense (‘falls’, ‘rises’, etc.), which are sometimes in the passive form of the verb (‘is saturated’, ‘are changed’). They tend to have time relationships indicated by connectives such as ‘first’, ‘then’, ‘following’, ‘finally’ (especially in ‘How’ Explanations), and cause-effect relationships indicated by connectives such as ‘if’, ‘so’, ‘since’ (especially in ‘Why’ Explanations).
Instructions tell someone how to do something, and the typical structure is Goal (heading and/or diagram), Materials (usually in list form), Method (the steps in the process). They refer to generalized objects (not particular ones, as when we are telling a story); have command (imperative) verbs (‘Take …’) or ‘you’, with present tense (‘you take …’); linking words connected with time; numberings of steps; detailed factual descriptions of objects; and often adverbs of manner (‘carefully’, ‘firmly’).
Persuasive Texts take a position on an issue and justify it, as the writer tries to persuade the reader of the correctness of his/her viewpoint, or to follow a certain course of action. A persuasive essay might have the following structure:
• Statement of thesis – an opening statement, e.g. ‘Vegetables are good for you’.
• Arguments – often in the form of point + elaboration, e.g. ‘They contain vitamins. Vitamin C is vital for…’.
• Reiteration – summary and re-statement of the opening position, e.g. ‘We have seen that … so …’. They often end with a specific recommendation for action, e.g. ‘So we suggest that you go out and buy more vegetables today!’
Persuasive texts are usually written in simple present tense, have a focus on general objects or types of people, and use mainly logical rather than time connectives, e.g. ‘This shows’, ‘however’, ‘because’.
Persuasive texts are characterised by the fact that they usually put forward only one point of view, unlike Discussion texts which consider both viewpoints. Advertisements are a special type of persuasive text, with their own distinctively complex style, but letters of complaint or suggestions for environmental improvements would be typical forms in which the genre can relevantly be expressed.
Discussion Texts The purpose of a Discussion text is to present arguments and information from different viewpoints, and then, usually, to conclude in favour of one point of view. They normally have the following structure:
• Statement of the issue + a preview of the main arguments
• Arguments for + supporting evidence
• Arguments against + supporting evidence (Alternatively, argument/counter-argument, one point at a time)
• Recommendation – summary and conclusion.
Discussion texts are usually written in simple present tense and focus on general types of people (or animals or objects) but they can deal with specific people or entities too. They use logical connectives, but usually more formal ones than Persuasion texts, e.g. ‘therefore’, ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’. These texts are found in many contexts of contemporary society, such as business reports, politicians’ briefing documents etc. The context in which we most commonly meet them – apart from school essays – is editorials in broadsheet newspapers.
The above outlines have been an attempt to describe the typical features of the main genres found in written English. In practice, however, genres are rather more complex than this. There are many examples of mixed genres: stories frequently combine description and narrative; advertisements too are often description followed by persuasion, or a mixture of the two, as the product is described in persuasive terms. Moreover, narratives may sometimes be written in present tense, as in the "Whispers in the Graveyard" passage in Booklet A; and description can be found in past tense too, as in the descriptions of the tunnel in the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" extract in the CD-ROM.
The notion of genre as dependent upon purpose needs to be seen as distinct from the format or distinctive layout of various communications. Thus, a letter may be written in very similar format for very different purposes (description, recount, persuasion, even instruction – if we give the reader directions to reach our house), and yet the language in which the letter is written will reflect these different purposes.
A poem, too, can be descriptive or narrative or even feature discussion. Many of Philip Larkin’s poems begin as description or narrative but end as reflective discussion. Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’ is a set of instructions on what to do in the event of nuclear war. Because of the distinctive way in which it views experience, however, and because of frequent similarities in language and format, some writers regard poetry as a separate genre.
Genres of Writing and 5-14 Guidelines
The set of genres described above can be broadly divided according to those mainly associated with Personal and Imaginative Writing (in terms of the 5-14 English Language Guidelines) and those associated with Functional Writing.
The genres or text-types which may be viewed as Personal/Imaginative Writing are:
The remaining genres,
are associated with Functional Writing – although elements of Persuasion and Discussion can come into personal writing.
In fact, most of these genres could appear in an imaginative context, e.g. writing the recipe for a witch’s spell would involve the genre of Instructions. This sort of Functional writing for imagined purposes is now recognised in the National Assessment arrangements for Writing 5-14.
Teaching Genres of Writing
The main advantage for Knowledge about Language of this approach through genres is that it extends the 5-14 view of purposes in writing along the same lines, but it allows the teacher to focus closely with her pupils on the precise nature of descriptive, or narrative, or explanatory writing (or whatever) in the context of real language choices and specific forms to be achieved. It clearly identifies for the teacher the kinds of structuring and use of grammar, vocabulary and layout which are appropriate for the different genres, so that pupils’ attention can be drawn to these within the ongoing creation of written texts for definite purposes, rather than through de-contextualised activities.
When should the process of introducing children to the writing of various genres begin? It was a key contention of the original Australian genre project that young children in the early stages of primary school should be introduced to a variety of types of ‘factual writing’, as opposed to the unvaried diet of narrative writing which was observed in Early Stages classes of the time. (Martin, J.R. & Rothery, J., 1986, "Exploring and Explaining Factual Writing in Primary School", URA Conference, Perth, Australia.)
Several pieces of research carried out for NFER also suggest that if children of 5-7 years are introduced to relevant and meaningful contexts involving them in specific purposes for using language (e.g. giving facts or explanations about aspects of a topic they are involved in, or expressing opinions about an issue that concerns them) then they will also be able to move, in oral expression, towards the kind of language use typical of non-fictional genres.
What is essential at this stage is that the teacher should provide support to lead them in their writing towards a closer approximation to the relevant non-fiction genre. For instance, several six-year olds brainstormed what ‘waste’ meant for them as the teacher scribed their suggestions. Next day the children wrote out answers to the question ‘What is waste?’ The teacher responded to their written pieces with further questions, intentionally focusing on issues of source, origins and type. Through this ‘joint construction’ the teacher was able to help them to extend their isolated sentences into the basis of a Report.
If, therefore, the teacher provides relevant motivating contexts, helps with joint construction (shared writing) activities and also draws their attention to equivalent kinds of language use in their Reading for Information, there is no reason why young children cannot begin to use the genres of functional writing.
(See J. Monk: ‘The Language of Argument in the Writing of Young Children’, LINC Paper 3, and C. Farrow: ‘The Non-fiction Writing of Six year Olds’, LINC Paper 4, National Foundation for Educational Research.)
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Learning Through Reading and Writing: Informational Texts. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved September 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1425.
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