Dreading teaching informational texts? This post is filled with teacher tips and tricks to help you effectively engage students with informational texts. Additionally, learn my favorite sources for high-interest informational reading material.
Interacting with informational and nonfiction texts is an essential aspect of student learning. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always enjoyable. In fact, ask most students what they think about informational texts, and you can see boredom written all over their faces—no words necessary.
Trust me, I know it can seem like you keep hitting a dead end with informative texts. Informational texts are long-winded, filled with jargon, and downright boring, right? Sometimes, yes. However, this post will help you realize that it doesn’t have to be that way.
When using the right approach, providing the right informational texts, asking the right questions, and incorporating the right activities, you can engage students with informational texts.
Why Is There Such an Emphasis on Teaching Informational Texts?
Don’t worry. I’ve wondered the same thing, my friend. The easy (and lame) answer is “because they said so.” There’s no denying the increasing push for including informational texts in the ELA classroom, especially at the secondary level. (I’m looking at you, Common Core.)
But before we dismiss the initiative and groan and roll our eyes, I urge you to think about the why behind what we do. Sure, like me, you might have a love for literature and the humanities. But the other part of it is preparing students for success beyond the walls of our classroom.
Iin a time where information is available in the snap of a finger from the palm of our hands, understanding how to read informative texts is more important now than ever. Simply put, it’s an essential real-world skill. Therefore, it’s our duty to prepare students to properly interact with, comprehend, connect to, and analyze a plethora of informational texts and structures.
So, yes, understanding and comprehending information is a life skill. But here’s the catch: we must teach the skill through topics that are relevant, thought provoking, or interesting-–or a combination of the three-–for our students.
Start with the Source
I’ll admit informational texts can be a little dry, and they don’t always appeal to students’ lives, interests, or abilities. That’s why incorporating high-interest informational articles is essential to getting students on board (and not bored) with nonfiction.
If I want my students to understand how to navigate, comprehend, summarize, analyze, and evaluate nonfiction, I have to get them to buy in first. My secret? Choosing the right articles. Sometimes that means providing multiple options for reading to give students choice based on their interests. Other times that means taking time to discuss the relevance of the topic to my student’s lives or the world around them. After all, students can’t effectively and critically think, discuss, or write about a topic if they don’t know anything about it—or care to.
Trust me, taking the time to find high-interest informational texts will pay off. And it will get easier the more you get to know your students. However, regardless of how well you know your students, these resources are sure to have something that piques their interests:
- NYT Learning Network
- Tween Tribune
- Facing History and Ourselves
- Science News Explores
- Sports Illustrated Kids
Engaging students with informational texts begins before they even read a thing.
START WITH WHAT THEY KNOW
First, be sure to choose topics that they are already familiar with or interested in. These topics can be relevant to student interests, hot topics, cross-curricular content, or the modern world in general. While this isn’t a make-or-break requirement, be sure to provide any necessary background knowledge if the topic is brand spankin’ new. (I find that short video clips are a great way to engage students while providing the foundation needed before diving into the text.)
In fact, activating background knowledge is a key element in the pre-reading strategy for informational texts. Ask students to share their thoughts, connections, or predictions before diving in. This step will help set the stage for a meaningful reading experience.
THEN, GET THEM THINKING
Still, before introducing the actual text, begin by asking thought-provoking (and, perhaps, controversial) questions related to the topic. You can host a guided discussion, provide an anticipation guide, or play a game like four corners to get students up and moving—and thinking about the topic at hand.
For example, if you’re reading a piece about technology, consider asking students to explain the role technology plays in their day-to-day lives. Alternatively, challenge them to explain which piece of technology they could never give up and why. If you were to read a historical piece about, say, the Holocaust, you could ask students to share not only what they already know about the historical genocide but ask how it connects to current issues facing society today.
The following tips can help students stay focused and engaged while reading informational texts. Additionally, it helps guide them through any elements and structures that may feel unfamiliar:
TIP 1: REVIEW VOCABULARY.
While students are exposed to new vocabulary all the time, there is something especially intimidating about new words in an informational piece. Maybe it’s because students are already hesitant to read these types of texts. Regardless, be sure to review any necessary and new vocabulary with your students prior to reading.
TIP 2: READ WITH A PURPOSE.
Rather than setting students loose to make sense of the informative text on their own, guide them with a purpose. Giving them a reason why they’re reading helps to keep them active and engaged. Maybe it’s to make a connection, draw a conclusion, form an opinion, or answer a question, just to name a few. Once they know their purpose, encourage students to track their thoughts and questions with annotations.
TIP 3: ENCOURAGE ANNOTATIONS.
Speaking of annotations, they are essential to reading, comprehending, and engaging with informational texts. Without annotations, students are more likely to glaze over the words on the page. Annotations can be used to track ideas, jot down questions, highlight important information, or note observations. No matter what they include, annotations help keep students accountable and actively engaged as they read.
TIP 4: INTRODUCE THE STRUCTURE AND ELEMENTS.
One of the reasons students are hesitant when it comes to informational texts is likely that they are intimidated by them. Think about it. Informational texts are off the beaten path of what they know. The purpose is different. They look and read differently. Set students up for success by explicitly introducing (or reviewing) the structure and features of a nonfiction and informational text. For example, you can introduce the five main text structures: Description, sequence, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and problem and solution. Then, once they identify the structure, they can pick up on the main idea, supporting details, and the author’s purpose more clearly.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
Discussions in the wake of reading informational texts can get rather stale—if you’re not asking the right questions, that is. Engage students with thought provoking questions or small group discussions that go beyond “any thoughts?” or “what was the piece about?” If you notice the conversation is slow, pull out the discussion dice! Each potential roll number should correspond to a question you have displayed on the board. Have students take turns rolling a pair of dice before answering the accompanying question.
Connections are powerful, whether students are making them between the text and themselves, other texts, or the world around them. For one, it elevates engagement and comprehension. It helps provide context, create meaning, encourage perspective, and promote critical thinking. As teachers, we can promote connections by bringing in other texts, literature, video clips, and other media to model and inspire student-generated connections. The more you can relate the informational texts and topics to your students’ lives, the more they will see the significance and continue to develop and deepen connections of their own.
Getting students up and moving is always a good way to shake things up, especially after reading. While playing a game like four corners is a great pre-reading strategy, it can also be used after reading to redress essential questions. Similarly, you can hang posters with post-reading questions around the room and have students move about, adding their thoughts to the posters as they go. Not only will students be moving about, but they are likely to converse with those around them as well.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX.
Don’t be afraid to go beyond the classic discussion or writing response in the wake of reading an informational text. Get creative and come up with assignments that students will find relevant and highly engaging, and that require critical thought. Here are some fun challenges to assign to students:
- 6-word challenge: Similar to six-word memoirs, this activity challenges students to summarize an article in a mere six words!
- Write a 500-750 word blog post in response to the article we just read.
- What information would you include in a TikTok or Facebook live video about this topic?
- If you were to summarize this article in an Instagram post, what would you include as a visual and caption?
- If you had to create a PSA poster to spread the author’s message, what would you include?
Additionally, you can have students create infographics, one-pagers, or brochures too! There are plenty of ways to get students thinking critically and creatively about nonfiction topics. The best part? Students will be so relieved that it’s not “another paper” that they’ll forget just how much critical thinking is involved.
If you were dreading teaching informational texts, I hope this post helped shift your mindset and gave you a few ideas and resources you’re excited to try.
Trust me, these strategies and teaching tips changed the game of teaching informational texts in my classroom. And I’m not just talking about me, but for my students too. So, for everyone’s sake, it’s time we reframe how we approach informational texts in the secondary classroom. And, not to be dramatic or anything, but our future kind of depends on it.
On that note, here’s to preparing our students to be active and engaged members of our society.
P.S. If you found this article helpful, be sure to check out my post all about teaching literary nonfiction in the secondary classroom.