Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

48. Children’s information texts

 

Margaret Mallett

 

Pedagogical aspects

 

We learn best when heart and head are engaged.

(Arnold 1992: 133)

 

At one time, the key to using information texts seemed to involve mainly the acquisition of library and study skills. Often these skills were taught out of context and the children were then expected to apply them. But the main impetus to wanting to find out is the young learners’ interest and curiosity and their need to know (Arnold 1992; Meek 1996; Mallett 1999). This interest can be awakened and sustained by making learning collaborative. Paradoxically, while learning to read helps give children the means to learn independently, it is talking and sharing with the teacher and other children that helps energise their research, putting their questioning and thinking into top gear. At the beginning of a new topic, teachers help children organise their prior knowledge, which allows children to remain in control and to formulate their own questions to take to the secondary sources. It is children’s questions which help them to truly engage with a text, entering actively into the author’s discourse.

But, particularly in the case of the under-tens, other experiences enhance and enrich learning from texts. These experiences may take the form of a visit - to a farm, museum or factory - or be linked with practical work like making a model, experimenting with science or cooking something. The skilled practitioner helps children integrate learning from such first-hand experiences and learning from secondary sources. This involves not only imaginative choosing of texts to extend children’s learning, but also the judgement to bring texts in at just the right point. Progression in this kind of reading is partly to do with becoming able to read a greater variety of text books, magazines, posters, flyers, electronic texts and the Internet. But we also want to support children’s increasing capacity to read texts of greater profundity and complexity within each category. As children move onwards they need to encounter texts with different ‘voices’, some of them impersonal and to do with categorising, generalising and abstracting.

But this comes later. Younger children benefit from hearing the teacher read out loud so they can hear the ‘tune’ of non-fiction writing (Barrs 1996/7: ii). Through discussion they can be helped to link what they have learnt from different sources. The teacher can show how a specific bit of information fits with broader frameworks, hierarchies and insights. Where children have invested their feelings as well as their thinking in their learning it becomes much more than superficial. Five-year-olds learning about whales brought great passion to finding answers to their questions, not least to the question ‘How can we stop the blue whale from becoming extinct?’ They insisted that the teacher read to them from books intended for much older children. It is in this kind of context, when children are fully involved with the topic, that we can teach, for example, flexible reading. Sometimes we need to ‘skim’ through a text to find a date or name or ‘scan’ it to get the gist of a passage. ‘Skimming ‘ and ‘scanning’, swift kinds of reading, are often contrasted with critical and reflective kinds of reading which help us understand and evaluate facts and ideas.

What are the best ways of supporting children’s non-fiction writing? Scholars and teachers in Australia, known as ‘the genre theorists’, argue that children need to be directly taught about the global structures of different texts. Only this, they consider, will help children control challenging non-fiction forms as writers. There has been some exciting cross-cultural debate; if you wish to read about the issues round this approach you might begin with Reid (1987). The Nuffield-funded Extending Literacy team, based at Exeter University in the UK, worked with teachers and children during the 1990s to find ways of helping children to organise the fruits of their research and their reflections on this research. Writing frames - sheets with headings and phrases - were designed to help children structure their written accounts in different informational genre (Wray and Lewis 1997). Children who find it difficult to know how to start their writing may find these frames helpful. But the Exeter team did not favour the direct teaching of genre features recommended by the Australian genre theorists. It is probably best for children to move quite swiftly to structuring their own accounts (Mallett 2003, and see also Britton 1970, Beireter and Scardamalia 1987; for working with the internet, see Selinger 2001).