Learn What Works
Writing informative and explanatory text is a clear application of Writing Standard 2, which calls for students to “Write informative/explanatory text to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately….” In the lower grades, this may be simply writing some facts about a topic, while in the upper grades students will be analyzing and synthesizing information from multiple sources in order to produce text that sheds new light on a concept or process.
The primary purpose of informative/explanatory writing is to increase the understanding of the reader. Unlike argument writing, informative/explanatory writing starts with the assumption of truthfulness, focusing on telling how or why. Informative/explanatory writing might include any or all of the following:
- Providing new knowledge
- Explaining a process
- Developing a concept
Informative/explanatory writing might focus on any of the following:
- Enumerating and clarifying different types
- Detailing components
- Explaining behavior or function
- Providing explanations of why
In order to write in this text type, students must be able to find and choose relevant information from primary and secondary sources, and combine this new information with background knowledge and experiences. Students will work towards “selecting and incorporating relevant examples, facts, and details into their writing” (CCSS Appendix A, p.23). At the same time, students will work on developing their writing craft, becoming skilled in techniques for explaining, citing anecdotes or scenarios, comparing and contrasting, and transitioning.
Making use of mentor texts for informative/explanatory instruction means teachers must “read like writers”–always considering the author’s craft, always on the look-out for good mentor texts. Mentor texts can come from a variety of sources–picture books, novels, plays, newspapers, blogs, and Internet sites. Being familiar with grade-level Writing Standards for informative/explanatory writing can help teachers to focus on those mentor texts particular to the needs of their classrooms. In addition to the use of mentor texts, teachers can also model writing by composing in front of the class and “thinking out loud” about the process of stating clear ideas and supporting them with details, in the forms of examples, explanations, definitions, descriptions, processes and/or anecdotes. As always, teachers will want to use the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework to support students in their learning. After explicit instruction and modeling, students benefit from shared writing experiences, guided writing experiences, and collaborative practice with frequent descriptive feedback around lesson learning targets. Peer and teacher conferring about writing can help students to fine turn their writing and stretch their thinking.
Writing Standard 2 works in tandem with the Writing Standards 7, 8, and 9 under the category of “Research to Build and Present Knowledge”. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard 7 calls for students to “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” This is a shift away from isolated, large research projects that focus on elaborate presentations. Instead, research to answer questions and solve problems becomes a common occurrence across content areas, throughout the school year. Research also ties Writing Standard 2 to the Iowa Core Reading Standards. In order to do the research necessary for informative/explanatory writing, students must gather evidence from multiple sources, assessing source credibility, integrating information, and avoiding plagiarism.
See How it Works
|Common Core ELA Standards|
Above you will see examples of student writing from the Common Core ELA Appendix C, demonstrating the expected level of informative/explanatory writing for students.
K-5 Informative/Explanatory Writing
Informative/explanatory writing might be introduced in the primary grades with discussions and inquiry around content-area questions posed by the teacher or interesting questions from students:
- Why do my cheeks turn pink when it’s cold?
- Why does my dog drool?
- Why did the immigrants come to the United States?
As students move into the intermediate and upper grades, informative/explanatory writing should grow naturally out of content-area questioning and research.
According to the Iowa Core Standards for K-5 Writing, students’ use of writing structure and language should progress significantly from kindergarten to 5th grade. In the primary grades, students might provide some facts and definitions around a topic and add a concluding statement. Students in the upper elementary are expected to introduce and focus a topic, logically group information, develop the topic with sufficient detail, link ideas, use precise academic vocabulary and provide a conclusion. In order to accomplish this, students will need multiple opportunities to research and write informative/explanatory text. In fact, about a third of elementary students’ writing should be of this text type. The intent of the core is that K-5 students use reading and writing in tandem to build knowledge–calling for students to read widely and deeply from informational texts, and to use writing as a tool for learning.
Watch this video from the Reading & Writing Project website to see how vocabulary development becomes a key part of informational writing:
To help students learn the appropriate text structures, text features, and language of informative/explanatory writing, teachers might begin with Talk-alouds. Below you will see two 2nd grade examples that focuses on the use of diagrams. These are a paired set of a Reading Talk-aloud and a Writing Talk-aloud.
Reading Talk-aloud to Examine the Author’s Craft
Writing Talk-aloud to Use the Author’s Craft
6-12 Informative/Explanatory Writing
By high school, the expectation is that students will “write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.” (ICS, pg. 60). About 40% of student writing should be informative/explanatory in high school. This necessitates writing across content areas.
In Write Like This (2011), Kelly Gallagher includes a chapter on informative/explanatory writing. He advocates beginning with a short mentor text that demonstrates informative writing in an engaging, creative format. He then takes that mentor text as a template and models composing a similar text using a different topic. Finally he supports students as they use the format with a topic of their choosing. However, he quickly moves them into writing short pieces on a variety of topics, requiring the use of background knowledge and research. Throughout all of his writing instruction, Gallagher emphasizes the need for teachers to compose in front of their students, modeling the thought processes that goes into writing. He offers various scaffolding techniques as students move toward independence.In Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher’s Guide (2007), Daniels, Zemelman and Steineke offer a chapter on “Shorter Public Writing Projects”. The authors urge teachers to use shorter, more frequent research, rather than the traditional end of term, library-research writing assignment. Informative/explanatory writing suggested by Daniels et al, might stem from research around people via surveys and/or interviews. Writing might take the form of creating a newspaper front page or a web page, providing students with more authentic informative/explanatory writing tasks.
Watch this video of a Composing Think-aloud:
Composing Think-aloud on Introductory Paragraph
Other Examples for Informative/Explanatory Writing
Do What Works
|Reading Talk-aloud template|
|Writing Talk-aloud template|
|Composing Think-aloud template|
Make use of Iowa AEA Online resources as students do the research necessary for informative/explanatory writing. These include both video and text sources, so that students may develop both listening and reading skills as they explore ideas and concepts. You will need to get your school username and password from your media specialist in order to access these resources.
- BookFlix: (Primary grades) This source pairs classic video storybooks from Weston Woods with related nonfiction eBooks from Scholastic, linking fact and fiction. BookFlix reinforces early reading skills and introduces children to a world of knowledge and exploration.
- AEA Digital Library (All grades) This source provides a wide array of video resources. Filters and a search function allow teachers or students to find needed resources. Full programs as well as clips are available.
- Britannica Online: (All grades) This source provides four complete encyclopedias and other resources that ensure consistency with classroom topics and age-appropriate language. It is also a portal to several other data bases.
- CultureGrams: (All grades) This source provides age-appropriate, high-quality digital content from primary and secondary sources spanning thousands of titles and multiple media types. It features landmark articles and electronic resources that illuminate all aspects of the most vital issues of our time.
- Learn 360: (All grades) This source provides video and audio clips, as well as full length videos, on a wide variety of historical, current, and intriguing topics.
- AP Images: (Intermediate through high school) This source provides both historic and current newsworthy photographs, as well as audio news clips and graphics. For instance, students may listen to the the President’s weekly address.
- Truflix: (Intermediate through middle school) This source provides video and text around select topics, along with links to related age-appropriate sites.
- Teen Health and Wellness: (Middle and high school) Provides middle school and high school students with nonjudgmental, straightforward, standards-aligned, curricular and self-help support. Topics include diseases, drugs, alcohol, nutrition, mental health, suicide, bullying, green living, financial literacy, and more.
- SIRS: (High school students) Provides current perspectives on controversial issues, as well as a framework/process for students to analyze the information and create their own reasoned argument.
In addition to using mentor texts and modeling good informative/explanatory writing, students may benefit from the use of graphic organizers to scaffold their thinking, collecting, and organizing. Here are some sites that provide a variety of such graphic organizers:
Gallagher, K. (2011). Write Like This Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Portland, ME, Stenhouse Publishers.
Hale, E. (2008). Crafting Writers K-6. Portland, ME, Stenhouse Publishers.
Indrisano, R, & Paratore, J. (Eds.) (2005). Learning to Write and Writing to Learn Theory and Research in Practice. Newark, DE, The International Reading Association.
Iowa Core English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. (2011). Des Moines, IA, Iowa Department of Education.
Routman, R. (2005). Writing Essentials: Raising Expectations and Results while Simply Teaching. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann.