If you search the term text features in connection with any grade level between kindergarten and fifth grade, something curious happens: You’re inundated with images of anchor charts that depict the same five to seven features over and over again: photographs with captions; diagrams with labels, glossaries, headings and subheadings, extra facts pages, a table of contents.
This similarity implies that we’re also teaching the same text features repeatedly. And while these components are important—they make nonfiction writing more visually appealing and helpful when navigating expository text—there is little differentiation across grade levels if students are not exposed to new elements each year.
The current diet of nonfiction text features may not, then, be the best way to help students understand the purpose and creative power of this incredibly engaging part of nonfiction. To freshen your instructional approach, here are some ideas to share with students in order to help them expand their text feature repertoire as readers and writers.
In nonfiction writing, sidebars typically comprise one or two short paragraphs, separated from (and appearing next to) body text, in a box with supplementary material. Sidebars give writers an opportunity to expand on an idea while simultaneously deepening their reader’s understanding.
Students might practice using sidebars in their writing in connection with a number of categories: highlighting myths versus facts, to share truths and misconceptions about a particular topic; to display a primary source document and explain how it connects to the content being discussed; to expand upon vocabulary, defining important terms or concepts for readers; to share modern-day viewpoints on historical events depicted in body paragraphs; or to expand readers’ knowledge of a person, concept, or place in ways that don’t fit into the main text. Of course, there are many other possibilities, and you might invite students to brainstorm their own use cases.
Introduce this text feature to students using mentor texts like The Story of Eliza Hamilton, by Natasha Wing; Newsmakers: Malala Yousafzai, by Andrea Wang; or The Revolutionary War, by Josh Gregory, to get their ideas flowing.
TALK TO THE READER
The talk to the reader text feature offers writers a way to add voice to informational writing and engage their reader through direct addresses written in the second person. This approach can help create mood in nonfiction writing and establish opportunities for writers and readers to practice making inferences in connection with the text.
Invite students to experiment with the second-person point of view through a “Speak for Yourself” activity. Ask them to give an animal, a biography subject, or an inanimate object a life of its own, to share its perspective, feelings, or life experiences, using a second-person point of view so that the subject speaks directly to readers. What must they intuit or consider as they take on the perspective of this subject?
You might also encourage students to ask questions of their reader(s). Ask them to create questions about the information that they present in their nonfiction piece, in the form of literal or inferential inquiries, or to craft “What would you do?” questions to extend readers’ thinking.
Finally, ask writers to share advice with their readers about certain topics (e.g., what to eat while traveling in China; where to shop in New York City; how to carefully handle a boa constrictor; how to begin playing the guitar). Be sure this advice, written in the second person, directly connects to the facts included in students’ nonfiction pieces.
Books that model this text feature include Learning about Asia, by Andrea Wang; Big Babies, Little Babies, by Lorrie Mack and Penny Smith; and What Would She Do? 25 True Stories of Trailblazing Rebel Women, by Kay Woodward—the reading of which can deepen instruction.
True words spoken by a subject are a great way to engage readers. Writers can collect quotations from experts in a particular field through research and news articles, primary source documents, or live original interviews.
Using quotations from experts assures readers that an author’s research is valid and vetted. Quotations can also further explain a concept and enhance the voice of informational text, adding another layer—another element of storytelling—to the facts.
Ask writers to experiment with quotations by including them in headings and subheadings to give a hint as to what will follow in the next section or chapter of their text; in the introduction to shock, compel, or otherwise engage readers, pulling them into the rest of the piece; in the conclusion, to wrap up a main point or idea; or smack in the middle of body paragraphs to transition the reader from one section to another.
Aesthetically, quotations allow a pause in reading, giving the audience a moment to take a breath, digest what they’ve read, and gain additional insight into multiple perspectives on a topic. Books that model powerful usage of quotations in nonfiction writing include The Story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Susan B. Katz; What Would She Do? 25 True Stories of Trailblazing Rebel Women; by Kay Woodward; and Newsmakers: Ketanji Brown Jackson: Supreme Court Justice, by Amy C. Rea.
In nonfiction writing, text features have three main functions: They help a reader locate information, deepen understanding of information already presented, and extend or deepen knowledge in connection with the main topic. Using any or all of these text features will support students’ crafting and using text features in a purposeful and potentially novel way, strengthening their writing and reading skills in the realm of nonfiction.