July 22, 2016

The “Illustrative Texts”: Three Reasons Biography and Autobiography Should Be Minimized in Your Informational Text Instruction (Part 2)

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Last week in our post titled Do the Math: Three Reasons Why Biography and Autobiography Should Be Minimized in Your Informational Text Instruction, we offered a mathematical illustration of the role of informational text in literacy instruction and the ways this analysis could inform the development of classroom libraries. Today, we take a close look at the “illustrative texts” developed by the authors of the Common Core.

Reason #2: Consider the “Illustrative Texts”

To help us select complex texts for classroom instruction, the authors of the CCSS provided sample texts. These books are listed on the Standards Initiative website in a document entitled Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, & Range of Student Reading K-5, are categorized by grade and type (literary and informational), and range from Trucks by Donald Crews (1980) to A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder by Walter Wick (1997) (See this great A Drop of Water lesson idea by Steve Peterson.).

The book lists in the CCSS were not intended as curriculum, or even as texts that every student in each specified grade should read. In fact, the note under the CCSS table states, “Given space limitations, the illustrative texts listed above are meant only to show individual titles that are representative of a wide range of topics and genres.”

When you study the list of illustrative titles, you will notice that there is only one title that is clearly a biography–The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (1995)–which is a sample text for grades 2-3. While there are other titles that may have biographical or autobiographical elements, biography does not play a central role in this selection of samples. The other titles on the list that are written around a chronological text structure–such as, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca (2009)–focus on larger, historical events.*

Given the dominance of biography and autobiography in the informational texts available from publishers, the people who developed the CCSS list of sample texts had to be deliberate about only including a few. This limited inclusion of chronological text structures in the CCSS illustrative texts is further confirmation that we need to build the informational sections of our classroom libraries beyond biography and autobiography.*

In examining the list of illustrative texts, we tried to categorize all the titles on the list, as well as the texts in the document entitled Staying on Topic Within a Grade and Across Grades, by informational text structure, but categorizing actual informational  titles is tricky, which contributes to the confusion around definitions of informational text.

For example, in the CCSS sample text for first grade, How People Learned to Fly by Fran Hodgkins and True Kelley (2007), the text is narrative, with portions of chronology. In the back of the book, however, there is a detailed timeline and a procedural text about how to build an airplane. The hybrid nature of this book could make it very useful for instruction, as well as very appealing to students. Of course, the denser text in the back of the book is written on a higher reading level, introducing another layer of complication.

Last week, we charged you with examining your classroom library, hypothesizing that the biography and autobiography you currently own probably represents a disproportionate amount of the informational text recommended by the CCSS, which is 1/12! Today, revisit your library and look at the value added content for your biographies, as well as for your other informational texts. Are there author’s notes? Related summaries of content? Detailed timelines with textual descriptions? Procedural texts describing experiments or projects? These elements can be hugely useful for you informational text instruction, lending a kinder analysis that is likely to shift your classroom library closer towards text type distributions that will better help you meet the expectations of the Common Core.*

*Common sense, Common Core, disclaimer: We really like biography and autobiography. We also think that building your classroom libraries solely based on strict interpretations of the Common Core will make you sad and discouraged, not to mention that it will give you a less-than-satisfying library. This series of posts is simply designed as a reflective exercise, so that you can consider the places you want to expand it. Please, don’t throw out or ban biography. Please, don’t replace your classroom library with SRA card kits or VCR manuals (not that those aren’t reasonable resources). Balance, as always, is the key.




  1. I just love the disclaimer at the end!

  2. Thanks for another post that gets me thinking! You are masters at that.

    As I looked at my classroom library this week, I noticed that I have a lot of science related informational text. Not as much social studies stuff. Hmm…Interesting. I’ve organized them by topic, but just this year I’ve also created some bins of faves: Seymour Simon, Nic Bishop, Nicola Davies, Jim Arnovsky, Gail Gibbons…

    Your post made me think of a post by Franki Sibberson at A Year of Reading (http://readingyear.blogspot.com/2013/09/moving-beyond-interesting-facts.html) which had gotten me thinking about how the informational text is “consumed” by the kids (and by me!) Her thought was to explore books that went beyond the collection of interesting facts to something with a larger theme or purpose, which seems like another, related take on what you are talking about here when you urge us to look deeply at what the text is actually doing, along with a look at genre.

    Both your post and hers remind me that I’m not sure yet how to teach informational text outside the subject area, as a “reading task.” Within a subject area, the purpose for reading is so apparent. Within the literacy block, an exploration of informational text can sort of devolve into just an exploration of “text features” and narrative structures (description. cause/effect, sequence, etc.) Both of these are important, but not quite enough! Literature offers us “themes” that can tie texts together, and provide a personal reason for reading. What is comparable for informational text? (By the way, I read A LOT of informational text!)

    As much as I love informational text (its exploration of the nooks and crannies of a mysterious and wonderful world) and I read it to the kids regularly, I’m sometimes struck by how it can be difficult to move a conversation beyond the “Wow!” stage into something deeper…unless it is deeply tied to a larger content area exploration. I wonder if others struggle with this as well?

    I’m afraid I’m being incoherent here!

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