When we think of choice-based reading, we often imagine silent reading with novels. However, we can take a student-centered, choice-based approach to non-fiction as well. In this article, we explore nine different areas of student empowerment within informational text reading.
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Taking Reading Off-Road
When I first taught reading, I allowed students to choose novels during silent reading time. I made a huge deal out of the genres that were available. I asked students to develop a personal taste. I wanted to empower readers to own the learning process. They had an unlimited passport to go explore any fictional world they could find. Sometimes they would abandon a world for another one and often they jumped from world to world. But they were explorers on their own expeditions and silent reading was their chance to own the whole process.
They were in the driver’s seat.
However, I didn’t extend this process to informational texts. When it came to informational texts, my students were not explorers going off road or astronauts finding an entirely new universe. They were tourists and I was a tour guide.
I would select a high-interest article and we would read it together as a class. Often, I would read a section aloud to them and then ask students specific critical thinking questions. They would then read a section aloud to one another and follow this up with a prescribed close reading exercise. I had a whole color-coded process for underlining, circling, and writing annotations. In the end, I would assess students with a series of critical thinking questions that they completed individually. This was a rigid reading ride. Fun? Perhaps. Entertaining? At times.
But I owned the entire process. The following table explores the difference between a “rigid ride” approach and an “off-road reading” approach.
The Rigid Reading Ride
The strategies are pre-selected ahead of time
Students select the strategies and the tools
Driven by the prescribed curriculum with no choice in topics
Driven by student interests with many choices in topics
Crafted by the students
Everyone moves at the same pace with frequent breaks
Students move at different paces for longer stretches of time
Determined in advance by the prescribed curriculum
Student select strategies that work for them
Driven by the teacher
Frequent self-assessment and peer assessment
Teacher provides key accommodations and scaffolds for students
Students choose key scaffolds from a UDL approach
Teacher double-checks to ensures that exceptional learners have key accommodations
Truthfully, I was afraid to take my students off-road. I was afraid that they would struggle too much and fall behind. I was worried about the test scores. But also, I was afraid of letting go of some of the control that I had as the tour guide teacher. I was worried that things would get too messy and chaotic — and sometimes they did. I learned the hard way that sometimes less choice is necessary in reading. Sometimes the rigid route is necessary because I know of a really important destination that students might not discover on their own.
And yet, there is also something powerful that happens as students take reading off-road. They become empowered readers and critical thinkers. They develop key soft skills like critical thinking, curation, and information literacy. As they explore new ideas and wrestle with nuance, they gain empathy with people who think differently from them. So, what does it look like to empower students to go off-road in their reading? Here are some ideas.
Nine Teacher-Tested Ways Students Can Own the Informational Reading Process
The following are some key areas where students can take ownership of the process when engaging with informational texts. I jotted down a few ideas of my own and reached out to some of my favorite ELA thinkers and asked them, “What are you doing to empower your students with voice and choice in informational reading?” Here are some key ideas.
1. Empower students to choose the topics.
When I first took the tour guide approach to informational reading, there was a clear split between choice-based fiction reading and teacher-directed non-fiction reading. I trusted my students to choose their own stories but I didn’t trust them to choose their own topics. This was odd, given the fact that every student had at least one interest that they were passionate about. If I had simply asked, “What information do you want to find?” or “What are into?” rather than “What do you want to read?” I would have been able to help students fall in love with informational texts.
Later, I encouraged my students to choose their own topics when doing Geek Out Blogs. These projects functioned as a more structured version of Genius Hour, or 20% Time.
Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. It’s an idea popularized by Google but one that has existed for years in the technology industry. With Geek Out Blogs, students pursue their own topics but they do so in a more structured way that supports reading, writing, and multimedia composition. Along the way, students learn information literacy, media literacy, and digital citizenship. They’re also developing vital soft skills, like communication, curation, collaboration, and critical thinking.
With Geek Out Blogs, you might have one student writing about poverty, another about fashion, and another doing a gamer blog. A foodie blogger might be working alongside someone who is doing an in-depth K-Pop blog. While the topics are all over the place, each student masters the same ELA standards centered around writing and research:
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
If you are incorporating informational reading into other content areas, you might have to use a few more constraints. For example, you could cover historical methods standards in social studies and students could do a history blog on any topic, figure, or time period they choose. Or you might incorporate student choice in the topics while studying a key concept or time period. Students might do a 2-3 day research mini-project on their own geeky interests within the Roaring 20’s, for example. In science, they could choose from a list of topics within extreme weather or forces and motion.
It helps to ask, “What is the loose and what is the tight?” Then, you can find the areas where students might be able to choose their topic from within the standards you are teaching.
2. Empower students to set their own pace.
The tourist approach requires everyone to stay together in a group. But off-road, students can work at their own pace. Some blaze a trail quickly. Others take their time as they learn the new terrain. But nobody has to be “left behind.” It’s not a race or a contest. It’s an epic adventure that will look different from student to student. This was a challenging area for me as a classroom teacher. If students could work at their pace, wouldn’t they all just slow down and fail to get their work done? I needed in-depth assignments to keep students accountable.
As I shifted toward a more off-road approach, I began to rethink accountability. I stopped viewing accountability as a “gotcha” game but more as a chance for students to show their thinking. Accountability was more about transparency than punishments or rewards. This aligned more closely to the original notion of accountability as “giving an account.”
When students moved at their own pace, I significantly reduced the amount of work they had to turn in. This was a shift toward more reading and less work. As a tour guide, we had been in a constant stop-and-go process and students weren’t able to develop reading fluency with informational text. When we went off-road, they had the time to engage in deep work and wrestle with the ideas within the text. They also grew more engaged. It’s here that I realized that many students didn’t hate reading. They hated doing reading assignments.
Often when a student gets frustrated with informational reading, it has less to do with reading and more to do with the work required. When students read one page and answer nine text-dependent questions, they get frustrated by the work. When teachers ask students to practice strategies mentally (such as thinking about clarifying questions rather than actually writing the questions), students spend more time reading. This, in turn, leads to reading endurance.
Note that students still need to practice retrieval techniques. As the authors of Uncommon Sense Teaching point out, students need frequent retrieval practice to move information from working memory to long-term memory. However, these retrieval strategies don’t necessarily require additional work, re-reading of the text, or underlining and highlighting. Instead, students can summarize the information verbally to a partner or simply pause to think through what they have read and how it connects to other ideas.
3. Empower students to ask their own questions.
Instead of answering a set of predetermined questions, students can ask their own questions based upon their own curiosity. This might involve something like a larger inquiry-based learning mini-project, where they ask a question, spend a large block of time engaging in research (where they read multiple informational texts), and ultimately share their findings with others.
When I taught science, I asked students to come up with their own science questions. We had a simple rule: no question was dumb. If they were curious, they could jot it down. The questions were all over the place:
- Why does water suck when there aren’t any clouds inside? (Then, in parenthesis, she writes, “I think the word is evaporate”) Where does that water go if not in the clouds?
- Is it true that you can’t drink a whole gallon of milk in an hour?
- Would you die if you drank Diet Coke and downed a pack of Mentos in the same minute?
- What makes stuff float? Why do certain heavy things not sink but light things sink?
- Why does metal always seem cold in a classroom if it’s been in the same room temperature? Is it really getting colder? Or does it just feel that way?
- What makes paper airplanes fly faster?
- What makes the ripples in water?
- Why does stuff burn when it’s together but not when it’s apart?
- Why do some chemicals burn green?
- Why does it smoke afterward when you mix vinegar and baking soda together? Is that really smoke?
- If you kept a species of lizard in a totally yellow container, would the color change after years in that environment, even if there was nothing to force natural selection? I mean, if you had a room and all the lizards were normal, would they turn yellow in twenty years? Or a hundred years? Or never?
From there, students read multiple informational texts in an attempt to answer their questions. They also interviewed experts and created their own mini-experiments. A shorter version of this process is the Wonder Day Mini-Project:
This is a fun, easy way to get students engaged in non-fiction reading. I use it as a high-interest way to help students learn the research process. Students begin with the sentence stem, “I’m wondering why/what would/how/if __________” and from there they ask tons of questions. This ultimately leads to research and finally a place where they share what they learned. For more ideas on how to bring wonder back into the classroom, check out this post.
If you’re interested in doing a Wonder Day project, I have the entire unit plan, complete with handouts, lessons, and slideshows available as a free download. There’s actually a short version (Wonder Day) and a longer version (Wonder Week).
4. Empower students to choose the strategies.
When I took a tour guide approach to informational reading, I had the entire class use the same close reading approach. Close reading isn’t a bad thing. However, too often close reading becomes a lockstep procedure rather than a flexible strategy. Students focus on whether they are doing the process correctly instead of thinking about the information in the text. I’ve seen students stare at a poster worrying about what color they are supposed to use when highlighting a text rather than thinking about the accuracy of information and the bias of the source. By contrast, the off-road approach treats close reading as a strategy that students can use when they need it. It’s also something that they can modify to fit their own needs.
Similarly, we can encourage students to select which methods they want to use for gathering information during research. Some might prefer note cards for the flexibility and the ability to maneuver the information in a spatial form. Others might prefer sketchnotes to process key information in a way that is more web-like. Still others might prefer a graphic organizer or a spreadsheet, where they can easily search the information. Meanwhile, others might prefer a neat and tidy binder with multiple tabs to organize the information. The point is, each student can find an approach that works for them. This honors their agency and gives them a sense of control over the reading process.
We can also encourage students to organize the information they gather into their own system through a curation process:
With the curation process, students learn how to find information, analyze information, collect information, organize the information, and share it out with their own unique lens.
5. Empower students to select the tools.
Explorers need tools. They need maps, blueprints, tutorials, and guides as they explore new terrain. Similarly, when students go off-road, they still need supports. Whether it’s an assistive technology or a set of accommodations, exceptional learners will need tools to navigate the terrain on their own. Similarly, English Language Learners will need sentence frames, front-loaded vocabulary, and visuals to help them navigate the language. However, as educators, we can build their self-direction by teaching students how to self-select the scaffolds that they need. We don’t need to limit this to exceptional learners or ELL students. We can make a suit of tools universally accessible to all students by using a Universal Design for Learning approach:
As educators, we can make graphic organizers, tutorials, front-loaded vocabulary, sentence frames, and others resources universally accessible to all of our students. We can offer smaller workshops where any student who needs help can show up to get some quick guidance and practice critical skills. However, students can’t determine what tools they need unless they own the assessment process. Which leads to my next point . . .
6. Empower students to own the assessment process
When students own the assessment process, they are able to determine what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to do next. This can help boost metacognition (which is the process of thinking about thinking). The authors of How Learning Works describe metacognition as a cycle. Check it out in the video below.
There are so many ways for students to own the assessment process. It might involve goal-setting; where they set goals, plan their approach, and keep track of the progress. They also engage in self-reflections. Here, they can reflect on their learning process but also focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their products, which then leads to new iterations. A similar option is a student survey with multiple choices, checkboxes, and Likert scales. In some cases, students might use a self-assessment rubric. Students are able to look at the progression from emerging to mastering with specific descriptions in various categories. They are able to gain an accurate view of how they are doing, while also having a clear picture of where they need to be. Students might also use checklists. These can be a powerful diagnostic tool that students use before, during, and after a task. When projects are done, they can present their work in a portfolio, where they reflect on what they’ve learned.
Peer assessment is also important. One option is the 10-minute peer feedback system. This begins with one student sharing their work or pitching an idea while the other student actively listens. It then moves into a chance to ask clarifying questions, get feedback, respond to feedback, and chart out next steps. Another option is structured Feedback with Sentence Stems. Or you could use the 3-2-1 Structure. This is simple. Students provide three strengths, two areas of improvement and one question that they have. Or you could do a feedback carousel. Each group gets a stack of sticky notes and offers anonymous feedback as they move from group to group. Or you could keep it more open-ended with Peer Coaching: Students interview each other about the process, guide reflection, and provide feedback.
As students engage in this self-assessment process, they have a deeper understanding of how well they have mastered the standards.
7. Empower students to personalize their practice
Informational reading becomes more fun when students feel like they are improving as readers. This is why I ask students to look at the standards to identify which areas they have mastered and which areas still require improvement. Before reading, students select two strategies that are strengths and one that is a weakness. Instead of the hurried, frantic race of a pacing guide, students are given the time to practice a reading strategy until they have mastered it.
As educators, we can create instead differentiation by allowing students to select which reading standards they want to practice as they engage in informational reading. After meeting one-on-one in a student-teacher conference, students can set a plan for which standards they need to practice in order to master the learning. They can then practice it independently during a research project or in something like a choice menu.
8. Empower students to think critically
Going off-road is inherently dangerous. We see this all the time in the proliferation of fake news and wild conspiracy theories. As teachers, it’s tempting to avoid the bad information by curating all of the content for students ahead of time. However, if we want students to be good digital citizens (an idea explored in-depth by Dr. Mattson in this interview) and to learn information literacy, we need to help them learn the habits, mindsets, and skills involved in media literacy.
As a classroom teacher, I developed the 5 C’s of Critical Consume. This was the process I used for my students:
Teachers do a disservice to students when they treat information as inherently neutral. Informational reading becomes fun when students see the conflict inherent in any informational text. They should be examining the bias of the language and analyzing the social, political, and economic forces at work in an author’s argument. As they think critically about the conflict in a source, students see informational reading as the inherently dangerous act that it is.
This is why I love journalism. When students learn how to think like journalists, they become better consumers of digital information.
I spent three years teaching photojournalism and I loved the way they became better consumers by being creators, which then led to better consuming:
One of the best parts of teaching photojournalism is that students get a chance to use the information for making something new. This could be research for a podcast, facts for a video, or information for an article and editorial. Similarly, when I taught all subjects in a self-contained class, students often read informational texts as an integrated part of project-based learning. The reading remained fun because it was a vital part of what they were creating. In our class, students engage in informational reading when they are using the design cycle in their design projects. It’s a natural part of the creative process.
9. Empower students to solve problems.
Outside of the classroom, one of the most common motives for seeking out an informational text is the desire to solve a problem. Too often, though, students are simply answering text-dependent questions that do little more than test comprehension. What if we started informational reading with student inquiry? What if we allowed students to see informational texts as an integrated part of research? When this happens, informational texts become challenging and relevant to an actual context. That, in turn, makes the task of reading fun again.
As teachers, we can embed informational reading into design thinking projects. This is why we deliberately included the Ask Tons of Questions and Understand the Process or Problem phases into the LAUNCH Cycle.
We knew that students couldn’t engage in quality ideation unless they had prior knowledge. By adding these phases, students could build the background knowledge needed for ideation and prototyping.
The Vital Role of the School Librarian in Empowering Readers
I often hear people ask, “If we have the Internet, why do we still need librarians?” It’s true that the information landscape has changed. It is easier than ever to create a work and publish it to the world and with a tap of a button, we access information from anywhere at any time.
But actually, that’s why librarians are more vital than ever. In an age of instant information, librarians help students learn to ask better questions, find valid sources, analyze the validity of sources and deconstruct the information. Librarians teach students the art and science of content curation, where they learn to connect ideas from multiple sources and apply a unique lens to the information. They ignite a passion for learning, whether a student is geeking out on an informational text or getting lost in a fantastical world. Librarians inspire students to think divergently and experiment with innovative ideas. Using design thinking, librarians can help students engage in research and development as they create empathy-driven design products.
As teachers, we need to lean on librarians for support in helping students learn how to take the reading off road. We often think of the teacher as the “guide on the side.” But actually, as my friend AJ Juliani puts it, an educator is more like a “guide on the ride,” staying with students during that epic off-road journey and providing necessary help at key moments. Librarians are the ultimate guides providing students with critical skills in navigating the media landscape. They can work as mentors, helping students learn critical skills like information literacy, media literacy, and content curation. But they can also spark the love of informational reading by nerding out with students throughout the off-road journey.