Informational texts in authentic Spanish literature
by Caitlin Kiley
You’ve got some beautiful, colorful, authentic informational texts that you want to explore with your students... but they have a ton of information, they're too long to read all in one sitting, and they're full of rich (maybe challenging) vocabulary. Where do you start?
Showcase the text’s features and organization
The table of contents, index, sidebars, glossaries, text boxes, timelines and highlighted vocabulary words are just some of the key features to underscore with students. Model using them in context, perhaps over a week with a single nonfiction book that you use to showcase different strategies each day. One day you might kick off students' independent reading time with a mini-lesson on using the index to find the exact page with the information you’re looking for. On another day you might model the way your book uses certain colors, titles or symbols to distinguish different chapters. Another day you could model using the glossary to get help understanding a word that’s new to you. As you close each of these mini lessons, invite children to select a nonfiction text from your classroom library and to notice or use the feature you modeled. Create a "reading nonfiction" graphic organizer that you can post on the wall and add to throughout the week as you explore each new strategy.
Be flexible about where you start and end-- you don’t have to read cover to cover!
Unlike a narrative text, it's probably unnecessary to start on page one and move through an informational text from start to finish. This is really liberating for kids who have shorter attention spans and for struggling readers who want to read a text that matches their maturity level but don’t yet have the stamina to read longer chapter books. Informational texts are a way to invite more types of kids to feel like readers. When you read aloud nonfiction texts, make sure to sometimes pick texts that are too long to read in just one sitting so that you can model how you select and find the section of the book that’s most relevant or that answers your particular question.
The way we read informational texts doesn’t always flow in a left-to-right way. We might read a paragraph, then stop to read a sidebar, then continue reading the main text. One of my favorite books in our collection, Psiqué, la enamorada de un dios, alternates between the narrative retelling of Cupid and Psyche’s love story and short informational texts that explore Greek civilization, the significance of Greek mythology, and central gods and goddesses. Readers can choose how they want to jump between the narrative and the informational sections, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Authentic informational texts are the perfect opportunity for boosting academic language in Spanish and making linguistic connections.
Encourage students to use all of their linguistic resources in order to interact with and make sense of what they read (Beeman & Urow, 2013). Model and practice identifying cognates, for example, and celebrate when students notice those connections between Spanish and English. Consider finding a couple of books in English on the same theme as your authentic text in Spanish so that students can explore that topic in both languages and make connections between concepts and vocabulary during their independent reading time.
There are countless activities you can do before, during and after reading a text to explicitly bridge between the concepts and languages, helping to strengthen student's awareness of structures and vocabulary that are important for understanding the book's content in both English and Spanish (Beeman and Urow, 2013.
Set kids up for success before reading by helping to build on their schema or prior knowledge.
A text’s meaning isn’t limited simply to the words themselves; our own previous experiences and cultural knowledge work in concert to help us interact with the text and make sense of it. (Gibbons, 2009).
We can draw out and bolster kids’ relevant background knowledge on a particular topic even before reading so that when they start reading they are primed to make connections and comprehend the text -- even if there are challenging words and language structures.
- Do a book walk or picture walk and ask kids to make predictions aloud to a partner: What kind of text is this? What kind of information will it contain? For whom did the author write it? What was the author's goal?
- Map out students’ prior knowledge with a concept map or semantic web, and add to it as you read the text and again after you're done reading it.
- Give children a chance to discuss their own personal experiences with a given topic in pairs or small groups.
- Based on the book title and cover, ask kids to generate a few questions they think the book will answer. Then ask them to scan the text in small groups or pairs to see if the text answers their questions. Scanning before reading in detail will help them to preview how the text is organized and practice finding specific information (Gibbons, 2009).
Seek out books with great illustrations that do more than just mimic the text.
A great informational text for children has graphics, comics, illustrations and images that don’t just provide the same information in a visual format -- they bring the reader to a new level of understanding. Look for books that have colorful and engaging illustrations that draw the reader in, truly support the textual information, and even provide stand-alone information.
Seek out books that connect to students’ interests
Knowing your students is key to being a good teacher. Once you know your students’ interests and and socio-cultural contexts, you can seek out books that you know will engage specific kids -- a great way to involve hesitant readers or children who think they don't like reading. Finding high quality books that connect to their passions will spark their motivation to read and boost their confidence as readers.
Be flexible and ready to apply the content to your own local context.
Say you’re reading aloud Ecos verdes, a picture book about the environment and sustainability. You’re reading about energy sources, and then, oops… you come to a page dedicated to how Chile gets power from hydroelectric sources and thermoelectric energy. Do you have to skip this page? Is this book not useful any more? Of course not!! This is an opportunity to explore and discuss what’s true for your own community or region. Where does the power come from in your city? What are the potential negative impacts of that? Don’t be afraid of stumbling across some information that doesn’t apply to your specific community or culture. It's not a bad thing; it will expand the conversation, really that's what a good book does -- it makes us look at our own reality, and beyond. There’s room for you and your kids to add their own truth to the book’s truth, and frankly, it’s good for kids to know that Hometown, U.S.A. is not the center of the universe.
Along the same lines, what if you come to a reference to a metric measurement? It’s good for children to be aware that in the rest of the world people measure volume, length and weight with different units than what we're used to using in the U.S. If it’s not part of your district’s standards, you don’t need to make them all experts in quickly calculating from pounds into kilograms; but it’s perfectly fine for them to know that most other people in the world measure weight in kg, and there are about two pounds in every kilogram. There’s nothing to be afraid of, and you can spend as little or as much time on that issue as you please, then move on.
Spend some time on important signaling words or phrases like a pesar de que, aunque, por lo tanto, sin embargo, and finalmente.
These words connect ideas throughout the text, and failure to understand them could make comprehension fall apart completely. Helping kids become familiar with these key words will help them identify the main idea and support their understanding of how the whole text is structured (Gibbons, 2009). If there's an especially complicated and important chunk of text, rewrite a key sentence that contains one of those connectors on a strip of paper and cut it up into words and mix them up so they're out of order. Re-read the sentence aloud and have the group put the words in the right order. See if they could translate that sentence into English using a word bank of key signaling/connector words like however, although, nevertheless, in spite of, on the other hand, finally, etc.
Tell them what you're reading!
A few years ago I was reading a book called Shadow Divers. It's a true story about a sunken German U-boat from WWII that was discovered off the coast of New Jersey, and it was written so well that it consumed me. I was reading while I was brushing my teeth, listening to it on audio while I drove to work-- I could not help but tell my students about it. One day before we were about to head to the school library so that kids could check out their own books for independent reading, I spent a couple minutes summarizing my book to them, telling them excitedly how mysterious and fascinating it was. I wanted them to know that I read for fun, and to learn things, too. When I was done talking, one little boy sat up straight, eyes wide, and told me earnestly, “¡Yo quiero un libro así, exactamente así, pero más corto y con más dibujos!” Whether it’s a newspaper article you read that interested you or a fascinating biography from your monthly book club, share with your kids what sparks your interest and let them see how you select great things to read.
Not just fun facts about lions: informational texts are multidimensional
When you first think of a nonfiction children’s book, you might imagine a picture book about, say, lions. You'd expect to read about where they live, what they eat, and their endangered status. Informational texts for kids can be so much more than that, though, and we need to showcase the many reasons that people read them: to learn a specific skill, for fun, to relax, to become an expert on a topic, to answer a burning question, to solve a problem or to plan for a project. Make a wide range of informational texts available to kids to explore during their independent reading time. Here are some examples of some of my favorite nonfiction texts from Books del Sur, all of which have different approaches, purposes and organizational styles.
Psyche, la enamorada de un dios - A magnetic retelling of the Greek myth about the love story of Cupid and Pysche, and the jealous goddess Venus who was determined to keep them apart. Throughout the book are sprinkled mini-sections about the other Greek gods, their importance in society at the time, and Greek civilization overall. Hook students with a great story while deepening their understanding about the myth’s historical context.
Sabores de América - This picture book features many different foods that originated in the Americas; each page contains historical information, fun facts, common uses, and kid-safe recipes to try. I love that it also recognizes regional differences in what we call the foods -- as with palta/aguacate below.
Animales americanos a mano - Step by step instructions for creating various animals out of recycled materials and craft supplies at home.
Ecos verdes - a detailed and beautifully illustrated informational picture book about sustainability and the environment, including tips and ideas for children to consider the ways in which they can minimize their own carbon footprint.
Caitlin Kiley was a third grade bilingual teacher in Madison, Wisconsin and now lives in Mexico.
Gibbons, P. (2009). English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Heineman.
Beeman, K. and Urow, C. (2013). Teaching for Biliteracy: Strengthening Bridges between Languages. Caslon Publishing.
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