Texts don’t grow on trees: using rhetorical analysis with informational texts to understand text and context

23rd May 2022

Authors: Chandra L. Alston and Sarah Byrne Bausell, North Carolina State University

Photo of Chandra Alston & Sarah Byrne

Many middle grades English Language Arts (ELA) teachers in the U.S. are currently being asked to use a curriculum that is heavily skewed towards reading informational texts (Hodge et al., 2020).

Similar to the concerns around literary text use (see #DisruptTexts), these texts are often not diverse in perspectives or authorship. In fact, our work (Alston & Bausell, 2022) notes that these texts are sometimes presented as authorless and generated to be used solely in classrooms as test-taking preparation tools, thus lacking authenticity.

These texts may support students in text specific analysis, e.g., identifying figurative language, but they fall short in supporting critical reading and writing. That’s because authorless, inauthentic texts hamper teachers' capacity to engage young people in conversations about power, subtext, and context. These conversations are at the core of our work as English teachers and support students' capacity to make sense of their lived experiences through reading and writing.

In order to cultivate students' critical reading and writing, we have to come back to the idea that texts are written by real people. Authors use writing to explore their realities and connect to their world. Texts don’t grow on trees. 

We offer four suggestions for teachers and leaders to diversify the informational text and instruction in their schools and classrooms.

  1. Advocate for texts by authors that reflect students' experiences, identities, and interests.
  2. Be wary of forcing thematic interpretations across informational texts.
  3. Engage students in investigating beyond the texts to understand: (a) positionality, (b) context and (c) subtext through rhetorical analysis.
  4. Connect reading and writing – offering opportunities for young people to extend their understandings of text, subtext, and context and develop their own interpretations of themselves, others, and their worlds.

We encourage teachers to select and advocate for authentic informational texts written by authors that reflect students’ experiences, identities, and interests as well as texts that allow them to learn about those unlike themselves. Authentic texts allow young people to engage with the world around them. Authored texts by and from a range of perspectives allow teachers to engage students in considering the author’s purpose and positionality to gain deeper understanding of the text’s context and subtext. If we want young people to be able to critically read the word and the world, a synthesis of each of these aspects is needed in developing one’s own stance on a subject.

Just as we urge teachers to support students in reading beyond the text, to include the author’s purpose and the context, we also think it important to avoid forcing thematic interpretations. Teaching with informational texts requires different pedagogical approaches than teaching literary texts. With novels we often investigate theme, yet this is not always the best approach with informational texts. We suggest that teachers be wary of pre-packaged curriculum that collates informational text sets under a prescribed theme (e.g., perseverance).

Rather than holding to a prescribed theme, we believe that students will gain a greater benefit from engaging in rhetorical analysis of informational texts. Rhetorical analysis can allow young people to grapple with the author’s subject matter, issue, argument, writing choices, perspective, context and subtext. Such an analysis can allow young people to consider issues of power and positionality and develop their own understandings of texts and their context.

An outcome of rhetorical analysis is the deep study of writing craft which can support students’ writing development. Thus, we beseech teachers to extend beyond reading of text and include opportunities for students to produce their own texts as the two literacy practices are deeply intertwined.

These suggestions can support not only the diversification of the texts used but also better alignment of instructional approaches to those texts, moving beyond text structure and thematic analysis to more critical analysis and development of critical readers and writers.


References

Alston, C.L. & Bausell, S.B. (2022). Why is it so hard to reconcile disciplinary literacy and antiracism?: Informational texts and middle grades English Language Arts. English Teaching: Practice and Critique https://doi.org/10.1108/ETPC-06-2021-0062

Hodge, E. M., Benko, S. L., & Salloum, S. J. (2020). Tracing states’ messages about Common Core instruction: An analysis of English/language arts and close reading resources. Teachers College Record, 122(3), 1-42.


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