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November 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 3

The Case for Reader-Friendly Articles

Want to engage students in complex informational text? Start with an article.

Current-events articles from weekly magazines, websites, and newspapers are already an essential part of the curriculum in many classrooms. These articles have grown in value with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which require students to read increasingly complex texts, especially informational texts. Yet this form of informational text is often not being used to its full potential in classrooms. How can teachers use these and other articles to increase students' capacity and interest in reading complex and informative texts?

Why Use Articles?

I use the term article to refer to any text that is shorter than a full-length book and written in a reader-friendly, magazine-like, journalistic style that is intended to engage readers while informing them. Articles can be found on websites, in magazines, or in newspapers.
Although timely current-events articles serve an important purpose, teachers also need to look for timeless informational articles that they can reuse, repackage, and repurpose for future use—not just when a particular event is making the news. Such high-quality articles, specifically those that connect to essential topics in the curriculum, have the potential to transform classroom reading in at least five ways.

Increased Reading

Many young people simply are not reading enough to be adept with any text, much less complex text. Incorporating magazine articles can increase the amount that students read without overwhelming them.
Often, magazine and newspaper articles, whether in print or online, are written with a general audience in mind and have a dual purpose of entertaining and informing. For many students, articles appear more palatable than a selection in a textbook. To draw in reluctant readers, I especially recommend beginning with the original versions of articles, which include the illustrations, instead of the text-only selections from library databases and some periodicals' own websites. The design and format of magazine articles, which often include subheadings, quotes, and pictures, invite students to read more within and across topics, including topics they weren't already interested in.

Background Knowledge

Background knowledge is one of the best predictors of how well students comprehend text (Pearson, Hansen, & Gordon, 1979). A well-written article can become a source of background knowledge (Graesser, Hoffman, & Clark, 1980). Students don't need to possess extensive background knowledge to read such articles; in fact, the article can help them develop background knowledge that will help them with crucial required texts.
For example, many of today's students do not understand the context for complex historical documents or seminal speeches, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Reading magazine articles about the children's march in Birmingham can illuminate students about the issues in King's speech. Similarly, reading an article about Margaret Chase Smith, the second woman elected (not appointed) to the U.S. Senate, gives students a context for her "Declaration of Conscience" speech.

Success with Challenging Texts

For students who do not read a great deal, articles can be a way to experience success with challenging texts. The vocabulary found in high-quality magazine articles is often challenging, as many magazine writers include numerous proper nouns and descriptive words in their articles. (For example, an insect might be described as "chomping on a scrumptious snack.")
Despite the complexity of many articles, students' views of a text and their stamina in reading it can be influenced by its length (Hiebert, Wilson, & Trainin, 2010). When the text is shorter and appears more accessible, students, especially reluctant or struggling readers, may more readily take on the challenge—and gain the confidence to tackle longer texts.

Lifelong Reading Skills

Articles are a primary component of many adults' reading diets. Examination of these texts can help students develop skills needed for lifelong critical reading and text comprehension. For instance, because magazine articles are often written to present a particular side of a topic, determining bias and recognizing the use of rhetorical techniques like exaggeration can help students become critical readers. Articles also often blend narrative elements (such as the story of a character's problem with a particular invention) and informational elements (such as descriptions of the mechanics underlying the invention). Students need guidance in determining what aspects of magazine articles could be informational and which might be anecdotal.
Articles are an ideal context for students to apply key processes enumerated in the Common Core Anchor Standards for English language arts, particularly identifying key ideas and details (Standards 1–3) and integrating knowledge and ideas (Standards 7–9). Further, the goal of the magazine article to convey content means that these texts are complex in their vocabulary and often sentence structure, supporting students' growth in reading ever increasingly more complex texts (Standard 10).

Experience with Assessment Texts

Finally, magazine articles are represented heavily in many assessments, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I present this feature last because the underlying purpose for magazine articles is not test preparation. The previously discussed reasons are compelling enough. But it is helpful for students to become familiar with styles and features specific to articles before encountering them on an assessment.
Often, tasks require them to read more than one article and to integrate information from two or more articles. Or they might be asked to pick out the gist of the article—which can be challenging when magazine writers elaborate extensively with quotes and statistics. When teachers incorporate articles into their lesson, they give students an opportunity to practice these skills as they grow as readers.

How to Use Articles

Magazine articles can serve many functions. One key strategy is to include them as a component within lessons or units, but that's only one use. How will you use them?

As Part of Lessons and Units

As previously discussed, articles can provide helpful background knowledge to help students read more complex texts or historical documents. Students would read these articles to develop a fund of knowledge before reading a more extended text or set of texts on the topic.
When having students read for background knowledge, teachers will want to develop an accompanying activity that involves using the article text. For example, students might create mind maps in which they summarize important information from the article and keep this information on hand when moving on to more complex texts.

Warm-up Reading

Magazine articles are ideal for daily warm-ups to begin the school day or a class period. Articles may or may not be associated directly with the extended texts that students are reading. For example, over the course of a week, a 4th grade class might read a series of articles on science, with follow-up discussions of what science knowledge they've gained.
Warm-up reading in which students read articles on a variety of topics is one of several ways to prepare students for the new English language arts assessments in that, although the length of time and nature of the tasks on these assessments has been specified, the topics of the readings are not specified. Students need to be able to read across a range of topics.

Sustained Reading Sessions

Articles can also be used in sustained reading sessions to increase students' stamina and attention in silent reading. Starting in grade 3, the computer-based assessment for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) requires students to read for two 60-minute periods, while the Smarter Balanced assessments involve 105 minutes of sustained reading. Many students will not have spent time reading for such long periods. Magazine articles, with accompanying comprehension activities, can be an outstanding way to steadily increase students' reading stamina. Readers will have the satisfaction of reading a complete work and can gradually work up to longer pieces as they grow in skill.

Reading Outside School

Articles can be a way to support reading at home, including over extended breaks such as summer and the winter holidays. The amount that students read at home and during the summer is crucial in developing students' reading facility and world knowledge. Teachers might give students packets of magazine articles to read as part of their homework or during holidays. They might also direct students toward sources of articles on topics that interest them.

Where to Find Articles

Many online texts for children and young adolescents are written like the worst textbook selections, but it is possible to find websites filled with excellent articles. My aim is not to curate all of the sites that provide high-quality articles but to identify types of sites that are, at least at present, free and that promise to have a modicum of longevity in terms of online availability.

Government Agencies and Nonprofit Organizations

Many government agencies have portions of their websites devoted to children and adolescents. Most of the government sources can be found at http://kids.usa.gov. The site has numerous articles on space-related topics that are appropriate for students. Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids, a site developed by the U.S. Government Printing Office, is a good source for articles about how the U.S. government works.
Further, a variety of organizations and foundations provide articles appropriate for children and young adolescents. These include the American Chemical Society and the Society for Science and the Public.

Magazines and News Sites

Many well-known magazines and newspapers provide online versions of their content. Some require that readers subscribe for full access, but they generally offer at least a sampling of content free. It's important to remember, however, that the content on these sites frequently changes, and articles that are free today on the sites may not be free tomorrow.
Two popular sources are Timeforkids.com and Scholastic. Articles on science, health, technology, cultural practices, and a host of other topics are available at these sites. The Connected Classroom offers a list of sites that include news articles for a student audience.
For upper middle school and high school students, the possibilities are enormous because articles aimed at adults can be used. Articles that aren't available free online may be available at the library through article repositories from EBSCO, Proquest, or Gale Publishing. The articles in these databases do not necessarily include illustrations, but for older and more proficient students, this should not create as much of an obstacle as it might with younger and less proficient readers.

Open-access Sites

These sites provide high-quality articles for free downloading. There is every indication that access to articles will be permanent at these two sites and that additional content will be added at both sites.
Readworks.org offers more than 1,000 articles, most of which came from Weekly Reader and are written for students in grades 3–6. The articles have been tagged by comprehension strategies but not by content.
A new addition at Textproject (the open-access site with which I am associated) is FYI for Kids. At present, the number of articles provided is not large, but we hope that, as time goes by, our inventory will increase. (We also hope that teachers will write articles and submit them to us.) The content falls into five main content areas—art and music, human interest, language studies, science, and social studies.
The articles at FYI for Kids are complex in content but vary in percentages of rare (and likely unknown) vocabulary. Anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of the words in these articles are not part of the core vocabulary (the 4,000 simple word families that account for 90 percent of most texts). Teachers can search for articles with a specific vocabulary complexity and use them to increase students' facility with words as they build their knowledge.

Reading for a Lifetime

In the 21st century, knowledge is available through a variety of media, but to navigate and create media, high levels of proficiency in reading texts are essential. Accessible and engaging articles help students gain the background knowledge to read increasingly complex informational texts. They can get students involved early on in the world of knowledge and learning, and they merit considerable attention in Common Core classrooms because of their central role in the reading lives of individuals who succeed in college, careers, and community life.
Editor's note: All standards referenced in this article are from National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy.

Graesser, A. C., Hoffman, N. L., & Clark, L. F. (1980). Structural components of reading time. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 131–151.

Hiebert, E. H., Wilson, K. M. & Trainin, G. (2010). Are students really reading in independent reading contexts? An examination of comprehension-based silent reading rate. In E.H. Hiebert & D. Ray Reutzel (Eds.), Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers. Newark, DE. IRA.

Pearson, P. D., Hansen, J., & Gordon, C. (1979). The effect of background knowledge on young children's comprehension of explicit and implicit information. Journal of Reading Behavior, 11, 201–209.

Elfrieda H. Hiebert has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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