Start Early. Start well.

March 12, 2018

Professional Development Institute Focuses on Helping Children Build World Knowledge Through Reading

Omaha, Neb. — Children are born ready to take their first steps as readers, and they can go far with the right help from caregivers and teachers.

That was the message of the fourth and final institute in the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2017-18 series March 1 and 3 in Omaha. About 200 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “Children as Researchers: Reading to Learn Can Start Early.”

“When does literacy begin? People used to talk about learning to read then reading to learn as if they were separate things. The reality is that even young infants are developing language-specific recognition skills,” said Susan Bennett-Armistead, keynote speaker the PD for All institute.

Bennett-Armistead, an associate professor of early literacy at the University of Maine, said reading comprehension requires knowledge of language, the world, text, and genre. One important book genre to help young readers develop is informational texts, a subset of nonfiction writing with the primary purpose of informing about the natural or social world. Examples of informational texts include “All about…” books, question-and-answer books, and most reference books. Informational texts have lots of features to guide the reader, such as a table of contents, captions, headings, photos or illustrations, and glossaries.

“All of these things are designed to help you find information quickly,” she said. “There are many, many more features to support the reader than there are in narratives. Also, more rare words show up in narratives than in informational texts—so narratives are harder to read.”


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    Until 1990, there were few informational texts for young children, Bennett-Armistead said. “We have had a beautiful revolution in informational text in the last 20 years”—there are more than 150 Eyewitness topic books now, for instance.

    “Kids are interested in all kinds of stuff: trains, sharks, ballet,” she said. “The notion here is you can match the topic to the kid. They want to look at that book because it’s their topic.”

    Bennett-Armistead said teachers need to incorporate more informational texts in their classrooms.

    “Think of the last 10 read-alouds you did—I’m guessing most of them were stories. You need to mix them up a bit,” she said.

    Informational text can help build children’s world knowledge, especially when reading the texts is linked with hands-on experiences and play. That’s more important today than ever, she said, as many youngsters don’t have the opportunity to play and explore outdoors on their own as earlier generations did.

    “Children’s worlds have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller—for some, their whole world extends only from themselves to the TV,” she said. That makes it even more important to get kids outdoors. For example, a trip to an orchard can spark a lot of learning.

    “When we have an apple in our hand, it’s a completely different experience than reading about apples,” she said. “We have richer vocabulary understandings from those real experiences.”

    Nature-based classrooms that have long been popular in European countries are on the rise here in the U.S., Bennett-Armistead said. This approach builds vocabulary, promotes imaginary play and curiosity, and builds on prior knowledge. What can teachers do to promote children’s growth as researchers?

    “The best thing we can do as teachers is to play dumb,” she said. “You say you don’t know the answer, we need to look it up together. What are we going to find? How are we going to find it out?”

    Making the Best Use of Informational Texts

    Some effective strategies for using informational texts are question the author, experience-text-relationship, and graphic organizers.

    Questioning the author is a great approach, she said.

    “When we read a text and kids look confused, we can stop there and say what do you think we should say instead? Questioning the author puts kids in the position of being a really smart analyst.”

    Experience-text-relationship invites kids to say what they already know, and how it lines up with what is being read. “It invites kids to be much more critical readers,” she said.

    Graphic organizers, such as concept wheels, k-w-l-r, Venn diagrams, and concept of definition, help readers make sense of all this information.

    The concept wheel is super simple, she said. Whatever big concept is being studied goes into the circle. Then kids put down three words or pictures that help them understand the concept.

    “It helps children come up with definitions that are meaningful to them,” she said.

    K-w-l-r is a set of four questions:

  • What do you Know (or think you know)?
  • What do you Want to know?
  • What do you Learn?
  • What Resources might we use to learn the answers to our questions?

    A Venn diagram sorts things into circles, with common elements shown in the overlapping parts.

    “We all learned that in math but it applies beautifully to the early years,” she said. “You can use hula hoops on the floor to compare two or more concepts or categories.”

    The concept of definition includes four parts:

  • What is it? (category and description)
  • What’s it like? (attributes)
  • Some examples
  • Compare examples

    “This can be a useful way to organize their thinking,” she said.

    Suggestions for Supporting Children

    Bennett-Armistead said teachers and parents should:

  • Read to children but dialogically (interactively, with questions and prompts that allow the child to become the storyteller).
  • Build children’s world knowledge through reading aloud diverse genres, and through play and primary experiences.
  • Help children make connections between text and experiences (“This reminds me of…”).
  • Build children’s vocabulary and knowledge through reading aloud and talking with them. Ask research-provoking questions such as “Why do you think…” “What will happen if…” and “How do you think…”
  • Create a climate of curiosity!

“Families need to know their young children are already ready to be researchers,” she said, with topics they’re interested in and lots of questions. “Honor their curiosity and create a climate where kids are seeking out answers and see themselves as learners.”

How to choose and use informational texts was emphasized by the other speakers at the PD for All institute: Mary Carey, a birth to third grade facilitator with the Rollins Center for Language & Literacy in Atlanta; Julie Humphrey, youth and family services manager at the Omaha Public Library; and Hannah Schneewind, a certified reading specialist and literacy consultant in New York.

Developed by the Buffett Institute and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is now in its third year. “PD for All” is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and their families. Additionally, the institutes give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other.

Presentations, videos, and resources from the first three years of Professional Development for All institutes are available for download at

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