Unit 4: Informational Writing – The New York Times

Unit 4: Informational Writing – The New York Times

Welcome to our fourth writing unit of the school year. Below you will find a detailed description of each element, as well as ways to put them together to make your own custom unit. To learn more, visit our writing curriculum overview.

Of the three broad types of writing that the Common Core State Standards emphasize — argument, informational/explanatory and narrative — informational writing may be the category that gets the least love from writing teachers.

Sure, students are writing explanatory pieces all the time, whether in response to questions, in notebooks, on tests. They are also doing this kind of writing across subjects, perhaps in science or history class as much as in English. But as former teachers ourselves, we have found that writing instructors tend to shine the spotlight more brightly on the two sister genres. After all, making a strong argument and telling a compelling story might feel like more interesting tasks than just explaining something clearly and accurately.

But informational writing is the style of writing that dominates The New York Times as well as any other traditional newspaper you might read, and in this unit we hope to show students that it can be every bit as engaging and compelling to read and to write as other genres. Via thousands of articles a month, from front-page reporting on politics to news about athletes in Sports, deep data dives in The Upshot, recipes in Cooking, advice columns in Style and long-form investigative pieces in the magazine, Times journalists find ways to experiment with the genre to intrigue and inform their audiences.

For this unit, however, we are focusing on just one broad area of informational writing — that with a STEM theme. Not only can students find daily models in The Times’s Science, Tech and Health sections, but we have also teamed up with Science News and Science News for Students as a partner for our contest so we can provide an even bigger range of writing examples at different reading levels.

But if you’re a humanities teacher and you’re feeling left out, please know that this contest and our four mentor-text lesson plans are relevant to you, too. First of all, your students can take on any topic they like under the broad umbrellas of science, technology, engineering, math and health, and we hope they will choose issues and ideas that have real relevance to their lives. But more to the point, the writing skills we want this contest to teach — how to write clearly and engagingly about complex topics — obviously span subject areas. The specific requirements of the contest — that students have an engaging “hook” as an opening, that they weave in quotations from experts and studies and that they explain why the topic matters — are elements they will need to master for all kinds of writing.

Below, we provide the core ingredients for our unit, which can be used and adapted whether you are participating in our contest or not.

When reporting on STEM-related issues, journalists often start by asking a question about what’s happening in the world around them:

Just how safe is vaping? Can exercise make us smarter? How does facial recognition technology work? Why are wildfires becoming infernos? If you touched the moon, what would it feel like?

Their articles are answers to those questions — or at least attempts to answer.

To begin this unit, we invite students to brainstorm their own questions by responding to our writing prompt: What Questions Do You Have About How the World Works?

The questions they come up with can serve as starting points for the research and writing of their own informational texts for our STEM-related Informational Writing Contest.

Whether they ultimately participate in our contest or not, we hope your students have fun responding to this prompt — and then enjoy reading the questions posed by other students, commenting on them and maybe even hitting that “Recommend” button if they read a response they especially like.

All our prompts are open for comment by students 13 and up, and every comment is read by Times editors before it is approved.

The goal of our mentor-text series is to demystify what good writing looks like and to encourage students to experiment with some of those techniques themselves.

For this unit, we’re trying something new: Not only will we post three mentor-text lesson plans that focus on the individual elements we’re asking student writers to include in their contest submissions, but we have also invited a science journalist to annotate one of his own articles to take us behind the scenes of his research and writing process and show us how he has woven in those elements.

Here are the pieces we’ll publish. The first is live now, and the other three will publish the week of Jan. 27.

  • Annotated by the Author: “Tiny Tyrannosaur Hints at How T. Rex Became King

  • Hooking the Reader Right From the Start: The Times Trilobites Column

  • Explaining Why a Topic Matters: The Times Personal Health Column

  • Quoting and Paraphrasing Experts and Research: The Times Tip Column

By the end of the unit, your students will have brainstormed ideas for research, gone behind the scenes of one journalist’s process and practiced key elements of informational writing themselves.

Now we invite them to produce one piece of polished writing that brings it all together.

This contest asks students to choose an issue or question in science, technology, engineering, math or health that interests them, then write a 500-word explanation that will engage and enlighten readers.

All student work will be read by our staff, volunteers from the Times newsroom and Science Times, and/or by educators from around the country. Winners will have their work published on our site and, perhaps, in the print New York Times.

While the core of our unit is the prompts, mentor texts and contest, we also offer additional resources to inspire and support teachers, including lesson plans and great ideas from our readers around STEM reading and writing.

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