Informational Texts: Indexes & Tables of Contents

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about indexes and tables of contents in informational texts. We'll define these two important parts of a text and discover how to use them to find information.

Indexes & Tables of Contents

You look down at the worksheet in front of you and groan. Your latest English lesson doesn't seem like much fun. Your teacher has assigned you a book about the Civil War, an informational text, she said, one that presents a set of facts about a topic. Your job is to analyze the book's index and table of contents and answer the questions on the worksheet.

First, you need know exactly what indexes and tables of contents are. In fact, the first two questions on your worksheet ask you to provide definitions.

An index is found at the back of a book. It alphabetically lists all the major topics, events, people, and places discussed in the book and provides page numbers that direct you to each reference. Indexes can get quite specific and often run for several pages.

A table of contents isn't quite as detailed as an index. It focuses on the overall structure of a book. Tables of contents appear in the front of a book and provide a list of all the book's elements, including prologues, prefaces, introductions, chapters, notes, bibliographies, and indexes. A book's table of contents also gives a page number for each element so readers can find their way around easily.

Indexes and tables of contents are useful tools to help you navigate a book and find information quickly, easily, and efficiently.

Using the Index

Okay, now that you've got the definitions down, let's move on. The next section of your worksheet asks you a set of questions about the index of your book.

You survey the index and notice that it contains several pages of small print with lots of names of people, places, battles, events, and topics. Some entries have subtopics beneath them. Under 'Army, Union,' for instance, you see subtopics like mobilization, organization, and discipline.

Your first question asks, 'Where in the book would you find information about the Battle of Gettysburg?' You turn to the 'B' section, hoping to see an entry for 'Battle of Gettysburg.' Uh-oh. It's not there. Now what? You decide to try the 'G' section, and there it is 'Gettysburg, battle of' on pages 150-170. Congratulations! You've learned something important about selecting a key word. Index entries are usually listed under the most important word in a phrase.

You turn to the next question: 'What kinds of information does the book contain about John C. Fremont?' You look up 'Fremont, John C.', remembering that people are listed under their last names, and discover subtopics that provide information about Fremont's time in California, his commands in Missouri and West Virginia, and his presidential bid. Got it!

Question #3 asks, 'Where would you find information about Ulysses S. Grant's participation in the capture of Fort Donelson?' Using what you've learned from the last two questions, you look up 'Fort Donelson.' The index lists several pages that discuss Fort Donelson, but there's nothing specifically about General Grant. You decide to look up 'Grant, Ulysses S.' to cover all your bases, and sure enough, you find a subtopic under the entry that says, 'Capture of Fort Donelson' and points you to pages 110-111. Now you see that sometimes you have to look up more than one entry to find the information you need.

Using the Table of Contents

You still aren't finished with your assignment, however. The last few questions on the worksheet ask you to examine the book's table of contents. You turn to the front of the book and do a quick survey.

You notice that the table of contents lists all the important parts of the book: the introduction from an editor, a preface, a prologue, the chapters with their titles, a section of notes, a bibliography, and the index. It also conveniently provides a page number for each element.

The whole thing is pretty straightforward, you think as you look over chapter titles, like 'The Civil War on the Horizon,' 'Building Armies,' 'The First Battles,' 'Emancipation,' 'Gettysburg,' 'Camp Life,' 'The War in the West,' 'The Siege of Petersburg,' and 'The War Ends.'

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