Moving to the Common Core this year has caused big change in our instruction. I’ve challenged myself to rethink how I teach non-fiction so that students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the genre. For this reason, I reworked my reading and writing non-fiction units so that they are completely intertwined and cohesive.
In my classroom, we spent four weeks learning about non-fiction text structures, text features, and then applying what we’ve learned to our non-fiction writing. In this unit of lessons, I did not include every single lesson as many listed here were taught over two or three days. Instead, I’ve mainly included introductory or follow up lessons. You decide what works best for your students and pace the lessons accordingly.
A note about text features instruction:
Most of these lessons focus on text structure. In years past, I have taught separate lessons on structure and features. This year, I taught them together. Rather than plan out which features I would teach on specific days, I simply wrote a lesson that focused on a specific structure, chose an appropriate text, and then selected one to three features that were important to that specific text. So while I might be teaching photos, captions, and diagrams along with my description structure lesson, you might find that charts and maps better fit your selected text. Go for it! As always, do whatever works best for your texts and students!
Today begins a month-long unit on non-fiction. I believe that in order to best understand non-fiction, readers must learn to decode its structure and use its features efficiently. So we begin here. For our introductory lesson, I collect examples of non-fiction texts from the classroom. Of course you could go to a library and collect all sorts of examples. However, I like to pick from within the classroom so that perhaps some students are familiar already with the texts I choose. They won’t be reading texts today - just using them to explore.
I set a dozen or so books on each table and instruct students to get out their reading notebooks. Their job today is to flip through the books and make observational notes of what they find. This works well if it follows a unit on fiction as you can ask them to notice how these texts are different from fiction texts. Even if you haven’t completed a fiction unit, you can still ask students to be on the look out for how these books are different from the chapter or picture books they’ve been reading. Another option would be to set out two piles of books - one non-fiction and one fiction. Ask students to contrast the books making notes on how they are different.
I try to give them as little direction as possible so that they are conducting a true inquiry. I don’t want them to notice that non-fiction texts include subheadings or maps simply because I’ve pointed these out to them. I want to see what they discover on their own. Once they have their materials, I give them 20 - 30 to work with their tables.
After their work time, I call the class to our meeting area to talk about what they’ve discovered. I take notes on the white board or chart paper while they tell me specific examples from their texts. I try to get them to see commonalities between texts such as if one student mentions that she found a chart in her book, I’ll ask if others noticed charts in their books, etc. We spend some time doing this trying to find as many similarities between texts as possible. This conversation serves as a springboard when introducing specific text features later in the unit.