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.
At the beginning of the unit, each student received a “Non-Fiction Text Structure” sheet that listed important information about all five structure types including a description, important key or clue words, visuals of how each might be organized, and sample skeleton texts of what each might sound like. We will use this sheet throughout the entire unit. I typically will refer to this as the structure note sheet.
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!
We start our first lesson about non-fiction text structures with compare and contrast. I chose this because we had recently worked on comparing and contrasting fiction texts. Students were familiar with the skill and important keywords.
I looked through the non-fiction texts in the room to find one that followed this structure. I found a text on reptiles that had a chapter on turtles. The first few paragraphs in the chapter explained how turtles and tortoises were similar and different. Perfect! I wanted all students to have a working copy of the text so I typed up these first few paragraphs along with some guiding questions. I’ve included the sheet we used, but you could do this with any text that you have in your classroom.
I read the sample passage from the text aloud to the class and showed them the actual pages. I this text, it had several helpful photos with “partner” captions that helped us to see the difference in the two reptiles (I teach students that most photos have a partner feature that enables them to be even more helpful and that is the caption). We have a short discussion about how many turtles vs. tortoises we have seen. I am completely honest with them and say that before reading this text, I don’t know if I could have explained the difference! And the “turtles” I’ve seen may well have been tortoises after all. This further emphasizes the importance of the photos the author chose to include with the text. Rather than having us depend on our memory of turtles we’ve seen, he thought to give us actual visuals for us to attach to the text on the page.
This text also included bold words and a glossary. Our passage had the words “reptiles” and “fused” in bold. While many students could tell me a little about the word “reptiles,” the glossary was helpful in that it provided an accurate definition of the word. It further helped as no one in the room knew what “fused” meant. We took the time to look up the word and discuss its meaning. I explained to students that authors know who their intended audience is and always places little helps along the way to make sure readers are successful in making it to the end. This author knew that many third graders wouldn’t understand this word, but that it was important to the text. He made sure it was bold so that it would catch our attention, make us stop to think about its meaning, and then look it up when we realized we didn’t know what it meant. I encouraged them to think about these “tools” and use them when they’re reading non-fiction independently.
Students each received the working copy of the text with the guiding questions. We read the directions and got our colored pencils ready to work! I wanted students to be able to identify key words that pointed to the text’s structure. We had covered these words over the past few weeks, but I still had students pull out their structure note page so that they would have the listing by their side if needed. We re-read the passage and circled any key words we found using our colored pencil so that they stuck out. On the back side of the page, we listed the two topics being compared and contrasted - turtles and tortoises. I then had students skip to question number three where they wrote these two topics at the top of the chart. I then turned the rest of the work over to them. They worked with their reading partners to complete questions two and three. I gave them about 10 - 15 minutes to complete the task.
After their work time, I had students share their answers with the class. We worked through any mistakes and made sure our answers were fairly similar before putting the example text and note sheet in our binders. I explained to the class that in the next lesson, they would try their hand at creating their own compare and contrast text and to be thinking of the two topics they would like to use.