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!
Yesterday I led students in a lesson using an informational text that followed the sequence and order structure. Today they will apply what they’ve learned about that structure in their writing. Before we begin, I ask students to pull out their structure note sheets we’ve used throughout the unit. We reviewed the key words that are used to alert us to the sequence and order structure.
I ask students to turn to their writing partners and teach them something. Crickets in the night. You know - that awkward moment when everyone is dead silent and sits staring at you like you’re from another planet? Yes, that moment. But, I expected it, so all is good! Sometimes you just have to get their attention.
I ask students, “What’s the problem?” I get all kinds of answers: What do you mean? Teach them about what? How can I teach them something when I’m just talking? Bingo. This is what I’m looking for! I explain that you can, in fact, teach someone something just by talking to them. The key is to make sure your “talk” is structured in a sequential way.
I ask them to think back to yesterday’s lesson and direct them to look again at their structure note sheet. By organizing his information in a way that showed a sequence or order, the author was able to teach us about an important part of our country’s history and how it had changed dramatically over many years. Some light bulbs turn on at this point and I’m encouraged that they’re starting to get it! I explain that they need to think of something they know how to do well. It can be anything - from tying your shoes, to cooking your favorite food, to creating a Lego house. Just think about it. At first, there are few takers and several students who say they don’t know how to do anything well. This is both frustrating and sad to me! They’ve learned so much just since the beginning of the year and they can’t come up with one thing they know how to do well! So I tell them to think back to when they were a baby. (They can’t do this of course, but they all play along). OK - tell me what you could do back then. Of course the answers are few: sleep, eat, poop (you know they’re going there - they’re third graders…), and maybe crawl. Alright, now think of all of the things you can do on your own today. I have them call out a few answers to me: play video games, make friends (that was impressive!), subtract, read, play the guitar, play football, etc. Perfect! Now, pick one of those things and tell the person next to you how to do it. Pick one small part of what you know how to do and teach it to the person next to you. It took a minute to get them going, but soon enough one partner began telling the other about something she knew how to do. I walked the room listening to everyone talk.
After several minutes, I asked students to open up their writers’ notebooks to the next available space and record their “lesson.” This time, I wanted them to make sure they included important key words that would signal to their readers that they were sequencing steps in a process and reminded them that these were listed on their note sheets. Although they were to do this in their discussions, I noticed that many just talked about the process and forgot to include the clue words. I gave students 15 minutes to complete their writing.
At the end of the writing time, I asked students to share their writing with someone they do not normally work with. They already “taught” their writing partners and so I wanted them to teach someone else in the room. In this case, they were not able the pick a part from their selections to share as it might not make sense out of context. Instead, they needed to read their entire piece to their new partner.