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!
“You are an expert on snow. Most of you have lived in the middle of Ohio all of your lives and so you’ve lived through your share of snowstorms and built a few snowmen. Pretend your writing partner is someone who just moved here from a place so hot that they’ve never even seen snow. Explain what snow is by giving as many details as possible.” Students begin talking to each other about what snow looks like, feels like, and even tastes like. I give them enough time for both partners to share and then ask if anyone learned anything new about snow. While most students weren’t able to say yes, there were a couple who said they learned a new way to describe snow.
This, friends, is the point of the text structure we’ll be studying today. When authors use the description or list structure, they are teaching about a topic by describing it in detail. They list its attributes and tell about it in a way that gets the readers’ attention.
I say to students, "You will read a short passage about bats. How many of you know something about bats?" Hands shoot up around the room. "Good! Let’s see if today you can learn something new about bats or maybe find a new way to describe them after reading the passage."
I ask students to pull out their structure note sheets while I pass out today’s work pages. I explain that they will work with their reading partners to read the passage and complete the work page.
On the work page is a short section of a book we’ve been reading in class called, “What is a Bat?” (Kalman, B. (1999) What is a bat? Crabtree Publishing Company: New York, NY.). This is an informational text that is divided into simple chapters. The section I chose to include is the first paragraph of the first chapter, which gives basic facts about bats. You could choose any such text, especially one that is familiar to your students.
Students work together to read the passage and complete the questions on the work page. The front side of the page simply asks students to locate facts about bats and write each on a graphic organizer. The second side asks students to think about possible text features that could be included in the text. The resource included could be changed easily to accommodate any text.
I tell students to find their reading partners, a great place to work, and begin working. While they work, I circulate the room.
After all students have finished working, we go over the questions from the work page. As I was walking the room, I noticed that most students easily completed the graphic organizer. However, several students were confusing the answers to a couple of the text features review questions. This is where I chose to spend our time.