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 gather together in the meeting area for a brief discussion before beginning our work. I tell students that today we will apply what we learned in yesterday’s lesson and take one more step in our nonfiction writing projects. I ask someone to tell me about yesterday’s lesson, which focused on our final text structure: description. After reviewing what we learned, I ask students to think of their chosen nonfiction writing topics. Today, they will write everything they know about that topic. They will describe it in detail keeping their audience in mind. I remind them that of course, I always am their audience, but also they should write for someone who may know nothing about that topic. I encourage them to use as much detail as possible. Try to create a picture in the mind of your reader.
We think back to yesterday’s exercise about snow. Students had to describe what snow was like as if they were speaking to someone who had never experienced it. They had to use their senses to think about what snow looked, tasted, and felt like. I encouraged them to do the same with their writing topics toady. Not only will this enable their readers to understand their topics, but also will serve to focus their research later in the week.
Students find their writing spots and begin working. While students are writing, I have writing conferences with either a small group or a few students independently. I encourage students to use their structure note sheets as supports when needed. The sheet contains key words and examples of sentence structures that students can use in their writing.
When the writing time was over, I had students meet with their writing partners to share. Usually, students choose what they’d like to share: their entire piece or parts of it. However due to today’s topic, I felt it was important for them to share their entire pieces. After each partner reads her piece, I had the other share one thing he was able to learn about his partner’s topic by listening to the description of it. Once all students had shared, I asked a few students to give examples of excellent description they heard in their partner’s writing.