Writing is definitely not my favorite subject. And unfortunately, writing explanatory pieces is a major language arts standard in third and fourth grade (and many other grade levels).
By the last grading period, my entire class is worn out from testing and so ready for summer that learning something new is the last thing on all of our minds. But guess what... I still have to teach informational writing to these kids! Mix in some student behavior that is less than stellar and UGH! I'm ready to go home.
Last year, I decided that I had to really focus my time on our informational writing unit to get these young learners engaged. So I decided to take some drastic measures and cancelled my reading centers. That's right... I cancelled them. No more centers!
Instead, our reading block was spent doing writer's workshop. My students learned how to research and write and it all came together in one big informational writing project. Wow, that sounds pretty boring. But it turned out to be really fun and my students grew into confident writers who produced some amazing work! So in this blog post, I'm going share some student examples and the lesson plans that helped them master this type of writing. I did this with third graders, but it is just as useful in fourth grade.
How to Teach Informational Writing
When using mentor texts, it's helpful to find several books on the same or similar topic. That way students can easily see how the content and author's purpose determine the type of writing, not the subject matter.
The books and texts I used were:
The Vanishing Lake (fictional narrative)
Loughareema, Or “The Vanishing Lake” (informational text)
Lakes and Ponds (descriptive and procedural writing)
Protect Our Lakes by Raking Leaves (persuasive writing)
As we read these different pieces of text, we focused on the special characteristics of each type of writing.
We recorded this information on graphic organizers and then created an anchor chart about informational text.
Finally, we made a list of all the places you can find informational writing such as:
As I searched through my file cabinet for more ideas on how to teach informational writing, I came across a stack of Time For Kids magazines. These are fantastic examples of expository writing for elementary students!
They are full of nonfiction text features which contain important information for the reader. Each magazine is divided up into several articles around a broad topic. The articles feature short paragraphs with clear headings that help students determine the main idea.
I knew immediately that I would make Time for Kids the basis of this writing unit.
When it was time to start our writers workshop, I pulled out the Time For Kids again and told the class they would be designing and writing their own informational magazines. Talk about excited!
To get started, we brainstormed ideas for interesting topics and created a "topic menu". Many of the students came up with a science topic or historical event that they were curious about.
Some of their ideas were:
the San Francisco earthquake
the New York Yankees
Martin Luther King Jr.
the Apollo Space Mission
The kids were all VERY excited to contribute to the menu.
Then we closely analyzed Time for Kids to figure out what makes it so interesting. They noticed a lot of the same things that I did - that the paragraphs were short with text features to go with them. They saw that there were a lot of super interesting facts and that each section had its own heading to show the main idea. They pointed out the colorful photos and illustrations and interactive features like links to videos.
Once students zeroed in on the specific topic they want to write about, it was time to done some research. By now they understood that informational writing isn't stuff you just make up. We talked about how to conduct research (an important skill that takes a lot of practice for elementary school kids).
Some of the mini lessons we had were:
where to find good information
how to paraphrase and write in your own words
how to cite your source
how to take notes
I also made a list of acceptable websites that they could use for their research. A few safe, kid-friendly search engines include:
KidRex - http://www.kidrex.org/
Kiddle - www.kiddle.co
Fact Monster - https://www.factmonster.com/
KidzSearch - http://www.kidzsearch.com/
Swiggle - http://www.swiggle.org.uk/
Sweet Search - https://www.sweetsearch.com/ (results limited to content curated by educators)
We decided it would be a good idea to use index cards to organize facts and information for each paragraph or sub-topic. So I passed out piles of index cards. Finally, they were ready to go and boy, did they dive right in!
Most of the class chose to partner up for their first writing piece. They spent several days researching with some of them asking to visit the media center to find even more information.
During my reading groups, I looked over what they had done so far and offered guidance as needed. Some things they had trouble with at first were writing good headings for each paragraph and including a topic sentence.
After our first round of TFK publishing, the kids decided they wanted to do more, so they all chose a new writing topic! Some wanted to do their own work because they were excited to research something specific. Others chose to partner up again. It was great seeing them so absorbed in their own writing.
Most of the class spent a full week conducting their research and another week writing, illustrating, and editing.
Even some of my most reluctant young writers produced some amazing work. Take a look at some of these finished pieces of informational writing:
Their hard work really paid off! By the end of the unit, they were all very confident expository writers.
This was such an enjoyable and effective way to teach informational writing that I plan to use it every year. I spent some time laminating my old Time For Kids magazines so they will stand up to repeated use - because I know I'll be using them again and again!
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