March has been a crazy but wonderful month of learning with teachers, principals, coaches and most importantly kids. Many of the teachers I work with have recently been conducting non-fiction units of study in writing workshop. This has given me the opportunity to reflect upon some of the essential elements needed in order to lift the level of student writing. Thanks to all of the principals, teachers, and coaches who have recently explored this topic with me.
Essential Element 1: Kids should know at the start of a writing unit of study who their audience will be.
Mem Fox, when speaking at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, once said, “readers are what make writing matter.” When kids consider who their audience will be at the start of a study, they are much more engaged in the writing process because they do their writing work with their potential reader or readers in mind. Considering audience is always important for writers, but it’s especially important in non-fiction writing. Because the purpose of nonfiction writing is to teach, children can imagine more clearly the readers who might be interested in learning about their topics. If a student was writing a book about dogs, for example, he could decide that he wanted to read his finished book to kids who either had dogs or were thinking about getting a dog. Similarly, kids could write a brochure that teaches about their school knowing that they were going to eventually give the finished brochure to the principal so that she could share it with prospective parents and kids. Recently I watched 4th grade kids writing informational books that they were eventually bringing to a Kindergarten class to read. The 4th grade kids were thoughtful and engaged and went through the writing process with these kids in their minds. They wanted their books to be clear, enjoyable and informative for their young readers and they were willing to work hard to make that happen.
Essential Element 2: Kids need to understand the difference between a topic they like and a topic they know something about.
Many teachers, during a non-fiction writing unit of study, encourage kids to write about a topic that they already know about rather than researching an unknown topic. For example, if a child plays baseball every week, he could easily write an article about baseball without having to do much research at all. Teachers do this so that they can focus their instruction on the qualities of good writing rather than on research skills. One issue that teachers have run into is that once their kids start drafting some of them don’t know enough about their topics. Here are two things you can do at the start of a unit of study (before kids draft) to try and avoid this problem. One, you can talk to the kids about the difference between a topic that they like and a topic that they know a lot about. They might like horses, but not know enough about horses to write a detailed informational piece about it. You can also have them test out their topics by talking to a friend or brainstorming about their topics in their writers’ notebook. If they can talk or write a lot about it, it’s a good sign that it’s a good topic. If not, they probably need to rethink what they’ll write about.
Essential Element 3: Teachers need to differentiate between non-fiction reading and non-fiction writing.
Earlier I spoke about how some teachers encourage children to choose writing topics they know a lot about and therefore don’t have to do much research. Other teachers decide that they in fact want kids to research a new topic and then turn that research into a non-fiction writing piece. If this the direction you want to go in, it’s important to slow down and realize that there are two distinct parts of this work: the reading work where you teach kids comprehension strategies for learning about a new topic and the writing work where you teach kids to write well about a topic. Both parts need time and instruction in order for kids to succeed. When kids are reading, taking notes, talking to friends about their topics that is the reading work and it belongs in reading workshop. When you’re teaching kids craft elements about a particular nonfiction genre, this is writing work and that belongs in writing workshop. The problem I see in some classrooms is that sometimes both the reading work and the writing work are clumped together in writing workshop and the teacher spends more time teaching kids how to take notes and less time on teaching kids how to write well. If you want kids to do research than I strongly suggest that you do the research part during reading workshop. I would also suggest that you do the research a little bit ahead of the non-fiction writing unit of study so kids have time to get comfortable with the information they are learning.
Some Types of Non-Fiction Writing
- Informational Book2. Procedural Book
- Informational Article
- Feature Article
- News Article
Essential Element 4: Teachers should use mentor texts in writing workshop for craft (not only content).
Many of you reading this already use mentor texts during writing workshop to help teach kids different craft techniques. This is especially vital during a non-fiction study because often kids think (especially if they’re doing research on a topic) that the only way to use non-fiction texts is for research purposes. Often when I go into classrooms during non-fiction units, kids only have books on the topic that they are writing about. You’ll want to make sure that your kids understand that they can look at texts/books on a variety of topics and look at those texts/books not only for the content presented, but also for the craft. For example, a kid could be writing a book about baseball and notice how in a book about dogs the author has a caption that describes one thing that dogs do. Even though the child is writing about baseball and the book is about dogs, I want him/her to be able to notice how the caption in the dog book teaches one thing that dogs do and then realize that he can include a caption in his baseball book that describes one thing that baseball players do.
Essential Element 5: During writing workshop, teachers should teach more than just text features.
During a non-fiction writing unit of study, teachers will often teach kids how to include features such as captions, labels, table of contents and diagrams in their writing. While these features are important to teach, it’s also important not to lose sight of the idea that we still want to teach kids to compose well-written nonfiction texts and including features in your writing is just not enough to reach that goal. There are many qualities of writing that lend themselves beautifully to nonfiction. For example, non-fiction writing units are wonderful places to teach kids how to write facts that are descriptive in nature. Also, it’s a great time to teach kids to organize their writing including both big idea sentences (topic sentences) with supporting details. The best non-fiction writing units of study have a nice balance between teaching features and qualities of writing.
I hope these essential elements not only help you while teaching your non-fiction units, but also help you reflect upon past units. I would love to hear from you on what other elements you consider to be essential when conducting non-fiction writing units of study.