Recently my daughter, a 4th grader, was assigned a short research report on the population of Texas. We went to the library, located books on Texas, scanned the table of contents for info on “population” and then checked out three books. Okay…that takes a lot of skill right there. If we are teaching students to do this – locating books, scanning the table of contents, determining if the books have helpful sections. We can model this for our students – if they are at this point of need or type this up as steps for engaging in research with parents at home.
Next, Anna and I found a spot at a coffee shop and started reading particular sections of the books we’d found. Oh, my!!!! Every single sentence was packed with tons of information. Anna started to take notes, sentence by sentence. I asked her to just read through a two page spread in one book on the population of Texas and think about the author’s information – give herself a chance to absorb and then talk about what she’d learned. (I asked multiple times because her first response to mom is to resist! :)) This was difficult for Anna – stopping and thinking about what she’d just read and not just starting to take notes.
Why not just start taking notes? My response to students is “What are you going to say in your report? What are key ideas that you want to share with your reader?” If they just start taking notes, they end up with fragments of ideas and frequently they end up writing a report which is a “list” of those facts – without any real focus.
Instead – I ask students to spend time reading and thinking and then determining what are key ideas they want to write about – to engage in synthesis. Then when they take notes, they need to scan and skim just for information that is related to those key ideas. With Anna, I had to coach for thinking about what might be key ideas. I think she actually felt liberated by these ideas because she didn’t have to be overwhelmed by taking notes on everything.
I’ve included her short report. Notice that I also took advantage of the moment and asked her to create a feature that reveals the facts in a different way. We used an example from the book (on a different topic) as a mentor text for her to create this pie chart.