Category Archives: teaching informational writing

Orally rehearsing with key words can boost writing

Do your students struggle to compose sentences about nonfiction topics that make sense or sound right? Do they lack structure at the sentence and paragraph level? Here’s a few tricks I’ve been trying with small groups of late-early and transitional stage readers.

As part of a conversation generate key words they will use to orally rehearse and then write. I’ve started including a key word for the introductory sentence and the closing sentence as well. The “conversation” aspect of this is important. I position the students as writers with a clear audience. With late-early stage readers and the book Beetles by Edona Eckart, the students and I generated the words many kinds, glow, wings, colorful, interesting. I started the conversation by saying, “If we were going to write about what we learned, how would we start? Then what would we say?” (I don’t say, “Let’s list five words we will use.”) When a student shares a sentence aloud (after I coach or scaffold as needed), then I say, “What’s a key word from that sentence that we can write down to help us remember what we want to write?”

The photo below is from the lesson with the book Beetles. Each of these words would be used in a sentence to compose a response to the prompt What did you learn about beetles in this book?

With a transitional stage group reading The Future of Flight by Anna Harris (part of McGraw-Hill’s Wonders), the students had done a close reading of the two pages about the myCopters (small flying vehicles). The prompt for writing was “In a letter, convince someone in your family to buy a myCopter instead of a new car.” Our key words – included believe for an introductory sentence and please for a closing sentence. I started the conversation by saying, “If you are going to convince someone to buy a myCopter instead of a car, what do you want to say first?”

Then model for the students how you might use each key word to compose as sentence and draw them into orally rehearsing. So I said to the students, “Listen to me as I use these words to help me practice what I will write. I’m going to use the first word…There are many kinds of beetles. Who can compose a sentence with our second key word?”

As students practice using the key words, gently push them to use correct syntax or sentence structure. You might say, “That was tricky. Did that sound right? Let’s think about how we can make that sound right.” I had a student write “The weedy sea dragon has features that help it survive from predators.” I talked with him about how the sea dragon’s features help it avoid or escape predators and then together we revised his sentence aloud until he had the hang of it.

Ask them to practice with a partner. Students can alternate – composing sentences with every other word.

Encourage them to elaborate further (aloud) if they are ready. One student reading Beetles wanted to add details in the sentence with the key word “colorful” about the different colors of beetles. I told her “Go for it!” The key words are just triggers for remembering what they learned so if they can compose a more complex sentence or add additional sentences – yes! This also encourages students to make the writing their own and not just copy what other students are saying or writing.

With some students, after we rehearse, I ask for a thumbs up when they know what they are going to write for their first sentence. I ask each student to rehearse aloud and then I give them the “go” to start writing. Sometimes they will simply say what the student said before them – that’s okay. The writing becomes more their own the further they get in to it and the more frequently we engage them in doing this kind of guided writing, the risks they will take.

This works best in small groups. The lessons here were done as part of guided writing – which takes place after 1-2 guided reading lessons (20 minutes each) focused on reading and learning from the book.

If I’m working with a whole class, I use this approach to writing during individual conferences. I ask the student to tell me what they are going to write next. If they need me to, I jot down a few key words on a sticky note–from what they said.  Then, if I feel like they need additional kind of support,  I say, “How can we put this in a sentence? Let’s try this aloud.”

Hope this helps.



Discourage students from taking notes like this. Here’s why.

If students are reading multiple texts on a topic and taking notes on each of those sources, I require that (or strongly suggest) they write notes in phrases–just enough words to help them remember what they learned or what the author was saying or the student’s response to information. In most cases, I strongly encourage them to NOT write their notes in sentences.

Here’s why –

  1. If they write notes in sentences, the student may be easily tempted to just copy the sentences they are reading in a source and not do a lot of thinking. (How many of your students do this??????) Instead, we want them to think about what the author is trying to say or what they are learning from the source and then determine what is really important to remember. Then they can jot down a few of the author’s words or their own paraphrasing of the text.
  2. If they’ve already written sentences in their notes, they frequently just want to lift those sentences and insert them into their writing or presentation or whatever. Then they have missed an opportunity to combine details from multiple sources. When students are done taking notes from multiple sources, we want them to look across their notes and combine ideas from multiple sources. They have to be able to look at their notes and categorize details. Oh, all of these details are about what the raccoon eats! Or Yes! I see several details on how the Cherokee used their environment to create art. They may want to draw arrows between notes or circle details they want to combine with the same color of pencil. Conceptually, this is harder to do if they are looking across “sentences” versus words and phrases.

Here’s an example of what I mean by notes written in phrases (versus complete sentences)–

OKAY…I’M LEAVING OUT A LOT HERE like the fact that taking notes is a complex task. The students need to know their purpose for researching, reading, taking notes. They need clear questions they are trying to answer or grapple with as they read and take notes like How did this Native American tribe use resources in their environment to survive? or How did the members of the Jewish resistance exhibit courage during the Holocaust? or How can we be prepared for severe weather? They need a way to organize their notes like using an inquiry chart (Hoffman, 1992). See example below. (If you need more info on teaching with inquiry charts, see Chapter 8 in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts). AND they need examples of good texts to use as sources or access to a vetted set of sources before they go off to find their own. And, and, and…

Example of an inquiry chart…

Below is an example of a student’s inquiry chart. This fifth grade student was researching the Apache. Notice the questions across the top that drive her decisions about what to write in her notes. Her sources are listed on the left hand side. She’s circled details she wants to combine with a colored pencil.

The reason I wrote this blog entry is because I have an article in the February issue of EL “The Case for Multiple Texts” and on the sample inquiry chart I submitted, the editor changed my list of bulleted notes to look like sentences (although they are not all complete), deleting the bullets and adding capitalization and punctuation.  UGH.

Hesitate to do it this way. Many, many students will struggle when they go to synthesize and write or plan for presenting if they  have to look across a bunch of “sentences.” Many, many students will be tempted to just copy the sentences from their sources!

I did not get to see this change before it was published in EL. I’m sure this was an edit done with good intentions, BUT I feel the need to clarify. Encourage your students to take bulleted notes, short phrases or just enough information that they can look at it and remember what they learned.

I’d still recommend the article 😉 if you are looking for tips on teaching with multiple texts. I’m also working on a manuscript for Heinemann on this topic–the book should be released next winter.

Hope this helps.





Writing with Mentor Texts – App Reviews in Grades 6-8


Is anybody else sick of the five-paragraph essay? The book Writing with Mentors (Marchetti & O’Dell, 2015) was so refreshing to read as I ponder how to keep students excited about reading and writing analytically. The authors provide insight into how we can engage students in writing for authentic purposes in a variety of non-five-paragraph essay formats that align with the Common Core Standards. The key is using authentic texts – book reviews, restaurant reviews, etc.–as mentor through throughout the entire writing process. While the book is geared towards 9-12 grade, the authors’ approach is very appropriate for middle school students. I was inspired to try out a lesson as a result. (Depending on your students, you might be able to pull this off in even lower grades!)

Okay…heads up. I tried this out with one 7th grade student–my daughter– but having taught middle school and demonstrated lessons in lots of middle school classrooms, I can make the case that there’s room for this series of lessons with entire classes and with students at all ability levels.

My daughter is seriously into technology and has started a YouTube account with the purpose of “reviewing” apps. Sound familiar? So I designed a series of lessons that included critically reading published app reviews and then writing a review. Based on what I learned, here’s a set of lesson procedures—that will take multiple periods and can easily be blown into a longer series of lessons as well.

  1. In preparation for teaching, develop a text set of published app reviews for students analyze. Marchetti & O’Dell encourage teachers to read authentic texts for themselves, determining which texts might be mentors and developing text sets. I hunted for good app reviews and quickly realized that app reviews have common types of details–purpose, explanations of how to use, benefits, analogies, even counterarguments! I chose several to read during the lessons. I’ve attached the App reviews and the links if you’re interested.
  2. Start with what the students know by engaging in a shared writing of what they would include in a review or expect to see in a review. Scan 336
  3. Closely read multiple reviews and annotate for the types of details authors include–together, with a partner, independently. Below is a copy of my daughter’s annotations — these were heavily scaffolded to start and then as she read additional reviews, she started recognizing the types of details we’d already discussed. Scan 338
  4. During the close reading, maintain a list of the types of details that might be included in an app review. This is the trick-we have to provide students with the academic vocabulary they need to explain what an author is doing. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know I’m a big fan of living, breathing anchor charts. I’d make a list of the types of details we were noticing in the reviews on a big piece of chart paper for all students to reference as I gradually release responsibility. This is the list I made as I read and annotated with my daughter and then as she read independently. Scan 339
  5. Challenge students to “try out” some of the types of details in their own review of an app. (BTW- this assumes the students are familiar with or have chosen at least one app to review which may be another lesson or a homework assignment.) The responsibility for writing an app review may need to gradually released–you might write part of one together and the students finish with a partner and THEN they write their own. Below is the review that my daughter wrote–she is a fairly strong writer so I was able to release responsibility quickly. I required her to use a counterargument (a simple that addresses why users might argue against using this app) and she independently chose to include figurative language. There’s definitely room for growth (in revising, editing, etc.)–which also makes the case for asking students to write multiple reviews over a unit of study.


Embellish Your Photos With Stunning Graphic Designs And Typography With Font Candy

Easy Tiger Apps is a developer known for creating photo editing based apps, such as Split Pic, Animal Face, and Moments, so it is no revelation that they have released another amazing editing app.

Font Candy is meant for adding graphic designs and typography to your photos in the form of quotes. When you first open the app, you see your photo library, but you can also swipe at the top of the page to get more photo options, such as importing from Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, or simply the internet. Once you select a photo, you are able to scale it for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, and then decorate it with over 50 fonts.

Some might argue for a different app such as Pic Collage, because you can filter, blur, draw on and add text to your photos. However Font Candy still has many more capabilities. It is compatible with all photo collecting apps that exist on your phone, including less popular ones such as Boomerang and Flipagram while Pic Collage only carries Instagram, Facebook, and web searches. Creators of Font Candy were also able to zero in on one feature, fonts, carrying 84 free fonts, plus more available for purchase. Pic Collage has less than 40 fonts available.

Being a teenager in the twenty first century, pen and paper to me is like an air book mac to an elephant, i.e, of no use whatsoever. I can create art of all types on my phone, whether it is in video form or picture. But with smartphones dominating over the original flip phone, everyone can take a picture and Instagram it. However not everyone has the time and patience to turn their photos into quotable designs. So Font Candy offers an advantage to creative Instagrammers, to spice up photos with an abundance of fonts.

Hope this helps. If you try this out or have experienced similar lessons, please let me know how the lessons go!  AND BTW – this lesson experience opened my eyes to some easy ways to teach introduce counterarguments—more on this soon.



Teaching Main Idea and Details with Photos: Sample Lesson

A simple way to start talking with students about “main ideas” and “supporting details” is to use a photo as a “text.” When you use a photo as a text, you take away the cognitive load of reading and provide more mental space for students to grapple with concepts like “main idea” and “supporting details.”  Below are artifacts from a  lesson I gave as well as sample photos and prompts.

Procedures I used in the lesson:

1) Post a photo worthy of discussion and prompt small groups or partners to discuss by asking, “What do you notice?” For this lesson, the students were studying astronomy. I chose a photo of astronomers engaged in their practice. I provided an additional sentence starter for conversation–“I noticed that…” As the students talked, I leaned in to one conversation and coached students to elaborate on their thinking. BEWARE: You need to coach students to rely on details in the text to support their thinking. So they can say, “The astronomers use telescopes” but they can’t say, “They are looking at Mars.”

astronomers learning

Photo lesson - photo projected

2) For the next discussion, with the same photo, post a content related prompt that includes rigorous vocabulary. The prompt I posted was: What does this picture reveal about what astronomers do to acquire knowledge? This prompt gets at a possible main idea for this photo or a message the photographer wanted to convey. As I read aloud the prompt for the 2nd conversation, I used an orange marker (see image below) to write additional words defining the words “reveal” and “acquire knowledge.” Again, as the partners discussed the details in the photo (which could be details they noticed in the previous discussion), I coached for elaboration and supporting their partner’s ideas. Helpful prompts might include “Say more about that” and “What in the picture makes you think so?”

photo lesson- prompt for discussion

3) Engage in shared writing of details or notes in response to the prompt. See the image below. As students shared the details they thought revealed what the astronomers do to learn, I wrote notes on the chart paper under the prompt.

photo lesson- prompt for discussion

4) Engage in shared and independent writing of a response. Provide a main idea statement and elicit a supporting idea from the students. (Eventually, you want students to work on identifying a main idea conveyed in the photo–in small groups or on their own.) Then ask them to talk with a partner about a supporting detail they will use in their own sentence. Close by asking each student to compose a supporting sentence on sticky note and post at the bottom of the shared writing. See below!

Photo lesson - shared writing


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Making a Difference Unit: What does this picture reveal or tell us about the disposition (or attitude) of these volunteers? What are they willing to do to make a difference?


American West Unit: What does this picture reveal or tell us about how arduous or difficult life was in the American West in the 19th century?


Ancient Civilization Unit: What does this painting (on a piece of ancient Greek pottery) reveal or tell us about the proficiency (or skill or expertise) required of soldiers during this period?

Hope this helps.

Guided writing lesson – a productive struggle

I had the honor of teaching a small 2nd grade group of students a guided writing lesson after we had done a guided reading lesson with an excerpt from an A to Z text, George Washington Carver, Level O. In a previous post, I wrote about the first lesson – close reading of an excerpt from this text. In the second lesson (about 25 minutes), I guided the students in using the key words they’d identified during guided reading to write a response to the text-dependent question, “What did Carver achieve?” Below are some of the words we’d written together while reading and thinking about how to answer this question. The students also had their own set of sticky notes to work from while writing.

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In the image above – you see the key words we generated together (after a shared reading and discussion on Day 1) on sticky note #1. On sticky notes #2 & 3, the key words were generated by individual students and shared when we regrouped after they read independently (still as part of Day 1). You’ll notice that I just picked a few that they shared to write on our common sticky note and that some of the students wrote additional words as you’ll see in the images of their own lists below.

We began by orally rehearsing how we would respond using the key words on our sticky notes. I coached one student in using the key words to create sentences (all orally) in response the question. Then I asked partners to turn and share how they would answer the question using their key words.

Then we regrouped and decided how to start our written response. One student suggested, “Do you know how Carver helped the farmers?” I wrote this on my piece of paper for all students to see and then encouraged them to use this student’s introduction or to write their own. You’ll notice in the examples below, they ALL wrote that intro. Totally okay, but in another lesson we might focus on different ways to start.  (See previous image.)

As each student finished writing the introduction, I asked the student to think about what we had done several times–we’d created a “next” sentence using the key words on the first sticky note. Because they had done this aloud several times – in the group, with me individually or with a partner, the bridge to writing seemed easier to cross. For a few students, I asked them to orally rehearse what they would write before writing; for other, more capable writers, I asked them to start.

Then they took off  working more independently and I coached at the point of need. One student finished her first sentence and stopped and waited for me–this would become a teaching point, “How can you continue? What will you do after you write this next sentence?” Another student knew exactly what to do and kept writing, referring to the key words on her sticky note for help.

I started a conference with students by asking them to read what they’d written so far. This is always a good opportunity for students to realize they’ve made a mistake – omitted a word, or written something incorrectly and, frequently, they will correct or revise immediately. It’s also a good opportunity for me to say, “Did that sound right?” or “Does that make sense?” or “What is the tricky part in this sentence?” Then we conferred to problem-solve. For some – there are a lot of grammatical or spelling issues – I do not try to solve all of these at once because I don’t want to overwhelm the child. I target a 1-2 issues that I think the student would benefit from having some one-to-one help.

Here are a few examples of what the students (3 out of 5–ouch! I didn’t get to collect them all :() wrote.

Student #1

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(Note: Before the guided writing lesson, I rewrote the key words that we’d generated together in lesson 1 on a sticky note for each child; their key words were from the 2nd & 3rd paragraph of the shared reading and I wanted them all to have the whole list.)

My thoughts (keeping in mind, I only worked with this child for a short period!!!) –

  • The student is assuming that you, the reader, will understand that if the crops are smaller, there is less to sell and therefore the farmers, as stated in the response, “barely had money to pay [for food, etc.].” Still the student is grappling with some difficult content (given her age of 7-8) and she seems to have some grasp of the idea being conveyed.
  • She uses connective language – “but then” to share her logic! BRAVO!
  • She wraps up her response –she’s clearly mastered the formula of starting with a question and ending with “now you know.”

Implications for teaching –

  • She would benefit from reading more (developmentally appropriate) texts about crops and the economics of farming and how Carver helped the farmers–so she could increase her grasp conceptually. This is hard to do – but makes the case for working with text sets and reading across multiple texts on the same topic.
  • She needs to develop stamina for writing longer pieces–now I only know about her from these two lessons, but she had several key words describing what else Carver did to help the farmers and she did not extend her writing to include these.
  • She’s ready for a broader repertoire of options for beginning and ending responses–even creating some of her own with her audience in mind.
  • “farmers crops” vs. “farmers’ crops” – This might be a quick mini-lesson as part of guided reading/writing along the way.

Student #2

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(Note: You’ll notice my handwriting in black ink on the sticky notes. This was done during Day 1 conferences with this student. To help him articulate his thinking, I was the scribe!)

Notice how this student is a little more savvy in expressing what he understand–“the soil was getting tired”; even though he doesn’t entirely grasp the idea of nutrients in the soil, he gives explaining this concept a try. Kudos to him, you know? Again, I think the difference would be the opportunity to read multiple texts on the same topic.

Student #3

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Scan 189

This student seems to sort of understand what we were reading and discussing. She’s working really hard to create a coherent response, strategically using the connective “another reason” and wrapping up with “now you know why.” Again – she’s dealing with a difficult concept–it’s not that this is getting in the way, it’s that the student is grappling and needs continuous opportunities with just the right support. And you know what I’m going to say next? She needs more time with this concept, this idea of farmers struggling in the late 19th century and people like Carver coming to their aid or, maybe more appropriately,  just what it means to farm and grow and sell crops.

One of my colleagues who observed this lesson, said, “It was a productive struggle for them.” YES!!! Love this term for what the students were experiencing. Here’s a quote from an educator, , I found describing this term —

Students can experience productive struggle when given a task slightly beyond their abilities. As educators provide support for tackling a challenging problem through different approaches, they can help build critical thinking skills and develop grit. The objective isn’t necessarily to get to the right answer, but to engage in this process to advance learning and develop perseverance.

The trick is–

  • to engage these students in this kind of learning on a regular basis,
  • to support them just at their point of need
    • through discussion,
    • through trying to compose sentences orally first,
    • through opportunities to write and even sketch and act out as they grapple with a difficult concept,
    • AND through the use of text sets or multiple texts on the same concepts,
  • AND to gradually release so that they are doing more of this reading, writing, and thinking on their own.

Okay…hope this helps.





Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle – compare to other texts, use as a mentor text for writing

LOVE THIS NEW BOOK!!! So many possibilities for classroom instruction in grades 2-5.behold the beautiful dung beetle

Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle by Cheryl Bardoe (2014) is so well written and I had no idea how important dung beetles are to our environment…right up there with earthworms!!!

The book starts by drawing the reader in with the gross factor – “Somewhere in the world right now an animal is lightening its load–in your backyard, on a nearby farm, in a forest, on a grassland far away.” The content of the text includes descriptions of the three types of dung beetles – dwellers, rollers, and tunnelers. After introducing each type of beetle, Bardoe introduces a sub-topic–how they store the dung, how they fight over the dung, how they use the dung to lay their eggs and provide nourishment for grubs and so forth. Really interesting, thorough, coherent, clear. The illustrations clearly support the content in the words.

Read aloud this book to students in 2nd-5th grade. I think it has value for all of these grades – in being read aloud maybe more than once and then asking students to have collaborative conversations around specific questions and compose a written response together or independently. What is the main topic/main idea of this text? Why are dung beetles important to our world? (Common Core Reading Informational Text Standard 2) What is the author’s purpose in writing this book? (RI.7) How does this illustration clarify what the author has written? (RI.6) What makes this text enjoyable to read? (RI.10) What are you learning that you didn’t know before? (RI.1)

Put this in your classroom library. Give a book talk, read the first couple of pages. Share some of the illustrations on the document camera (if you have one) and then leave in the classroom library for students to read independently (caution – in 2nd grade – they’d have to be reading above grade level).

Provide opportunities to read and contrast with additional texts. Read aloud this book and then another about earthworms or dung beetles or give both to a small group to read and contrast – in collaborative conversations and in written responses (RI.9).  For example, Earthworms by Claire Llewellyn addresses some of the same sub-topics – how the earthworms use the soil for sustenance, how when the earthworms digest the soil, this contributes to health of the soil and so forth.


OR you could have the students contrast the info in Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle with a website on dung beetles–there’s a free, short article at that would work.

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As a writing mentor text, I really like the way this book is organized –

  • The initial hook draws the reader in with the gross factor and a common fact.
  • Three categories of beetles are briefly introduced
  • There are subtopics as far as the dimensions of their lives- how the beetles collect their dung, collecting the dung, laying their eggs and so forth. But instead of writing about one type of beetle on all of these sub-topics–the author writes about all three for each sub-topic–comparing and contrasting as she goes. Does that make sense? This is just more savvy than a five paragraph essay (yuck)!!! Below is a brief outline. I think you could use each part as a mentor text or unpack organization with students to they could think about for their own research writing.
    1. hook
    2. short narrative about how quick the dung beetles arrive on a real life piece of dung and explanation of why dung is so important to them
    3. introduction to three types of dung beetles – dweller, tunneler, roller,
    4. competition (as it relates to all three types of beetles)
    5. mating and stashing the eggs
    6. growth of grubs and hatching of young adults (author does not differentiate between three for this last sub-topic)
    7. close – with anecdote about why Ancient Egyptians worshiped the dung beetles
  • Each section is so well written – you could just use one paragraph to think about how to describe or explain a topic in the students’ writing.

Okay…hope this helps.


New Book – Accessible Intro to Microorganisms for 1st-3rd

tiny creatures

LOVE THIS BOOK. An accessible introduction to microbes for 1st through 3rd grade. Definitely read aloud to students, pausing for space to “oooo” and “aaah.” I’d even be tempted to use it with older students as an introduction to more complex texts on this topic. Davies, the author, talks to you, the reader, in a conversation-like tone, with clear descriptions and explanations and simple analogies. The pace is gentle, providing the reader time to absorb the ideas–in other words the text is not dense with a lot of facts like so many texts on this topic. I learned a tremendous amount–maybe as a result of the the pace, and the layout and design. The illustrations are magnificent, supporting the ideas in the text but also leaving some room for thinking on your own. You could read this aloud and then leave it in the classroom library for rereading.

Next Generation Science Standards – this could be used to as part of units that integrate the 2nd Grade Biological Evolution–Unity and Diversity standards and the 3rd Grade From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes standards.

Common Core Standards

  • First just enjoy the book with students! Read it aloud providing time for students to look closely at the illustrations and just wonder or be in awe of this amazing creature, the microbe.
  • Then–reread and think about the author’s main topic/idea–what is the author trying to tell us that’s important? There are tiny organisms everywhere. Some are bad, but most are good and have important roles in nature. Engage in shared writing of a main idea and then ask students to elaborate with illustrations and additional details. (RI 1.2, 2.2, 3.2)
  • Take time to look closely at one of the amazing illustrations – what does Emily Sutton do in one of these illustrations to contribute to and clarify the text? How do both the text and illustration convey a key idea? (RI 1.6, 1.7, 2.5, 2.7, 3.5) Copy one of the illustrations (once, for school-use only) and ask students to write their thoughts on a sticky note and then post the illustration and the sticky notes for all to view. You might do this for several pages or several books and make a display over time. You could also turn this into a reading response center.
  • Use this book as a mentor for writing – pull excerpts that describe, or excerpts with comparisons, engage in shared writing to “try out” what Davies does, and then coach students to try this in their own writing – on whatever topic they are studying.

This book is a gem. I didn’t want it to end.

Value of Conversation Before Students Write in Response to Prompt

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Love this short video clip on the Teaching Channel of a 5th grade teacher helping students make meaning of informational text through conversation. The students sit in a circle for a 20 minute discussion; they signal to the teacher with two fingers when they have a thought to add to the previous student’s comment or a thumbs up when they want to introduce a new thought (including questions they have about the text). Stacy Brewer, the teacher, facilitates the conversation, trying to make sure that all students are provided with an opportunity to contribute and trying to help students listen carefully and build or develop understanding through conversation. Prior to this – the students have met in small groups to talk about the text and Stacy coaches the groups! (To figure this out, I watched a video that is an overview of her structure–see below.) During the small group and large group discussion, the “text” is fully present as the students are asked to let the group know what part of the text they are talking about, as the students are asked to return to the text to help another answer a question, etc. In this clip, the text they have been reading is in a “textbook” and it is on the journey of Lewis and Clark. (Evidently, they have read this text and made some notes–this might include shared reading for some, partner reading, or independent reading.)

After discussing notes, questions, etc. Stacy poses a question for Turn and Talk conversation. She’s written this question on a sentence strip (card stock) for all students to view – “How does the author feel about Lewis and Clark?” Then they regroup and discuss the possible answers – referring to the text to support their answers.

Stacy poses another question – “What is the author’s viewpoint of exploration?” and this time she provides a sentence frame written on a strip – “The author thinks exploring is____.” After more discussion, the students are asked to return to their desks and write in response to the two questions.

There is an additional video (5 minutes) from this lesson that shows what happens just after “Text Talk Time” – with Stacy meeting with a small group of  students who need additional support – to engage in more conversation and help them plan for writing. “When we talk about things it gets our brain ready for writing” – Stacy.

Beautiful structure with lots of access points for a group of diverse learners. There is a lot of potential for this to happen with the structure she has created.

Two short, easy, free videos – that provide a lot of content for us to consider in our practice.

First video – Analyzing Texts: “Text Talk Time”

Second video – Analyzing Texts: Putting Thoughts on Paper

Video that is an overview of the whole process – from small group student-led “brainstorm” to whole group to small group support lesson –


Tip #3 for Locating Paired Informational Texts – By Same Author


What do you notice regarding the similarities in the types of details included in these sentences from two different books by Seymour Simon?

Your backbone, or spine, is a flexible column of bones that runs down the middle of your body. It is made up of a chain of thirty-three small bones called vertebrae, which are fastened one on top of another. Each vertebra is hard and hollow, like a bead or a spool of thread. The joint between each vertebra allows only a small amount of movement, but together the vertebrae form a flexible chain of bones that can twist like a strong of beads. Your spine lets you bend down and touch your toes, and at the same time it keeps your body upright. (n. pag)

From Bones: Our Skeletal System (Simon, 2002)

Point to your stomach. Surprise! It’s not behind your belly button, but higher up, tucked just beneath the left side of your rib cage. An empty stomach is shaped like the letter J, and it’s only about as big as your fist. Deep, soft folds called rugae line the inside of the stomach. After you eat a meal, the folds flatten out and your stomach swells up. It can get as big as a boxing glove.

                                                                    From Guts: Our Digestive System (Simon, 2005)

This is what I notice –

  • In the first few sentences, Simon names the part of the body and the location of that part within the body. “Backbone, or spine” – “runs down the middle of your body” AND “stomach” – “not behind your belly button, but higher up, tucked just beneath the left side of your rib cage.”
  • Simon uses comparisons to real life objects to help the reader understand the physical attributes of these parts of the body – “like a bead or a spool of thread” (density) AND “like the letter J” (shape) and “only about as big as your fist” (size) and “as big as a boxing glove” (size)
  • Simon describes sub-parts of the body part – “vertebra” and “rugae”; if you read further in Guts (Simon, 2005) (the next paragraph after this excerpt), Simon describes additional sub-parts – “three sets of powerful muscles.”
  • AND more.

How might comparing two excerpts from books or articles by the same author be used as a way to help students think critically? (And also align with the Common Core?)

1)  Gradual release during a close reading lesson – modeling with one excerpt and then providing a second and third excerpt for partner and independent analysis. A lesson using this framework might be focused on one of the following –

    • identifying the author’s main idea and explaining how it is supported by key details (R.I. 4.3)
    • explaining the structure of a text excerpt (R.I. 4.5)
    • analyzing how a particular sentence, paragraph…fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas (R.I. 6.5)
    • determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative… (R.I.7.4)

This would be a way – working with excerpts from multiple texts by the same author – to deepen students’ understanding and thinking in so many ways. So many times, we barely touch the surface of learning during lessons and then move on. By using multiple excerpts from texts by the same author -students may begin to see patterns in structure, in how main ideas are developed, in how particular types of details are employed.

2)  As mentor texts for students writing information/expository pieces – in particular, students who are focused on developing the topic with “facts, definitions, concrete details…” (W.5.2.b) or for writing arguments. Frequently we teach a structure of writing without providing numerous mentor texts – I think looking at how one author writes several pieces in a particular author might be an eye opening experience for student writers.

Other authors whose writing in multiple texts might be used…

  • 3-5th GRADE  – Nic Bishop – consider how he describes animals in two books like Frogs and Snakes
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL – Stephen Ornes – look at the multiple articles he’s written for Science News for Kids How does he use experts to support his points? How does he introduce the topic? What other types of details does he use consistently?
  • 3rd-8th GRADE – Some published-for-school magazines use the same authors in multiple issues. Check out articles written by Beth Geiger –

Geiger, B. (2010). Active earth. National Geographic Explorer! Pathfinder Edition, 10(1), 8-13.

Geiger, B. (2013). Extreme ice. National Geographic Explorer! Pioneer Edition, 12(4), 15-23.

  • MIDDLE – HIGH SCHOOL – Another option is choosing multiple essays written by the same columnist for a newspaper like Thomas Friedman for the New York Times.

Hope this helps.

Here are links to previous blog entries with Tip #1 and Tip #2 for locating and using paired informational texts. 🙂

New book by Tonya Bolden – Searching for Sarah Rector

searching for sarah rector

New book for late-intermediate and middle grade students – Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (Bolden, 2014). Let me start by saying that Tonya Bolden has become a “go to” author for me; her research is meticulous, thorough and her writing is appropriate for her audience with rigorous and rich content. I was surprised by this book, though. From reading summaries, I thought I was in for an adventure. Maybe an adventure akin to The Impossible Rescue (Sandler, 2012) or Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson, 2009). But this book is not a “can’t-put-it-down” adventure. Instead Bolden, uses Sarah Rector’s story as a frame for bringing to life the political and legal experiences of African Americans born and/or living in the Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma as the culture of community-shared-land shifted to individuals owning land. Sarah Rector, a “Creek freedman” and, therefore, a citizen of an Indian nation, was eligible at birth to be allotted a piece of land. Her parents pursued this and then, through a lease to an oil driller, Sarah became very rich. Except that African American parents were not trusted by the government to be guardians of their children’s estates; generally, a white man had to be assigned. Except that many of these guardians were crooked. Except that…

A central theme in this book is how misunderstandings lead to unfair judgments or distorted views – in many arenas including those of journalists for The Defender in Chicago as well as lawyers for the NAACP in NYC as well as the judgment the author, Bolden, made about what kind of guardian Sarah had been assigned until she dug further into the primary sources available.

This is a case study in the limitations of what we know – in the present and regarding the past. There are actually no primary sources that provide insight into Sarah’s actual thoughts. There are only court documents, other legal documents like land ownership papers, newspaper snippets, a few photographs and so forth. Bolden notes how she aquired a lot of information through a “Dawes Packets” – files of information “tied to an application for a land allotment in Indian Territory, which includes a birth affidavit, census cards, and often testimony” (p. 58). The layout and design of the book integrates a lot of primary sources – including sources like photographs of cabins in the same place and time Bolden used to infer what might have been Sarah’s living conditions. Because Sarah’s personal voice (through journals or interviews) is not present in the primary sources, we only get to know her from a distance; this was an unpleasant surprise for me, but I adjusted.

The power of the author’s work is in Bolden’s perspective – she can only write what she has interpreted from primary sources, many times very dry ones 🙂 If you are working with a savvy group of readers/writers, I’d share this book with them as a mentor for doing their own research. Reading excerpts from this text might be beneficial to all (5-9th grade) students engaging in research, in reading, in writing – including the author’s notes (p. 51) about her research and about the care we have to take when consulting primary sources (that may present distorted pictures of what happened).