Tag Archives: teaching nonfiction writing

Our students know so little if…

When our students read just one source on a topic, I would argue they still know almost nothing about that topic or issue. I know you know this. It’s not until they read, view, listen to multiple sources on that topic that their understanding is transformed. This is not a new point. My argument is that students should read more than one source on a topic on a regular basis. I’d even argue that every time they consult a source on a nonfiction topic or issue, they should consult another source or two or more.

Give yourself a moment to do this.

Last summer my husband and I discovered a tide pool with sea stars in it.

(Photo taken by Sunday’s husband.)

I was immediately captivated and wanted to know more. There was also a little spousal argument about whether the sea star is called starfish (my husband’s term) or sea star (mine) 😉 That night, on National Geographic’s website, I found the following:

Marine scientists have undertaken the difficult task of replacing the beloved starfish’s common name with sea star because, well, the starfish is not a fish. It’s an echinoderm, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars.

Okay. I learned something new, right? But I wanted to know more. I searched again and found this time-lapse video of a sea star eating a clam. It’s 30 seconds.

Cool, huh? Now I knew a little bit more. The sea star wraps itself around its prey to eat it. Now    I wanted to know even more—particularly about how the sea star eats its prey so I found the diagram below. What do you notice?

(Sorry – this diagram is by Pearson; couldn’t find the original source; it’s all over the internet at different sites.)

Okay. My understanding expanded. The sea star has a stomach in the center of its body (now the video makes more sense) and the sea star has tubular feet that help it grasp prey like the clam. I wanted to know more so I went back to National Geographic’s site and read this:

Unusual Feeding

Most sea stars also have the remarkable ability to consume prey outside their bodies. Using tiny, suction-cupped tube feet, they pry open clams or oysters, and their sack-like cardiac stomach emerges from their mouth and oozes inside the shell. The stomach then envelops the prey to digest it, and finally withdraws back into the body.

Fascinating, huh?

With each source I consulted, my understanding of the sea star developed depth.

I wanted to know more of course.

Then I came upon these photos (UC Santa Cruz). Take a moment to look closely.

These were taken over the course of three days (photo credit on the site to Kit Harma). This is sea star wasting syndrome that is devastating populations of sea stars on the west coast. With my understanding of the sea star–its physical features and how it eats–I had an even better understanding of how this is a horrific problem.

I kept reading because I wanted to know more and in the following days, my husband and I would check on our sea star several times–hoping that it still looked healthy and understanding so much more about what we were seeing.

My point is—What if I had stopped after reading the first source? I wouldn’t know that much. How did my learning grow because I read another source and then another?  My understanding was transformed.


How can we make this happen for our students? How can we nurture this type of informed thinking on a regular basis? Given how much misinformation is out there, this is an imperative, huh?That’s what I explored with several colleagues and wrote about in my new book Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking and Writing Across Content-Area Sources published by Heinemann. As we explored teaching with more than one source, the students’ excitement got us hooked on doing this. It’s hard to go back to using just one source after we observed this.

In this book, I write about so much of what I learned (selecting sets of sources, making it all manageable and so forth) plus I include nine sample lesson ideas in Chapter 3.

Here’s a lesson idea for now. Use these sources on the sea star with your students to reveal the power of consulting more than one source. As they consult each source, pose questions like, “What did you just add to your learning?” Close with a question like, “Why consult more than one source?”

Hope this helps.


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.



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.



What about using the language of text structure to help students compare texts?

Teaching the language of text structures can help students compare and contrast texts more easily.

I gave a lesson to a 5th/6th grade class a few weeks ago with two current event articles on drones. The first article “How can you get a bird’s eye view?” from Wonderopolis is written in an enumerative (or descriptive) text structure. There is the overarching topic of drones and then sub-topics that describe or explain different aspects of drones. The students did an initial read for the purposes of answering the questions, “What is a drone?” and “What are drones used for?” If you skip down to the image after next, you’ll see that I posted the questions for the students to consider during this initial read and then to discuss in pairs. I jotted down a couple of key words before they talked with a partner.

Then I posted the definition of a descriptive text (I thought “enumerative” might be too abstract).

descriptive text structure

After I posted the definition and explained briefly, we engaged in a 2nd read to identify the different sub-topics – putting a box around a word or phrases in each paragraph that identified the sub-topic. Below is an image of my copy of the article that was projected with the document camera. I modeled thinking aloud about how the first three paragraphs were an introduction and then I read aloud and thought aloud about how the fourth paragraph was focused on defining drones.

1st and 2nd read drones

I followed by introducing the 2nd article – “Drone Control” from Scholastic News. I asked the students to read the article and to think about any additional information they were learning that wasn’t in the first article. After they read and discussed this in small groups, I introduced the text structure for this article – problem-solution.

problem solution text structure

We did a 2nd read to identify details that revealed problems and solutions. Below is my copy of the article that was projected with the doc camera and that I marked on to model identifying problem and solution details before releasing responsibility to partners. Notice that the author doesn’t write a problem and then a solution. Instead there are multiple problems posed and more than one solution – this is a complex text!

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By highlighting the differences in structure, it was very easy to talk about the differences in content.

Grrrr… If you remember my last blog entry, I don’t believe that texts always have easily identifiable structures. Most of the time they don’t. (In that blog entry, I describe using a building analogy to help students understand simple and more complex text structures.) If I’d had the opportunity, I would have followed up this lesson with a third article “Invasion of the Drones” which I think at first glance has an enumerative structure–it lists several sub-topics related to drones. On a closer look, though, I think it would be helpful if students realized that each of the sub-topics is an EFFECT of drones, a circumstance (etc.) that is CAUSED by drones.  So at the micro-structure level (a part of a text within a larger text) there are causal relationship structures.

If students understand and can easily use words like text structure, descriptive, sub-topics, dimensions of a topic, problem-solution, author poses, causal relationships and so forth to describe the texts they are reading, they will more easily be able to compare and contrast content as well as remember that content and perhaps even think critically about it.

In other words, I’m not looking for students to say, “This is a problem-solution text structure.” I want students to be able to say, “When I was reading this, I noticed that the author poses several problems with drones like… and that he also poses solutions to some but not all of these problems like…” OR “When I was reading this, I noticed that the author describes several different dimensions of drones or sub-topics related to drones like…”

If you’re interested, I’ve attached a list of the text structures with “kid-friendly”-ish definitions that might be used on anchor charts. Explanation of Traditional Text Structures

I also explain text structures further in my book Unpacking the Complexity of Informational Texts, Chapter Four “What do we mean by a text’s structure?”


Hope this helps.


The Pasta Analogy-Helping Students Determine What’s Important

Do your 2nd-8th grade students struggle with determining what is important when reading informational texts? Are they unsure of what to underline and annotate? I remember one fifth grade student saying, “Well, I underlined the whole text because it was all important!”

Two suggestions.

  1. Make sure there’s a VERY CLEAR PURPOSE for reading & determining what is important.

Here are a few sample purposes –

Purposes Related to Specific Content

  • How was the scientist Norman Borlaug innovative? Why was this important?
  • What have we learned about Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, that we never knew before? Why might this information be “exciting” as the author states?
  • Why might we consider Mary Fields extraordinary?
  • How should we be prepared for severe weather? Why?

Purposes Related to Skill Building

  • What is the author’s purpose in this text? What details in the text make you think so?
  • What is the author’s main idea? What details in the text support this main idea? (Okay…as clear as this one is, it’s still hard. You might consider liberating your students by providing the main idea – see my recent blog entry on this.)
  1. Introduce the PASTA ANALOGY to help students think about what might be important and what might be less important.

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To introduce the pasta analogy, this is a quick conversation I had recently with a small group of students:

Have you ever made pasta before? (Pause. Students nod their heads.) So to make pasta you have to boil it in water until it’s soft, correct? (Heads nod.) And then you eat the pasta, correct? (Usually, students continue nodding their heads.) Wait! Don’t you have to drain the water first? You don’t want to eat the pasta with the water, right? (Students shake their heads emphatically.) The pasta is what’s important to eat and digest, not the water. It’s the same way when you are reading to determine what’s important. There are pasta words or phrases that we want to eat and digest and then there are water words that are less important.

You can figure out what words or phrases are pasta by thinking about your purpose for reading. Today we are reading to find out how the scientist Norman Borlaug was innovative. Remember innovative means to introduce or use new methods or a new idea. So we are only reading to locate details—or pasta words & phrases—that help us understand how Borlaug was innovative.

This is an easy introduction to the skill of determining what’s important as well as to the strategy of close reading. As the students read each sentence, they stop to think, “Are there any pasta words in this sentence, words that help me think about my purpose for reading?” As I confer with students, I refer to the purpose for reading and ask them, “What are you learning that might help you understand how Norman Borlaug was innovative? What are pasta words or phrases in this sentence that might help you?”

Below are artifacts from lessons I’ve given recently – when I introduced the pasta strategy and engaged students in underlining/annotating text OR in lifting pasta words from the text and listing them on notes.

student annotated text 5th

The image above is of a 5th grade student’s annotated text – when locating “pasta” or details that helped him/her think about how Norman Borlaug was innovative (purpose).

2nd grade shared writing of pasta

For this lesson, the students were reading in a text about weather and one of the main ideas in this text was that we need to be prepared for severe weather. We identified pasta or key details related to this main idea. The image above is of the purpose for reading and the shared writing of “pasta” details we did together. The image below is one student’s “pasta” notes taken during guided practice.

2nd grade student's pasta

Of course, this always leads to orally summarizing or composing and then writing in response. Students use their annotated texts or their lists of words/phrases to orally respond to the purpose for reading – with a partner, to practice saying aloud sentences they will write, and to write.

BTW – An educator stopped me one day and told me he was using the pasta analogy with first grade students reading above grade level!

If you want to read more about this, check out Chapter 7 “Determining Importance in a Text” in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts. I provide sample lessons and a rubric-like-continuum for assessing students’ codes.


Hope this helps.



Liberate your students! In the beginning, give them the main idea!!!

Do your students hesitate when you ask, “What is the main or central idea?”  I find that many students have not had enough experience with concepts like extraordinary, perseverant, determined, tenacious, collaborative, compassionate, ambitious to pull these ideas out of an informational text easily. ALSO, many times if they do identify a main idea like, “Mary Fields was courageous,” they have only a superficial understanding of what “courageous” means. If I ask, “What is courageous?” I get a response like, “It means to be brave” — a synonym or “she was courageous when she…”–an anecdote. I don’t get “courageous is when you’re willing to face an obstacle or a difficulty without fear.” Liberate your students. Give them a main idea for the text–with a clearly defined concept like “extraordinary” or “courageous” and then provide time for them to grapple with identifying and explaining supporting details.
With enough experiences like this, they will begin to identify and explain main ideas more easily.

Last week I had the honor of teaching a class of 5th grade students who are studying the American West. We engaged in close reading and writing in response to four paragraphs in an essay on Mary Fields–an extraordinary historical figure described in the book Wild Women of the West by Jonah Winter.


Below is a description of the lesson. I’ve also attached Guidelines for Close Reading Lesson.

  •  In advance, the teacher read aloud the essay about Mary Fields as well as several other essays in Winter’s book. I handed out a copy of the essay to each student and asked them to review by reading silently. I also asked them to number the paragraphs – because we would only be reading closely paragraphs 4-7. I felt like these paragraphs were worthy of rereading and provided enough meat for our discussion and written responses.
  • I introduced the word extraordinary and set a clear purpose for close reading – Why might we consider Mary Fields to be an extraordinary person? I chose the Tier Two vocabulary word extraordinary because I think this is an idea that students will recognize in a lot of texts they read about the American West. See my definition posted for all students to view. After a brief discussion of the word extraordinary, I posed the purpose for close reading and asked the students to write the purpose across the top of their copy of the essay – like I had done on my copy projected by the doc camera.



  • With the purpose in mind and the essay projected, I read aloud paragraph #4 and then thought aloud about details in the first two sentences. I explained why I would NOT underline any details in the first sentence – there were no details that really implied Fields was extraordinary. I thought aloud about how I might underline “haul stones, lumber, and grain and supervise men” and explained why I would choose those details – because these jobs are not normally what a woman in that period would have been doing.


    • Then I began to release control. I asked students to read and think about the details in the next sentence. I asked them to explain to a partner why those details would support the idea that Fields was extraordinary. We continued through paragraph #7.
    • Next I engaged the students in shared writing of a main idea statement, a definition of the term “extraordinary,” a supporting detail, and an explanation of that supporting detail.
      IMPORTANT NOTE: Asking the students to define “extraordinary” or “perseverant” or whatever main idea/central idea/theme term they are exploring helps them focus on and articulate why particular details support the main idea. In future written responses, I would require students to include this!

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For the supporting detail and explanation, I elicited responses from the students and then helped individuals craft a sentence that I could write.

  • The students followed by choosing a different detail to write about including explaining how this detail supported the main idea–on a sticky note. Below are some examples. As usual, there were some students who stated a detail and their explanation made sense, BUT there are always others who need further instruction!!! That’s the way it should be if I’m in their zone of proximal development, huh? What I learn from their responses can inform my next lesson–probably with another text on an historical figure and an opportunity to grapple with the term extraordinary.

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  • We closed by sharing in small groups. I included asking the students to check their peers’ writing to make sure their reasoning made sense and then to offer feedback as needed.

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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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.





Helping students identify two or more main/central ideas in a text

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I’ve been thinking about how we can help students identifying multiple main/central ideas in a text. Traditionally we’ve focused on identifying one main idea, but beginning in 5th grade (and continuing in 6th and 7th), the Common Core Standards for Reading Informational Texts expect students to be able to “determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.”

An easy access point may be to read an article or essay about a historical figure and ask the students to think about and list the character traits of that person-as revealed in the trait. We did this in a lesson with a group of fifth grade students who were reading a four page text about Frederick Douglass (in their Wonders basal). (BTW-This lesson only used the Wonders text as a resource; we were not following the lesson plan provided in the basal.) The students had already read the text once with a focus on the text-dependent question, “How did How did Frederick Douglass try to bring about positive (good) change for African Americans?” The students were able to identify important details to answer this question easily–he spoke in public, he published a newspaper, he wrote a biography and so forth.

Then I posed a more difficult text-dependent question, “What character traits did Frederick Douglass exhibit (while advocating for African Americans)? What in the text makes you think so?” We started by talking in small groups to generate a list of traits and then shared out. I listed their suggestions on the dry erase board. (See image below.) Notice how I wrote the students’ language to the left (next to bullets) and then added Tier Two vocabulary as we went. For example, one student said, “He never gives up.” I wrote this down and so, “So another way we could say that is that he was determined?” The student nodded and I added that to the list as well.


Each one of these traits listed could serve as a main/central idea in the text. There are multiple details from the text that could be used to make the case that he was inspirational or determined or tenacious. We tackled one together as part of shared note-takinghe was able to overcome his fear of speaking. (See the image below with three-column notes; these notes were projected on a screen with a document camera–for all students to see.) We explained our thinking (2nd column), cited evidence from the text and explained why it was evidence (3rd column). These notes helped the students begin the body of an analytic essay in which they described three main ideas in the text. The list of traits we’d created would serve as a resource when they continued taking notes and writing about additional main ideas in the text.


For me, this experience revealed an easy way for students to start identifying multiple main ideas in the same text.

Hope this helps.

Why I wrote this book…because I was frustrated…

unpacking complexity

Is anybody overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out a text’s complexity??? In our field, there’s a lot of talk going on about this and a lot of terms flying around like levels of meaning/reasoning/density, structure, language conventionality, vocabulary, knowledge demands and so forth. There are also a slew of rubrics out there that attempt to help us with this task. For me, it’s all a little daunting because there’s so much and it’s thrown at us all at once. That’s why I decided to write Unpacking Complexity in Informational Texts: Principles and Practices for Grades 2-8 (2015).

Writing this turned into a professional journey for me. When I sat down to write this book–on a topic my editor suggested, I quickly became overwhelmed by it all. So I just started by asking myself, What does the term “text complexity” even mean? Here’s the first two paragraphs of Chapter One (p. 7)-

What makes an informational text complex? According to Merriam-Webster.com (n.d.), the word complex is defined as “composed of two or more parts” (adjective) or “a whole made up of complicated interrelated parts” (noun). In the same source, the word part is defined as the following:

(1) one of the often indefinite or unequal subdivisions into which something is or is regarded as divided and which together constitute the whole; (2) an essential portion or integral element.

If we think about how these definitions apply to informational texts, then we might define text complexity as the following:

The quality of being composed of complicated or interrelated parts (one of which is the reader) that, although indefinite or unequal, are each an essential element of the whole text.

For the rest of the book, I begin a systematic look at these “complicated or interrelated” parts and what makes each of these parts complex for students as readers –

  • author’s purpose (I make the case that this drives all the other parts)
  • text’s structure (oh, boy—and it’s so much harder than just the traditional five- compare/contrast, cause/effect, sequence, etc!!!!)
  • types of details used in non-narrative texts (like location, explanation, function, real-life examples and so forth)
  • types of details used in narrative texts (like agent, agent’s disposition, use of quote to support and so forth) (oh, and don’t forget that many texts are a blend of narrative and non-narrative!!!!)
  • connective language (words like because and although and how they contribute to meaning but are often overlooked by student readers!!!!)
  • how main ideas are constructed (not just what are main ideas…but how do the author and the reader, as partners, construct main ideas…)

And so much more. My goal was to unpack all of the language flying around about text complexity and lay this information out in a way that creates a manageable picture of what makes a text complex. “First let’s look at this…then this…next this…and this is how it all comes together.” In include lots and lots of excerpts and examples from informational texts that you might have in your classroom.

I also include lesson ideas and samples of student work…because I couldn’t write about something and not do it with kids and see the results 🙂

Okay…just a few thoughts. You can read most of the intro and part of chapter one at Amazon or you can read Chapter 2 “What makes an informational text complex?” at Guilford Press’s site. You can also get 20% with Code 2E at Guilford’s site as well.

If you pick up this book, I’d love to hear your feedback. I continue to ponder and grow in my thinking about all of this and would treasure the conversation!


“Apples to Apples” to teach argument/opinion writing



A few weeks ago, I used the game Apples to Apples with a group of sixth graders to have fun thinking about the concept of “reasons” and “evidence” as it relates to argument writing. They had a blast and I learned a lot about what they were struggling with conceptually and was able to coach at the point of need.

First the group (of 7) just played the game and enjoyed it. If you’re not familiar with this game, one green card with an adjective is drawn (like “playful” or “silly”) and the players, who have five red cards in their hands with nouns on each (like “girl scouts” or “flip flops”) have to pick one of their cards and give it to the judge who does not see the card, but mixes the players’ cards up and then lays them out. The judge has to decide which red noun card fits the green adjective card the best. I always encourage students to make their case –but in a way that does not give away which card is there’s. Lots of oral language and collaborative conversation going on.

This is how I modified the game to teach/reinforce reasons and supporting evidence-

  • There’s a judge and teams of 3 students.
  • Each team has to give 3 clear reasons why their red noun card fits the green adjective card (e.g., playful, puzzling). They have 3 minutes to develop their reasons. The reasons cannot be types of evidence–just reasons. Surprisingly, this was hard for the group – they want so badly to just start with giving evidence.
  • BEFORE THE TEAMS MEET TO DEVELOP THEIR REASONS, have a brief conversation about the meaning of the adjective on the green card and jot down synonyms or helpful phrases. See the image below. I’d quickly brainstorm with the kids several additional words that were synonymous or helped to define the key word. I started doing this because we had a round where their reasoning was flawed because they’d misinterpreted the adjective. This is a big problem in students’ writing, too–they don’t have a clear understanding of a Tier Two word like “perseverant” that they are using to make an argument and their argument falls apart. (I’ve blogged on this if you want to read more…) Another tip — sometimes there are two words listed to define the adjective on the card — these words might have slightly different meanings–so I’d just choose one.

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  • The judge is responsible for deciding which team has the most sound reasoning (even if it’s silly or playful) or reason and evidence; frequently, the judge needed coaching to get started in articulating why reasons were sound. When I started coaching them on reasons versus evidence, the judge started ruling that a team may not have presented “reasons” versus “evidence.”

In a later round, I ask the teams to come up with one reason and supporting evidence instead of three reasons.

I worked with a group of 7 sixth grade students which was a luxury. Other ways to do this–You could try dividing a whole class into four groups and moving around to coach groups. If you have a student teacher or classroom volunteer, they could pull students to do this; a literacy specialist or special education teacher who pushes in might do this. I’d recommend this for 3rd-5th grade as well–this could happen a few times during guided reading–a nice break and very beneficial.

Playing this game allowed the students to have fun, but it also freed them up from the cognitive load of writing to just think about reasoning and evidence and begin to articulate the difference. The two teams I worked even began to offer counterarguments!!

Okay…hope this helps.