Tag Archives: writing in response to informational texts

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.



Do they really get what the main idea means?

Can your students explain what their main idea statement means? Is a superficial understanding or misunderstanding of the main idea impacting their ability to identify or explain supporting details?

We need to give students time to unpack the main idea. It’s worth it and pays off when they begin to identify key details and explain how those details support the main idea.

A few other suggestions:

  1. Help students unpack a main idea by asking them to define a particular vocabulary word or phrase in the main idea statement. This may mean they have to look the word up!!!!! For example, if the student is writing about how tornadoes are powerful, do they understand that powerful, in this case, means having or producing a lot of physical strength or having an impact on something? Or if they are explaining the achievements of a historical figure, do they understand that achievement means something done successfully with effort, courage or skill?  And if they are explaining how skyscrapers have changed over time to become safer, do they understand ideas like change over time (how something becomes or is made different during a period of time) and safer (free from harm or risk) mean?
  1. Ask students to underline and annotate key words and phrases in the main idea statement. Below is a photo from a shared “unpacking the main idea” experience with a small group of 3rd/4th grade students in response to a NewsELA article about a blind student named Amare. The annotations might include:
  • definitions,
  • synonyms,
  • “this makes me think…” statements
  • connections to background knowledge or details in other texts
  • etc.

  1. Provide time for students to used their annotated main ideas to discuss what they are thinking or understanding–during think-pair-share. I find it helpful to model thinking through the annotated statement and how I would explain the main idea using the annotations.
  2. If the students are writing an essay that begins with a main idea statement, ask them to explain the main idea (in a few sentences) before identifying and elaborating on supporting details. The photo below is from the shared writing experience with third/fourth grade students. The second sentence is one that I wrote – but student “H” composed orally first.

An instructional thought—engage students in a shared experience unpacking the main idea. Together define key words, underline and annotate, write. This might be for the first article in a text set. As the students read and respond to additional texts, they begin to take charge of unpacking the main idea.

Hope this helps.




Check out these reading responses!

A few posts ago I wrote about shaking up how we ask students to write in response to texts–creating hall of fame posters, designing two-page layouts for trade books, and writing letters. One of my colleagues in the field, Britany, a fifth grade teacher, gave this a go! She asked students who’d read the book Plant Parts by Louise & Richard Stilsbury to write a letter from the root to the plant. See her prompt below.


Plant letter prompt

Below are a few of the letters. What are the strengths I noticed in these letters? They are doing so much!!!!

  • The writers have a clear sense of purpose and audience with coherent reasoning.
  • The writers attempt to use domain specific vocabulary like fibrous root, root hair, nutrients, photosynthesis, minerals.
  • There are attempts at explaining the science they learned – especially in the first letter below where the student explains the job of the root hair.
  • There’s some humor–as though the student writer is having a good time. “I’m the big guy.” “Your sad friend.” “The smallest root hair with the biggest job.”
  • There are attempts at revising – check out the arrows and additional details that are attempts at adding depth.

KV Letter to a plant

C Plant letter

EG Plant letterMC Plant letterBased on my formative assessment of these responses, where would I head next with this group?

  • I’d locate and tackle another text on plants that somehow adds to this conversation between the plant and the root, that somehow deepens students’ understanding of plant systems.
  • I’d lead the students in a close reading of text excerpts that explain particular processes and engage the students in conversation about what they are learning–retelling what they learned and discussing their reasoning as to why this is important or why the explanation of this process is important to the author’s central message/main idea.
  • Some of the writing is list like–mostly listing reasons why the plant should keep the root.  I might share the first letter as a mentor text for “explaining” further and engage in shared writing of also explaining why a particular detail is important. For example, why is it important to the entire plant that the root grows deep? The shared writing might be an opportunity to work on syntax related to explaining these concepts in writing, in academic discourse.
  • I didn’t read this book, but I’d keep an eye on the facts. So it was funny when one student wrote, “All you do is just sit and act pretty,” but I’m thinking the flower part of the plant actually has a purpose and is also vital. Maybe I could introduce vocabulary like synergy or interdependence. (Sorry, Science Teachers. I need to study and find the right term!)
  • I’d build on the students’ strength as far as the humor and sense of purpose and voice revealed in the first set of letters by listing what they did well in these letters, proposing a follow-up letter, and adding to the list additional ways they can make their writing stronger. I might add an additional purpose for writing – perhaps drafts of a children’s book that can be shared with younger grade?

Okay. Hope this helps. A BIG THANK YOU to Britany for sharing!!!! I learned so much by thinking through what the students wrote!!!!


Are your students tired of writing summaries and analytic essays?

I’m shaking up how students respond to informational texts. I’m experimenting with letters, Hall of Fame posters for a bulletin board in the classroom entitled “People Who Have Changed the World,” designing and writing content for a book entitled Did You Know, and classified ads. Regardless of the format, though, I’m still  REQUIRING students to tap and explain text evidence related to a main idea.

I tried this a few weeks ago with several groups of 4th and 5th grade students during small group guided writing lessons. (I was giving demo lessons–as a consultant in a school district.)  Here’s the routine I established for the series of lessons (4 lessons at about 20 minutes each):

  1. Lessons 1-2 closely read for a clear purpose 1-2 short informational texts and annotate or take notes. By short, I mean 1-3 pages of text. For example, one group of 4th grade students read two pages of text in their anthology on the work of public officials like city council members. The second text was a one page article from Scholastic News on Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s plan for the water crisis in Flint, MI. Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.49.07 AMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 8.49.07 AM                      The essential question was How do public officials accomplish things to help people? They took notes on a two-column chart.                               Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 9.01.14 AM                                                                                During these two lessons, there were several opportunities for students to turn and talk to a partner about what they were learning–this is a very important bridge to writing!
  2. Lesson 3 – Start with 5-10 minutes of conversation. I asked the students to review their notes and turn and talk with a partner about what they’d learned about how public officials accomplish tasks. With this group, I noticed that they needed more support in talking in depth about this topic versus just listing what they learned off their notes. So I pulled the group back together and we had a “conversation” –this means no one raises their hands. We just talk and as needed I prompt students to ask each other for clarification, to ask for more details from a peer, or to build on what a peer said. As they did this, I took notes (based on what they were saying or my interpretation of their comments) on a small dry erase board – for the students to refer to as they talked (see image below).                                                            2016-02-04 15.15.15
  3. Lesson 3 – Set a purpose for writing and develop criteria – 5 minutes. For each format I explored with students, we developed criteria. For the hall of fame poster and the Did You Know book, I used a mentor text (that I found on the Internet) which I showed them on a small laptop (see below).  For the poster and the DId You Know tasks, I asked partners to collaborate.                                                                   Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.31 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.42 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.08.58 PM                                                                         Below are examples of criteria we co-developed and referred to over and over again as the students wrote.                                                                                   2016-02-04 15.17.542016-02-02 10.16.33 2016-02-03 15.30.27For the 4th grade lesson with texts on public officials, the students had to write a letter to someone they think should run for public office and explain why – with reference to the texts they’d read. Notice that part of the criteria is the student must refer to the texts read–tying a main idea from the text into the letter as well as text evidence and an explanation.  For the hall of fame poster, we decided they would refer to text evidence and explain how the two historical figures (Gus Garcia and Frederick Douglass) in the top right hand corner of their poster. For the Did You Know two-page layout, they would refer to what they’d learned from texts in the text under the question and then integrate throughout the graphics, side bars, etc.
  4. Lesson 3 – Engage in shared writing – 5 minutes. Below is an example of shared writing with the students who read about public officials. I chunked this. So we picked a person to write a letter for together and then they picked their own person. We wrote an intro for our shared person letter and then they wrote one for their own person. We wrote about text evidence for our shared person letter and then they wrote about different evidence for their own person.                                                                                      2016-02-04 15.16.28
  5. Lesson 3 continued and then Lesson 4 – Students write independently (or with a partner) – 25 minutes at the writing table with me there to coach. Students continue writing their pieces – in particular, the part where they have to refer to the text and explain. These may not be completely done by the end of these lessons but I’m not worried about taking these all the way to publication. What’s important is that quality time at the table with me present to coach while they write for 25 minutes.
    They can finish independently and I can confer with them briefly about finalizing later.
    Below are examples of students’ drafted letters. Notice how they integrated information from two texts into their letters.                                                     Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.16.20 PM                                                                                               (BTW – Mr. Taylor is the principal at that school! Another student wrote a letter to his mom and two chose friends they thought would be good public officials.)                                         For the letter below, the group of students read a text about Jane Addams and about Gus Garcia with an essential question regarding how these historical figures advocated for people. The author of this letter chose to write a thank you note to her teacher–thanking her for advocating for students and for teaching students to advocate for others – similar to Addams and Garcia.                                                                      Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 12.18.57 PM                                                                                           There are all sorts of letters students can write – thank you, encouragement, inquiry, requests, etc.  One group read about how scientists collaborate and then they wrote a thank you note to a classmate who’d collaborated with them in some way (to build a bridge in science, to complete a math word problem, etc.). They had to include what they’d learned from two texts about the power of collaboration.    

If you’ve tried shaking up responses to informational text done at the guided writing table, I’d like to hear about it!!!

Hope this helps.




Is “text evidence” becoming a fill-in-the-blank?

evidence pic 4

A few weeks ago I had the honor of working with a class of students who were writing an analytic essay in response to a text about Frederick Douglass. During this lesson, I’d posed a text-dependent question and we’d carefully read the article and taken notes.  When we moved from taking notes to using those notes to think about writing, I asked the students, “How should we start our essay? What do we need to think about doing first for our reader?” (In my mind, I was thinking, “We need to let the reader know the topic” or “We need to write an introduction”). Several hands went up, but one student’s hand shot up especially straight, her eyes wide and bright with a response. Pleased at her eagerness, I called on her. She quickly shouted, “TEXT EVIDENCE!”

No kidding. And this happened again later in the week in a different class.

For me this is worrisome. I worry that we are talking about and hammering “text evidence” so hard that students are becoming mindless, thinking that “text evidence” is the most likely answer to whatever question we ask. This mentality is popping up in their writing, too. “And the text evidence is….” is part of their responses as though they are filling in a blank. I don’t think we meant for this to happen! And I’ve been pondering how we can turn this around for students and keep them in the mode of “I need to think through this-I need to reason through this-I need to think about why I’m thinking this.”

A couple of suggestions–approaches I’ve been playing around with in my practice and thinking –

1.  If you are asking students to share textual evidence, the text-dependent question needs to require some kind of inference or interpretation of or grappling with ideas in the text; the answer should not be is stated explicitly in the text. For example, in the Frederick Douglass article, the students read–the question written by the publisher was “What did Frederick Douglass do to change the lives of African Americans?” This was answered clearly in several spots in the text — he spoke in front of audiences, he wrote his autobiography, he started a newspaper. I wouldn’t ask for text evidence to this question–why? Because the response would be, “Well it says it in the text.” Instead, a better question would be, “What character traits did Frederick Douglass exhibit in his advocacy for African American rights? What makes you think so? Use textual evidence to support your reasoning. Remember to explain why this is evidence that supports your reasoning.”

2.  Ask students to explain why text evidence is evidence that supports their reasoning–out loud with a partner and in writing. Hopefully, this forces them to think about what they are saying, to think through their reasoning. Below is a chart from a 4th grade lesson. This was from the shared writing portion of the lesson – we collaborated to develop a reason and identify evidence; then I asked small groups to talk about why this was evidence and then write on their own notes (a blank piece of paper folded into thirds).

evidence pic 2

In a fifth grade class, we used a piece of paper folded into thirds to take notes. Below are the shared writing notes that we composed together before the students were gradually released to take notes on their own. This particular piece of paper was under the doc camera and projected for all students to see.

evidence pic 3

3.  Model this thinking for them.  Think aloud, think aloud, think aloud.

4.  Provide lots of opportunities for students to just talk through their reasoning and thinking about textual evidence. This may eliminate some of the “fill-in-the-blank” language that is popping up in essays.

5.  As needed, provide language for students to appropriate in their discussions and their writing like:

  • When the author stated ___________, I was thinking…
  • When the author writes______________, the author suggests that__________
  • The author implies ______________ because she/he says/wrote________
  • The author uses an anecdote/example/metaphor to ______________
  • I had a strong reaction when I read__________because I knew the author was___
  • I wasn’t sure what the author meant when he wrote_______________but I’m thinking____________
  • I’ve been thinking about the question we are supposed to consider and the way I would respond is________________. My reasoning behind that is___________.

6.  When you start to see mindless use of phrases like “In the text it says…,” BAN those phrases and ask, “How else can you say that?” or “What are you trying to say? Let’s think through this and consider a different way to reveal this to our reader.” In one classroom, I wrote “The evidence is” on the board and drew a ban sign around it! The students gasped aloud!

7.  Reduce the cognitive load. Provide the answer to the text-dependent question and the reason and let the students just focus on grappling with identifying and explaining text evidence – orally in small groups and then in writing. It seems like we always start from the beginning in writing analytic essays. There’s no reason why we have to do this.

8.  Limit the use of formulas for writing responses.

9. Go through the process of reasoning and supporting for yourself or with a group of colleagues. I know we are crazy busy, but for many of us, this kind of thinking and writing might be less familiar. How would you answer the text-dependent question? What reasoning would you give? What would be your text evidence and why? Do it for yourself so you can coach students in thinking more deeply about what they are doing. Below are notes a group of teachers and I created in preparing to teach a lesson.

evidence pic 1

Okay…just thinking. Hope this helps.