Why Blog

I’m passionate about finding ways to simplify comprehension instruction and learning. I’m concerned that we are defining comprehension too narrowly as an accumulation of five or six meta-cognitive strategies when cultivating comprehension involves so much more than that. We need to help children acquire accurate fluent reading skills and strategies; build background knowledge; develop their oral language and vocabulary; make reading-writing connections, and acquire a repertoire of meta-cognitive strategies to use as and if needed.

So I invite you to join me in blogging about this ever-so-important topic. I look forward to hearing your ideas, teaching strategies, book recommendations, classroom stories, etc., basically anything that will inspire a healthy conversation among colleagues.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Change of Heart, Mind, and Genre—Nonfiction Writing from Day One

My March 28th blog post about how we’re overdoing personal narratives and need to move kids to different writing genres early on in the school year rather than have them start the year with yet another personal narrative unit has left me to reconsider how I might proceed during the first two weeks of school before the first formal writing unit begins.

First I need to describe what I’ve done in the past:

Traditionally, the first writing assignment I gave students was to write an introductory piece about themselves that they would share with classmates. As children finished their piece (some finished in one day and others took several days) they asked to share it with classmates during the share portion of the workshop. Once a student shared, he knew that he and the others that shared that day would confer with me the following day and receive their writing folder, topic list, and paper so that they could “free write” until our first formal unit—a personal narrative unit—began.

Here’s what I might do now instead:

During the first week of school I’d read children a variety of short, but gorgeous, informational texts on a variety of topics such as the body, animals, weather, the solar system, etc., because I know that I need to achieve a 50/50 balance of fiction and nonfiction throughout the year. Exposing children to this broad range of topics early on will help them recognize that each of these categories, not just “animals,” are interesting and worth reading and writing about.

I’d also ask kids to think and start writing about the nonfiction topic they’re most interested in pursuing. Some children will easily identify a topic and others will have to dig deep. I’d also ask children to use the topic list I gave them during their first conference to list additional nonfiction topics they may want to write about later on, and even send this list home so that families can help children consider past experiences, what they know, and what they would like to explore. In addition to reading aloud nonfiction, I’d also read them books like Megan McDonald’s Insects Are My Life and Amy Schwartz’s Begin at the Beginning to drive home the point that the best topics are ones they know and love.

As children write what they know, I can get a better sense of where I need to start my instruction. This, like the personal narrative assignment of old, will give me good baseline information regarding what kids can and can’t do. For example, did they easily come up with a topic, did they have a lot to say, does their writing have a sense of organization or is it basically a list, how developed are their writing conventions? These introductory pieces might serve as a starting point for their nonfiction study or they may simply be kept in children’s folder as baseline writing.

From here I’d move into a formal nonfiction writing unit where I demonstrate some qualities of good nonfiction writing, e.g., strong openings, voice, organization, word choice, text features. You might want kids write book reviews of informational texts to share with kindergarten students. (What fun to have them visit classes with books and reviews in hand to get the little guys wanting to read what the older kids recommend!) Or you might want to introduce kids to nonfiction text features they’ll meet in written texts, so you may decide to have them write an expository piece to help classmates learn more about a topic they’re passionate about. And this time the text features will do some of the heavy lifting in regards to how information is conveyed. They might even title their piece “Planets Are My Life” or “Trains Are My Life” to convey their passion as little Amanda Frankenstein did in Insects Are My Life. Or you might want them to write “Question and Answer Books.” Perhaps a committee of like-minded individuals might work on one together. So many avenues to explore for both the students and us, their teachers!

[It’s All About Comprehension—Keep in mind that when children are writing informational texts, they're learning first-hand how the genre works. This will help them to better comprehend nonfiction texts they read. They’ll also be building their background knowledge so they can later access it.]


  1. Thanks for this post. In Michigan, personal narrative was the only genre that children had to actually write, and therefore was definitely overdone, me included. Unfortunately, what gets tested is what gets taught and what administration wants teachers to focus on. I really appreciate the ideas for expanding genre for children earlier in the year. Now, I wish it was September!

  2. You're welcome. There are so many opportunities to have kids write more informational texts, and build their background knowledge and their comprehension. It's so exciting...