Monday, November 26, 2012

Planning for a Nonfiction Topic Study

As I've watched my sons develop into readers, I noticed how they both started to delve deeply into a preferred topic in second grade. My older son read about airplanes and the physics of flight, while my younger son has read everything about cats. Watching these two readers has helped me to think about how topic knowledge is inextricably linked to reading skills. Their background knowledge about a topic helped them to attack and read increasingly more difficult texts.

It seems logical, then, that we should try to replicate this in our classrooms. But topic studies have gone in and out of style. When I started teaching (in the 90s! imagine!), thematic units were popular. But they weren't really structured. The idea--at least as it was communicated to my inexperienced teacher brain--was to gather as many resources as you could on a topic or theme, and then have students create some big project related to the theme.

As time passed and guided reading became popular, themes fell out of favor. Leveling was everything. I was told that trying to gather resources on a topic was useless. We'd never be able to afford to get every book at the levels we'd need, and it was far more important for kids to be reading texts at their levels than it was for them to study a topic. I got around this by starting to write my own texts, apologetically at first. But the more that I watched my own children become readers, the more I realized that seeing the same topics over and over was really important.

Now, topic studies are in style again. Yay! What I like about topic and theme studies as discussed in the Common Core is that they are to be structured with increasingly complex text. This mirrors what I see with Zachary and Aidan...the facts they learn from the easy text become necessary background knowledge to help them comprehend more complex text.

As I plan for this year's version of the Antarctica nonfiction unit, I've tried to be more conscious of how students are building their knowledge. I'm hoping to marry certain concepts about Antarctica with concepts about nonfiction. Here is the plan.

1. Choose your nonfiction skills to teach.
This year, I'm starting with paraphrasing. Then I'll move on to topics and main ideas, text features, and finally synthesizing. In the past, I did text features first. But this year I decided to change it because I want students to see how text features help to convey topics and main ideas.

2. Choose core texts.
I'm a weekly planner, so I choose texts for each week. At the beginning, I'm using some texts that I've written. This will help to build up the background knowledge that kids will need to get to the ideas in the more complex texts. But I'll also be using Trapped By the Ice, texts from Beyond Polar Bears and Penguins, and the LTER blog. As you choose texts, it's important to consider how ideas appear again and again. What are the most important concepts you want to wring from the topic? How are these concepts represented in texts?

3. Create a unit anticipation guide.
I love anticipation guides for a unit. Many details about Antarctica are counterintuitive--for example, the fact that polar bears don't eat penguins, and that summer and winter in the Southern Hemisphere are the opposite of here. The anticipation guide is a concrete way for learners to recognize what they have learned from reading and how their ideas have shifted. Presenting learners with opportunities to "rewire" their background knowledge is vital for learning. (For more information on this, see the research by Graham Nuthall...his articles have been so influential to me!)

4. Gather guided reading and auxiliary texts.
This process may take a few years. I pick up books wherever I can. It becomes a sort of "stone soup" situation--everyone working on the unit has a few things to contribute. Surprisingly, even texts that seem only tangentially related often offer kids some little gems of knowledge that they can weave into their schema.

5. Create a list of unit vocabulary.
This year I've started to be much more intentional with my vocabulary teaching. What words do kids need? Which words show up again and again? I do a weekly homework packet in my classroom, and I've included five vocabulary words (along with a related text) in each packet.

It all sounds like a great deal of work, and it is. But it is so worthwhile to hear kids sharing ideas and reflecting on what they've learned across texts. Whether topic studies are in style or not, they are a wonderful way to help students learn.

I'm hoping to put together what I've done with the Antarctica unit into a file. Until then, write to me if you would like any samples. (Please include your email address if you leave a comment! Otherwise, it's tough to figure out how to respond.)


  1. Hi Emily:

    I have several of your items in my cart at TpT and I already bought and downloaded some others in the past few weeks. Thanks for making your wonderful resources available to teachers!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

  2. Emily,
    I would love to see some examples of your nonfiction topic study. I have many of your units on TPT and love them all.

    Susan Mack