03 Using a structured process to teach non-fiction writing

ERO’s report Reading and writing in Years 1 and 2 (2009) found effective teachers gave children a purpose for writing and encouraged them to write about things and experiences they were likely to be familiar with. Their teaching was evidence based, deliberate and gave children opportunities to practise new skills and knowledge during the instructional classroom programme.

Leaders and teachers at EAST TAIERI SCHOOL had worked on giving children a purpose for writing as part of the considerable emphasis they placed on improving writing during recent years. Some recent developments had included:

  • working with groups of target students as part of an Accelerating Literacy Learning (ALL) project
  • providing opportunties for the whole staff to learn about high quality writing features
  • establishing clear expectations about what children should achieve in writing at each year level
  • introducing assessment processes teachers, children and their parents could use to track a child’s progress and identify their next learning steps.

The improvements contributed to success when writing for many children.

The most recent developments began when the leaders and teachers sought further strategies to improve writing for some boys who were not as motivated to write as others. During a professional development visit to another local school, they learnt about a non fiction writing model that had been successful with struggling readers and writers. Leaders decided to work with the literacy faciltator to explore new non fiction writing strategies to use with their children.

The non fiction writing programme combined reading and writing to provide specific literacy instruction in content areas. It was originally developed for secondary students by identifying the characteristics of good readers and writers compared to less able readers and writers, as below:

Successful readers and writers know:

  • reading and writing changes according to text and task
  • text structure changes according to content area, knowledge construction and author’s intent
  • how to identify language features and use these to deepen their understanding
  • reading and writing require regular reflection on the process according to task and experience
  • how to research using multiple texts, categories, synthesis and new understandings.

The process teachers applied and modified used the following nine stages for children in Years 5 and 6. Children in Years 1 to 4 used some of the stages as they developed confidence with all aspects of the process.

  1. Identify the text form.
  2. Look at the text features to gather as much information as possible about the content of the text.
  3. Discuss prior knowledge of the text type and topic.
  4. Read the text, focusing on specific language elements such as the topic and main idea, the topic sentence, captions and other features.
  5. Break down the task and write key questions.
  6. Set up a graphic organiser to begin note taking.
  7. Read the text and make notes.
  8. Write paragraphs/report.
  9. Reflect.

ERO observed writing instruction at three different year levels and saw how children were motivated to write through a focus on non-fiction.

Year 1 writers

Children in Year 1 had a balance of informal writing opportunities and more formal writing instruction where they discovered and wrote about different content areas. During play-based learning, children often independently chose to write lists, menus, books and records of games they played. Their teacher told ERO the non fiction writing process had helped children to write a lot more and use more complex sentences because their ideas had been fully discussed before they wrote. The teacher pointed out a display of high-quality writing about whales completed in Term 2 by children younger than five and a half years old.

this drawing of a blue whale is held up by pegs on a line of string across the classroom.  14 examples of writing paragraphs are cut out and pasted at intervals all over the whale.

ERO observed formal writing instruction during which children were learning and writing about things in space. Children were able to suggest the topic that interested them. Earlier in the term they had written about pirates and now their interests had shifted to a focus on space. The day before, children had read and written about the moon.

All the children were enthusiastically involved in the pre writing activity.

They started by sharing their prior knowledge of the sun. Their teacher wrote down in a big book some of the key words they could use. Soon children started to ask questions about the sun and the teacher also wrote these down. Their questions included:

  • How big is it?
  • How bright is it?
  • How heavy is it?
  • If you touched it, would you die?
  • How hot is it?

The teacher then read a small booklet about the sun and the children discussed whether the text was imaginary or true. The children recalled the words they had noticed in the booklet and the teacher wrote the key words – star, earth, light.

Children also identified the interesting words, ‘huge’ and ‘enormous’, and used their arms to show what they meant. The teacher read another small booklet and repeated the activity to include more key words about the sun. Finally, the children watched a very brief video clip to further extend their prior knowledge and revisit the list of key words.

Before the children went away to write, the teacher checked to see how much the children knew about the sun that they could use in their writing. The children sat in a circle and looked at the key words again. The teacher asked “why have I written these words – hot, bright, eight minutes, star? ”They were then asked to think of a sentence that included some of the interesting words and tell their neighbour their sentence.

Each child was given their writing book and went away to write. Some chose to stay near the big book where the teacher had written the key words. The teacher reminded a few children of their personal writing goals to think about when writing.

Every child excitedly began writing. They were all able to tell ERO the writing goals they were working on. Some were practising identifying the words they weren’t sure of by underlining them, and said they could go back to the teacher’s book to check them later. They confidently wrote about the sun.

Writing in Years 3 and 4

Children in Years 3 and 4 also did a variety of writing activities. One of the most popular activities was Quick Writes. They selected a picture provided by the teacher and wrote about an aspect of the picture. They all had writing pathways sheets that outlined the skills they should master by the end of the year. Children coloured the skill they had mastered in yellow and identified their next learning step. Each Friday, children met with their teacher to show which of the new skills they had mastered. They showed the piece of work that illustrated the skill. Each time they demonstrated the skill, they coloured one side of the relevant hexagon. Once the skill was demonstrated six times, the hexagon was completely coloured in.

Children in Years 3 and 4 used more parts of the non fiction writing process than Year 1 children. When ERO visited the class they were involved in the second day of their focus on sharks. The day before the children had looked at, and discussed, the task and the features they were to include in their writing as learning intentions:

  • hook the reader in
  • group ideas into categories
  • include a range of punctuation
  • have a conclusion.

Children were also reminded of their individual writing goals taken directly from the writing pathway as shown here as my green for growth step. Finally, children discussed interesting words they might include in their writing. They had identified the things about sharks they wanted to know more about. These queries were then displayed on the whiteboard as the beginning of a mindmap. The teacher worked with the children to agree on five topics in the mind maps to focus their thinking, when planning their writing, shown on the next page.

The teacher had shown a video clip about sharks and the children added more key words to their own mindmaps. The video was regularly paused to allow discussion and the recording of key words in their mindmaps.

ERO observed children using their mindmaps to write an introduction. They had to introduce three facts they were interested in and try to use the interesting words. Children were highly focused and many were crossing the interesting words off the list when they had used them. The teachers worked with a small group of children that had a similar writing goal, while the other children wrote independently. All children were highly motivated and on task.

Before the end of the lesson, the children were brought together and invited to share their introduction with their peers. Their enthusiasm for the task was evident, as most the children had their hand up asking to share their work. Children shared their initial sentences that clearly highlighted how they had hooked their readers. The sharing part of the lesson identified that the non fiction writing had particular benefits for boys. ERO saw they were just as keen to share their high quality examples as the girls, and were enthusiastic rather than reluctant writers.

Although the complexity of the writing the children shared varied considerably, some were able to go well beyond the learning intentions for the task, and included imagery and other features they had learnt in creative writing as shown in this child-edited example.

There is a beastly unique vicious organism that glides gracefull like a superhero through the dim water, scoffing on its defenceless prey. You guessed it, the creature with big beady eyes and a toothy jaw, hiding in the watery shadows… It’s a shark!!

Sharks have special techniquiqes and dazzling feature that they use sometimes when they ambish their terrified prey. Sharks have the ability to pinpoint or target where the delicious smell that is wafting through the water is coming from!! The Pygmy Sharks rough and jagged body can glow in the murky water.

The dark is not a problem for sharks because they have night vision. It’s unlikley that other fish have night vision so sharks are fascinating and lucky.

Year 4 child

At the end of the lesson, the teachers shared what they would focus on the next day. The children were going to:

  • concentrate on using conjunctions
  • undertake some self checks of the work they had already completed
  • work with a peer to help them upgrade at least one word or sentence.

Years 5 and 6 writers

Children in Years 5 and 6 participated in many of the same writing activities and self assessments as those in Years 3 and 4. However, they were able to

confidently engage with all parts of the non fiction writing process in groups and independently. Recently, children had used the process to investigate their chosen topics and write speeches to practise persuasive writing. Children had presented speeches about topics such as banning zoos, dangerous dogs and poultry farms; saving endangered species; and the damage plastic caused. Their teacher had selected the topic they were to read and write about, because of the high numbers of children who were interested in the impacts of plastic. They used an article from DOGOnews about Rotterdam’s Picturesque floating park.

The lesson ERO observed occurred on the second day the children had engaged with the content. The day before, they had each contributed to a glossary of complex terms and key words identifying the Rotterdam article in bold. Each child had read the article, researched one of the words and then written a simple definition that was then distributed to each child. The children were well supported so they could fully understand what they were expected to write about. The teacher shared a blank graphic organiser that outlined the task. The children identified and highlighted key words (as shown below), and then suggested, refined and agreed the wording for two focus questions that would help them complete the task. The questions were also recorded in the graphic organiser.


Rotterdam's picturesque floating market park is built entirely from recycled plastic waste

Using evidence from the text, discuss the advantages of using plastic waste to create a floating park.

Question:

What was the process taken when using plastic waste to create floating park?

Notes: 

  • First plastic waste is captured

Question:

What are the advantages?

Notes:

  • 100,000 marine animals choked/ suffocated every year being saved
  • Dutch environmentalists devised a way to capture plastic waste before it reaches the open sea

The process children used next helped them fully engage with the text and order their own ideas into paragraphs. The teacher asked the children to read the first paragraph of the article and share facts that might answer the questions in their own words. They highlighted key words, rather than whole sentences, to make sure they thought deeply about the text. When they shared a fact they were asked to decide which of the two questions the fact would answer. The first three facts were recorded on the graphic organiser and then the children filled in more of their own facts independently as they read more paragraphs. The teacher reminded them to use their own filters to make sure their key facts actually answered the questions and ignored aspects not related to the specific questions. The children explained that this not only helped them stick to the relevant facts, but also helped them order their paragraphs. The notes in each cell usually formed one paragraph and the question usually helped them write a topic sentence. They also pointed out that this, and learning about topic sentences, had helped them organise their ideas and paragraphs in their creative writing.

The next day’s lesson was to involve children in:

  • creating a topic sentence
  • discussing the order of their notes for a paragraph
  • modelling, discussing and recording notes into full sentences
  • discussing linking of sentences to the sentence before
  • writing paragraphs.

Benefits of the process

Leaders identified considerably increased enthusiasm for writing particularly from the boys, and concluded that having the structure helped them decide what to write.

They have the security of knowing where they are heading and what they can do to get there.

Leader

The children wrote about contexts interesting to them. Teachers acknowledged that while the topics were often highly interesting to the boys, they were just as appealing to the girls. Engaging in the texts, videos and discussions helped children practise applying different writing skills through contexts they knew a lot about. They were not blocked by trying to work out what to write about. Instead they could practise using conjunctions, interesting sentence starters, and many other learning intentions by writing about contexts they understood. Teachers also acknowledged the children were developing high-quality research and writing skills they would confidently use in their future education and learning.