When I first started teaching, informational writing was one of my least favorite units to teach. I could spend months on narratives, but I would have been happy to skip informational writing altogether. I think part of my problem was that I misinterpreted my writing workshop training, and I was under the impression that students should just start writing. I’d teach a lesson or two on the difference between informational writing and narrative writing, and then I had my students start writing. Of course, I’d continue to teach throughout the writing unit, but regardless of what I did I felt that my instruction was highly ineffective. My students were confused; I was frustrated, and my instinct told me that there had to be a better way. I eventually began to apply my philosophy of teaching math toward writing, and it has made for a much smoother process.
I now begin my writing unit at a snail’s pace. It takes me at least two weeks to get my students to the point of actually writing. I start the unit with a very strong emphasis on planning and organization, and I don’t allow myself to hurry through those lessons. What seems easy and natural to me, is often a foreign concept to my students.
I continue to introduce the unit by teaching about the difference narrative writing and informational writing.
I then have students create expert lists, where they brainstorm topics they know a lot about. During the first stages of this unit, I want students to write about topics they already have considerable amount of background knowledge on. It’s a little early to research topics they don’t know much about. For now, the emphasis is on organization and writing, and I phase in how to research later in the unit.
I then allow students to choose a topic from their expert list. I’ve found that choosing a good topic is VERY difficult for students. They have a tendency to select topics that are much too broad or much too narrow. We spend an entire lesson working on choosing topics that are manageable to write about. I created the page below to give my students a little extra practice narrowing or broadening their topics.
Once students have selected a topic, that I have approved, I teach students how to break their topic into three subtopics. We talk about what a subtopic is and how to select appropriate subtopics. I want students to choose subtopics they’ll actually be able to write about. Choosing a subtopic early in the process allows students to see whether or not they’ve chosen a good topic to write about, BEFORE they’ve spent weeks on a topic that is extremely difficult to write about. I want my students to be able to write three details/facts/examples underneath each subtopic before moving on in the writing process.
If I see the need, I give my students a little extra practice creating subtopics. I think this step is especially important, because my students will have to respond to a writing prompt on their state test. I want this step of informational writing to feel like a natural process of writing to my students.
After students have identified their three subtopics, I begin teaching students how to use our informational writing graphic organizer. I like to spend a couple days working backwards where students read an informational essay and place the information from the essay to the graphic organizer. We typically do this together one day, and then I let students work in groups or with partners to repeat the process with a new paper on the following day.
If it’s needed, I even give some students a step-by-step guide for writing a complete paragraph. Fortunately, most of my students are already able to write good paragraphs.
At this point, I let students to complete a graphic organizer for their own informational writing topic. I also create an informational writing anchor chart with students, so they can refer to the anchor chart throughout the year.
We eventually begin working on writing craft lessons, such as how to begin an information piece of writing. I typically teach students to begin their writing with a question, fact, or description. I’ve tried beginning with a anecdote, but that was a bit challenging for some students. I like to provide mentor texts to use as examples and to have students attempt each type of lead.
We focus on other things like strong introduction paragraphs, good conclusions, transition words, and strong verbs.
Before assessing students, I always spend a lesson or two working with a revision checklist and an editing checklist. The checklists include all of the skills and strategies students have learned within the writing unit. I love having students revise and edit their writing with access to the rubric I’ll use to asses their writing. The rubric below is very student AND teacher friendly. Grading writing is never quick and easy, but a clear rubric certainly helps.
All of these forms above are in my Informational Writing Unit. Some of the forms are new, so if you already own the file, be sure to download the unit again for the newest version. I also wanted to add a couple notes about the writing unit. The mentor texts are all just suggestions. You are more than welcome to substitute the books for a text of your choice. I just added the book suggestions to save you time looking up ideas of what to read. Also, the Unit at a Glance is also just a suggestion. If you feel like your students need more time on a particular skills, that’s perfectly fine! I like to schedule in an extra week to give myself some wiggle room.