Literacy Partners

Informational Writing Units: Teach Kids To Write What They Know

In our work with clients, we’ve been investigating ways to further support teachers with informational writing units. We see some common issues repeatedly as we visit and talk with teachers who are diving into nonfiction writing.

Kids thrive when they write about what they know. 

They have so many creative ideas and a lot to say on topics they know about and they’ll write infinitely more because they don’t have to spend time reading and researching only to learn about a topic. All the knowledge and information is already in their beautiful brains.

Here are our top ways to support kids when writing to teach.

Kids will write more when writing about something they know about. 

During a labsite, a group of kindergarten teachers gathered around some of their students and me doing some conferences. These teachers supported the notion that kids should choose their topics, but there was just one problem — the teachers lacked the confidence that their kids would do it successfully. 

Here’s what happened… 

We sat in a circle with Brittany, a kindergartener writing a book about the PS 158 teachers. They all looked at me as if to say, “What could she possibly know about us?” I asked Brittany to tell me about the chapters of her book, and as she touched each page with her little fingers, she told me something about every teacher. “Ms. Ortiz, she is the kindergarten teacher who teaches next door. Ms. Adolph is always smiling. Ms. Herschbach wears glasses.” She looked up at me and paused before continuing because she didn’t know my name. I told her, and she continued — ”Ms. Dahlia wears shimmery eye shadow.” 

The lesson here — we need to trust our kids to write about what they want. 

It’s not our decision. And in the end, if students choose a topic that they don’t have enough to say about, won’t they learn an important lesson in changing topics? Why would we remove that learning opportunity and say, “No, you don’t know enough about that,” or, “You shouldn’t write about that.”

Kids’ writing will be more interesting and will include more voice.

When they’re enthusiastic about the subject, students won’t waste time trying paraphrasing or plagiarizing because they naturally have plenty to say. When kids aren’t spending time researching, they can jump in and write a lot. Will all of their facts be accurate? Probably not, but does it really matter? It’s what they think they know on the topic.

Kids can truly write for an audience. 

We can teach kids that they can think about who might like to read this book to learn about this topic. Your friend Manny is having a baby sister? Well, maybe he wants to read your book about getting a baby sister.

Encourage students to focus on the structure and features of writing nonfiction and elaboration rather than finding content to write about. When you don’t spend time worrying about learning how to research the topic, the teacher is free to truly teach kids how nonfiction texts are structured. Nonfiction books often have a table of contents, glossaries, and bold words to teach the reader specialized vocabulary. They teach through both pictures and words and use labels and captions — essential elements for our most emerging writers.

If You Must Teach Kids How To Research:

If you’re concerned about kids using research and feel this must happen in your first nonfiction writing unit, here are some easier ways for kids to conduct research: 

  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Books or Internet searches on the personal expertise topics once they can see what more people want to learn about the subject.
  • Plan a second unit where they can do research-based writing after they’re clear on how informational writing should look and sound.

Here are two of the most common issues we see in schools:

  • Some teachers try to control the topic choice because they think the child doesn’t know about it rather than letting them learn.
  • Teachers often get aggravated that students are writing untrue “facts.” Remember, this is what the kids think they know. Try not to worry about this and let kids have fun — this unit isn’t intended to be a nonfiction test of facts here. It’s about getting kids excited to write (so they’ll easily write more).

And here’s what you can do instead:

  • Rather than creating packets of All About books where kids all have the same number of pages and types of pages stapled together, try setting up your writing center to offer different paper choices. This way, kids can be thoughtful about how they put their books together. They decide if they want to create a diagram if they need a table of contents, and if they’ll include a glossary. 
  • Make sure that kids have paper choices that leave them room to continue writing.  The number of lines on the paper will dictate how much they can write. If there are only a few lines, kids will fill those in and move on. Give students more freedom with empty lines, so they can easily elaborate or revise.
  • Teach students to create their own paper choices with white paper because there will be features they are jazzed about, and we can’t possibly teach them every single one. This again will make their books more interesting and personal.

When we give our writers more freedom over what and how they write, they’ll be better equipped to teach what they know and tap into their creativity more easily. 

If you enjoyed this article, here are some other articles to encourage creativity in your students:

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