As a primary teacher, I spent many years assigning research reports to my budding writers. Year after year, I faced the same problems.
First, books and articles were simply too challenging for many of the readers to access — making it difficult to pull information from the text.
Second, despite all the teaching I had done (and probably some lecturing if I’m being honest), plagiarism would often run like wild fire through their writing. Although very innocent on their part, it was still a problem. This was the writers’ way of dealing with the difficult task of turning new information they had learned into their own words.
Lastly, organizing the information into chapters felt like an impossible feat for the little guys. In an effort to provide support, I did what I thought was helpful. I gave them their section headings and even gave them questions to answer in each section. (What a support system I was being!) Little didn’t I know I was assigning tasks rather than teaching, and creating dependency within my writers… not to mention the 30+ research reports that all looked identical in the end.
As I shifted into becoming a workshop teacher with a workshop philosophy well in place, I began to see a change in my teaching of informational writing, as well as in my writers! It started with all about books where I allowed my writers to self-select topics based on personal experience (i.e. soccer, Halloween, and dogs — the kind of topics children choose because of familiarity). I taught them how to take the information they already know about a topic and organize it into chapters that would make sense. I also taught them how to write like an informational writer (i.e. by including facts, comparisons, descriptions, and text feature pages). The groundwork for informational writing was laid, and now the research piece could be brought in during a follow-up writing unit.
The research and note-taking needed to change in my classroom and it did. To understand how it changed, let’s think about the progression of the research unit as play, learn, write!
We need to rethink the way we are bringing research writing into our youngest writers’ worlds… and that can start with play!
Play often gets a bad rap. It’s is associated with chaos for some, but I think we should look at play in a new light. My colleague, April Nickel, has been teaching us at Growing Educators about the importance of play is kids’ development. So let’s think about defining it in a new way. Play:
- Is spontaneous and voluntary (self chosen)
- Has structure or rules
- Has no extrinsic goals
- Includes active engagement
- Has elements of make believe
- Is pleasurable and enjoyable
If we can combine research with play, we can make learning happen organically, thus taking away the difficult task of book/internet research. Most of us believe that our little ones learn through hands on experiences. Hands on experiences that foster play can be created for kids in the classroom so the research is done in that way. With that being said, let’s turn the focus of possible informational writing to science-based topics. You might even go further and zero in on the physical science. We’ve found this content area to provide the highest opportunity for play in the classroom.
Now imagine the possibilities:
Independent inquiry (play) stations could be set up around the room. Students could spend time playing with the strategically designed station, while making discoveries along the way. For instance, a class who has chosen to study properties of matter, may have a station set up for solids, liquids and gasses. In the liquid station, there could be samples of liquids to touch and observe. Students could practice combining different liquids together and even pour them down a tray to see them move differently. The possibilities are endless! Students are encouraged to be creative and explore their curiosity while maintaining safety.
Whole class experiments could also be done with your writers in order to give them more structure or support during their “play” aka research. Don’t be afraid to let them get a little messy during this time because you’ll be guiding them through the scientific process and helping them learn the concepts along the way.
The learning so far has been implicit, but happening all the same during the experiences we created for our young writers.
But what about the more difficult concepts to teach? And what about all of the academic vocabulary they need to learn? Well, we can contribute to the play with read alouds and digital text to support those things. We can choose engaging informational texts to deliver content, as well as informative videos to show the more difficult concepts and give a visual path to understanding. Imagine dedicating just 10-15 minutes a day to the explicit instruction of the scientific content during the research phase of the unit.
By allowing your kids to engage in hands on experiences, learn through read alouds and by watching scientific videos, you’ll be leaning on more than just “book research” to gather information, which is one of the biggest pitfalls for our youngest writers in any research unit. The young writers will also be less likely to plagiarize because they will be gathering information from sources other than books, which makes copying impossible!
But how can we see the learning taking place? How do we know it’s happening? And how can they remember it all? We can give them tools for that! We can give them a science notebook at the beginning of the writing unit for them to record their new learning in. They can use it to take notes during their play, as well as during the read alouds and videos. Not only can this notebook serve a way for the little ones to record their thinking and new ideas, but it can also be an assessment tool for us. The writers will need some support with note-taking strategies, and those can be taught prior to the unit so these muscles are already strong. Note-taking strategies that can support students are sketching and labeling, t-charts, boxes and bullets, before and after sketches, and any other organizational tool you can think of. By providing the students with these note-taking strategies, we can also help to eliminate plagiarism. If students can learn how to bullet, paraphrase, and sketch their learning, they won’t copy it!
Ready, set… WRITE! The researchers will have a wealth of knowledge by the time the actual writing piece comes in. They have learned all about informational writing in a previous unit and can be encouraged to bring all of those skills into this part. However, we can spark up excitement around the written product by using mentors to give us new structures for the kind of text the kids will be writing. Not all information books are organized the same. A typical structure may include a table of contents, chapters, and fun text feature pages to support the writing, BUT there are so many more possibilities out there! There are alphabet books, field guides, Q & A books, true or false books, and so much more. Giving kids options for publishing can invigorate the writing and allow writers to use their favorite mentors as a guide to their own work.
Not only can the writers choose the structure of the text they’d like to publish, but you might even bring in more choice terms from the topic. The students may have studied a large topic, and now they can narrow their topic for their writing. For example, instead of writing a book on properties of matter, one may choose to just write about liquids or changing matter. It’s really up to them!
Kids will have learned how to organize their information in the previous all about unit. You’ll want to lean on those same structures for organizing these books. For example, you may have your writers use colored pencils to go through their notes to circle the kinds of information that is similar. You may also consider supporting the organizational part by meeting with small groups of writers who are writing the same kinds of books. You could pull all of your alphabet book kids together and teach them about how information in these books is presented in alphabetic order, then help them plan that part.
Research writing can be a challenge for primary writers and frustrating for primary teachers, but it doesn’t have to be. Transform your vision of research reports and get out there and PLAY… LEARN… WRITE!