Lions, Tigers, and Mating Polar Bears, Oh My! 2nd Grade Researchers Writing to Read
Kids understand what they create. With the Common Core shift toward informational text, it isn't enough for kids to read more nonfiction. They need to write research papers, manuals, advertisements, and other "out of the box" kinds of writing, too.
Most of us get the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. With fiction, we ask kids to read engaging dialogue, compelling sequences of events, or descriptive sensory writing that makes them feel they're experiencing what the characters experience. The purpose isn't just the pleasure of reading, but to help young writers master the craft of writing great dialogue, plotting out events in a story of their own making, or describing the setting, characters, or objects in a story so clearly the reader can visualize every detail.
The same reading-writing connection is true with informational text. When kids create their own maps, charts, diagrams, indexes, and glossaries, they understand these features better when they encounter them in a book.
My 2nd graders complete their first research project around the middle of the year, on an animal of their choosing. Pairs who picked the same animal work together to generate questions, using the "I wonder __" stem they do when we read fiction:
"I wonder why rhinos have that big horn for a nose."
"I wonder what an octopus eats."
"I wonder if tigers ever get in fights with other predators."
Once I've pulled together a range of websites along with books from the classroom, school, and public libraries, the research begins. The kids take notes on Post-Its about anything that either relates to one of their guiding "I wonder"s or just seems interesting, surprising, or important to them.
Reading this way is fundamentally different for students who have grown up with narratives--bedtime stories, fairy tales, Disney movies, picture books--to this point. You'd never turn to the middle page of a fairy tale or chapter book and start reading from there, so the kids' first impulse with any book is to begin on page 1 and read on.
When we start reading informational text, I ask my 2nd graders, "If you wanted to use a cookbook to find a recipe for pumpkin pie, would you read the whole cookbook or just turn to the page with that recipe on it?" They laugh, but the idea of being more strategic about finding the information they need is strange to them at first.
We do mini-lessons on features like an index, headings, or the table of contents, and they get used to searching for a single page or section that relates to their "I wonder" questions (what polar bears eat, the countries where jaguars live) rather than reading the books start-to-finish the way they would read fiction.
I learn a lot from the notes they take, like the fact that my students--most of them English Learners--tend to over-rely on visual cues. We have had plenty of conversations about misconceptions that arise when they infer meaning from a photograph (i.e. "Wolves cry blood," or my favorite, "Polar bears mate by kissing with their noses") without confirming that fact in the caption or text.
Once the pairs have amassed 20 or 30 notes, we get out double-sized construction paper or huge swaths of butcher paper and they organize their Post-Its by clusters of sub-topics. Notes that read, "Bears are omnivores," "Bears eat fish, berries, and honey," and "Bear cubs drink milk from their mothers" might go together under the topic "Bear Food."
It's confusing but liberating for the 2nd graders to realize there's no single right answer for how to organize their notes. A student will often ask me, "Does this note about bear cubs drinking their mother's milk go in 'Bear Food,' 'Bears Are Mammals,' or 'Bears' Life Cycle?'"
The realization that a single fact could fit in multiple sections teaches them something important about organizing complex information. It also makes them think a lot harder than they do when deciding which answer choice to bubble in on a test or worksheet.
The sub-topics the kids come up with become the headings in their written paper. For each section, like "Bears Are Mammals," the students figure out a topic sentence and then figure out how to sequence the notes they've taken.
Once the text is done, they create a diagram to go with it, like an "X-Ray Diagram" that shows several piglets curled up in their mother's womb, or a multi-box diagram that shows a sequence of events like a cheetah sneaking up on a gazelle in the first box, chasing the gazelle in the second, and bringing it down in the third. When their report is complete, the kids go through and underline key words to include in their index or define in their glossary.
Along with the final research paper, the students condense their information into a PowerPoint and find images to support the facts on each slide, like a photograph of a piranha skeleton for the note that "Piranhas are vertebrates," or a map and key for the countries where piranhas are found. (Not surprisingly, the most popular choices of animals to research tend to be the most violent--sharks, tigers, komodo dragons, and pretty much any other animal that bloodily devours its prey.) The students present what they learned to the class, with their PowerPoint pulled up on the interactive whiteboard, while the other kids take notes on categories like "habitat," "classification," and "food chain."
The project fits dozens of bulleted science standards into one "Understanding by Design" guiding question: "How do animals' bodies help them survive in their habitats?" Because of the element of choice and the brainstorming of questions the kids really want to answer, they tend to plunge into some pretty complex texts with a great deal of persistence and enthusiasm.
The three-week project fits into our daily structure for Writer's Workshop: a brief mini-lesson with anchor texts (most drawn from Ralph Fletcher's Nonfiction Craft Lessons K-8), followed by about half an hour to apply that mini-lesson to reading and writing alone or in pairs, with a few minutes to share and reflect at the end.
The kids learn a lot about reading informational text--how to use an index and glossary, how diagrams work with text to support meaning, and how to read with a purpose when you're seeking the answer to a question. But they also learn to write informational text. Once they have created their own index and glossary, written headings for the facts they've organized, and thought about what kind of diagram would best support each section, they have a first-hand understanding of these features of informational text they could never have gotten just by reading it.
I have always loved the line, "A child is a candle to be lit, not a cup to be filled." With the shift toward a balance of narrative and informational text, we have to remember these simple truths of teaching.
Reading and writing are connected.
Our students need to be expressive (speaking and writing), not just receptive (reading and listening).
And the most important one to me: Kids understand what they create. If they write it, they'll be able to read it. They'll get a lot smarter along the way, too.