Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Piloting Our Fourth Grade Information Writing

We have been working hard to create more variety of genres in our writing instruction. Up until this year, our fourth-grade curriculum emphasized narrative writing, with no explicit instruction in informational writing. This year, two of the schools agreed to pilot an informational unit that we adapted from the new Units of Study from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Anna Gratz Cockerille authored the Grade 4 unit, The Art of Informational Writing.  Although her book used the Revolutionary War time period as the content for students to write about, we found that our Connecticut history unit worked well--students just need content to write about. 

All of the teachers who piloted the unit agreed that the emphasis on just letting students write was critically important to the success of the unit. So often, we tend to hold students back, making sure that they have done enough research and enough planning.  One of the first lessons emphasized the process of writing an informational book, giving students a quick overview of the steps of information writing. The charts that the teachers developed with the students looked like this, and were very similar to the ones shown in the book:

Chart from one of the classrooms (page 1)

Page 2 of the previous chart

Anchor chart from Classroom 2

Teachers referred the students back to these charts over and over throughout the unit, constantly using these charts to build independence. For some of the students, we even had smaller versions of these charts made so that they could keep them right in their notebooks for quick reference tools.

We decided as a team that we would limit the students' choice for their first book to be about a specific set of topics that had to do with Connecticut. Even though we recognize the value of choice, we wanted to make sure that, for the first book, students knew most of the content so that they could focus more on the structure of information writing. One of the teachers created this chart with the students, and it is a chart that could be modified to fit any history topic that classes are studying.

The students loved working on these books, and created several different pages with various text features that included introductions, timelines, fun facts, glossaries, and conclusions. However, the emphasis was on the writing, and even some of the most resistant writers found that they had a lot to write about during this unit. 

For the second book, we decided to give students a choice of famous people who had impacted Connecticut. Together, we generated a long list of people whom they had already studied. Then, we read them the book, It's All About Me-ow by Hudson Talbott.
Even though this book is not about a famous person (unless you are a cat), we found that it provided incredible inspiration to our writers about what they could include in an informational book about a person. Some of the ideas that the students had about what could go in this second book helped to create the Information Book #2 chart.

 Today, our students celebrated their second books, using checklists to reflect on what they have learned and what they can set as goals. They also provided us wonderful feedback about what they liked and what they would recommend that we'd do differently.

Successes and Challenges during the Information Unit

Overall, this was a wonderful unit. The students were excited, engaged, and produced incredible products. I highly recommend the new Units of Study, as they are inspirational, with layers and layers of teaching points, coaching ideas, and insights about young writers and how to teach them.

Happy writing,


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this!

    I did a summer institute (2011 or 2012?) with Cory Gilette. She was just beginning to do the work for the informational book writing unit for fourth grade. It's really neat to see how it has evolved since those stages and now is being adapted to meet the needs of your students.

  2. Great post, Melanie! I love CT history information writing chart. It provides such a great menu of options for students writing about history. It's really interesting you channeled kids to write the second book about a famous person. We toyed with the idea of making the book about biographies. We didn't in the end, of course, but it would have been a nice option, too. It's so wonderful to hear you found the book (and the whole Units of Study) helpful.

    1. I thought your book was MILES beyond helpful! In an age where we are not prioritizing social studies, I love that your informational units place the emphasis on history. The kids learned so much about not just information writing, but also deepened their understanding of CT history. I would be happy to share some of their books with you--the students are incredibly proud of them!