Information Charts: A Guest Blog Post by Kristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli

We are so delighted to be guest blogging here at Two Writing Teachers. We know many teachers who use this invaluable resource and are honored to lend our thoughts on writing.

It’s that time of year again. We are dusting off the decorations, making shopping lists, and planning for upcoming non-fiction writing units. This is our favorite time of year for all of those reasons. The non-fiction writing units are some of the most exciting, and with some planning and thoughtfulness they can be the best unit you have had yet!

Before starting any writing unit. It is useful to consider the big goals you have for your writers. These can come from the Common Core State Standards, work you know your students need to do, or knowledge you have about information writing.

For this blog post, we imagine the following goals for a group of primary grade students:

  • Children write many information (non-fiction) books using key elements of the genre (facts, teaching words and pictures, variety of structures)
  • Children write with elaboration and craft
  • Children use the writing process taught in the previous units
  • Children revise and edit to make their book the best it can be

These big goals serve as touchstones throughout the unit, and also the charts you will need to make!

Some things to consider…

Sometimes we jump into units without taking the time to warm ourselves, and our children, up to the big work that will occur during the unit.  This is usually called immersion and occurs a week or two before the students begin writing non-fiction independently. During this time you can make the first of your charts to support the readers and writers in your classroom. In Smarter Charts we call this a genre chart. As you read aloud several information books, you can start recording in your students’ own words what makes non-fiction seem different than fiction, or any other type of genre. This chart will become an early assessment for your writers as they ask: Did I write an information book? If it contains the elements on the chart, then yes, it is!

This genre chart identifies the elements of realistic fiction. You might imagine bullets that say: teaches about a topic, has facts, uses pictures and words to teach on a non-fiction version.

But don’t start a unit on information reading and writing just by talking about what is new or different. Start with what is the same. In Smarter Charts we talk about when teachers should consider revising existing charts or when to bring back charts that were put away or previously retired.

One type of chart to bring back into service is the process chart. The reading process does not change just because you are reading a nonfiction text. The writing process does not change just because you are writing an information book. Kids do not necessarily know this, especially if we focus on all that is different. Building on what you already know is much more effective than starting something completely anew.

When it comes to writing, the process does not change regardless of the genre or form you are writing. Writers need to begin by generating possible topics and they need to rehearse how their piece might go. Then writers draft, revise and edit, as they progress towards eventual publication. Bringing the writing process chart back out is a great way to launch a new unit of study and to remind students of these core writing foundations.

This chart takes a generating strategy usually used in fiction: think about people, places and things, and tweaks it for a non-fiction unit.

Within the first chunk of the unit, you will want to assess:

  • Are children using the genre chart and writing information books?
  • Are children still using the writing process, and other skills from previous units?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are ready to move onto the second big goal: Writing information books with elaboration and craft.

In Smarter Charts we talk about the importance of using vocabulary and language your children will understand on the charts. In your plan book it may say “elaboration” but on your chart it might say, “We can teach even MORE!” Since primary grades span a range of readers and writers, we want to represent the elaboration techniques we teach in pictures and in words.  Adding one new elaboration technique every day or so will build a repertoire from which children should draw on with increasing independence.

Another point we highlight in Smarter Charts is making sure children use the charts you make, and one way is to take a few days in your teaching to break from giving new strategies on elaboration, and instead teach how to use the chart. You might teach that writers set goals and have the students write their names on post-its and stick it next to the elaboration technique they will use. You can also give children small copies of the chart to use as checklists- instead of having children check off that they did something, we suggest having them tally how many times they tried a technique.  This leads to powerful conversations about what a child may do very well, and what they need to work on.

A child adds his goal to a chart.

While children are writing with elaboration and craft, you may find that their eyes slip away from the important work of keeping their writing readable. That makes sense: its like trying to juggle when riding a bike, it is hard to do! So we suggest giving children time to focus purely on conventions for a period of time every day.  You could call it a “Mechanics Minute” and have children reread to fix up something specific: punctuation, spelling, sight words, etc. while a timer counts down for five minutes. You can use your editing charts to help children focus on one thing during this “mechanics minute” ensuring that children have the strategies they need to be successful.

Whatever the goals you have for your upcoming non-fiction writing unit, we think it’s helpful to keep in mind:

  • Your goals dictate your charts
  • Help children make connections to what they already know
  • Immerse children in the upcoming genre and record what they know
  • Frequently revisit the charts you make to set goals, revise writing, or do focused work (like a mechanics minute)

Stop by and see us at chartchums.wordpress.com, or check out our book Smarter Charts (Heinemann), for more useful, up-to-date charting suggestions and solutions!

Until next time, Happy Charting!
Kristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli

A NOTE FROM STACEY: Please leave a comment here for Kristi & Marjorie about their guest blog post.  All comments left on this post, as well as yesterday’s post about Smarter Charts, will be entered into the drawing for a free copy of Kristi and Marjorie’s book.