How Do First Graders Choose Narrow Topics?

We will be starting a unit on informational writing to wrap up the school year. I wanted to demonstrate a different way of finding a topic, a narrow topic. I find that young writers can often think big, making it hard to get to specific details.

As I was thinking about this idea, of narrowing a topic, I was brought back to the first Saturday in April. It was my first Teacher Poets class with Chris Lehman and our topic for the class was “Slivers are Big.” He showed us a concentric circle like model to use when narrowing a topic for a poem. Here is the archived YouTube video of the class session if you are interested in watching. I wondered if my first graders would be able to grab onto this way of choosing a topic for their informational pieces.

After several days of looking through informational text, searching for text features, it was time to start thinking of our own topic. We had made some lists of topic ideas based on what we already knew and some new ideas based on some of the books we had explored. Students shared some of these ideas with the class. One student had chosen flowers for her topic. This was perfect, she would be a great student to use when showing the concentric circle model. I called her up to the document camera and we got to work.

I asked her to make one large circle and pointed to the spot I wanted her to write flowers. Then she drew a circle within that circle. I asked her, “What color flower do you like?” She said yellow and wrote that within the second circle. Then I took a pen and drew three circles. I asked her to think of three flowers that were yellow and write them inside of each circle. Here is the concentric circle model we made together for the class.

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She decided her topic would be Buttercup flowers because she liked the name and thought she would like to learn more about them.

The next day I decided I would model this on a chart for the classroom wall. I chose reptiles as my big topic and whittled it down to Rattlesnakes.

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It was time for them to give it a go. Some students took a dive into a book to help get their narrow ideas into their model, while others hit the ground running. Here were some of the results.

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This particular student below already had a rather narrow topic. She took it upon herself to use the concentric circle model to generate details instead of topic ideas. We shared this with the class to show the versatility of this model for not only topic decisions but also generating ideas and details for our writing.

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What a success! I was so pleased to see a simple idea work so well for my students. I walked away thinking this would be a great tool during a conference for a student who needed to add details or narrow his topic. Now that they all know how to do it, without needing a worksheet or something already generated for them, they can more independently make decisions about topics. Even better, it works for any genre. I know I will be using this again for some end of the year poetry.

What are some ways you help students narrow their topic? Share your ideas and expertise in the comments!