Observe and Learn

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7; RI.5.7; Writing.5.7

What You Need: Copies of text related to a topic of study, copies of the text features in chosen text, scrap paper, Internet access, magazines or textbooks related to topic of study

What to Do: Search for a relevant text that contains features related to the standards you are teaching. Classroom magazines like Scholastic News and SuperScience are good sources to use, as they contain text features like charts, bullet points, and bolded words or phrases. At the beginning of the lesson, pass out a copy listing the text features to each student. You will later hand out copies of the text itself.

Have students construct a chart that mimics the classic K-W-L (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart, though this chart’s sections should be labeled “Observe,” “Want to Learn,” and “Learned.” Ask students to look at the text features, and then hold a class discussion. Say: “Looking at these text features, what do you think the passage will be about?” “What hints do the features give to help identify the main topic?” Have students write the perceived main topic above the chart.

In the “Observe” column, students can write down information they gather just from looking at the text features, analyzing diagrams, charts, and pictures to identify facts contained within those features. For the “Want to Learn” column, keeping in mind both the perceived main topic and the text features, students should write down what they would like to learn while reading the passage. What information is missing that they think is important to know?

Next, pass out copies of the text, and have students read the passage in full. They should record what they have learned through reading the passage in the “Learned” column. When they’ve finished, have them share their charts, answering the questions “What did you record in your ‘Want to Learn’ column that was answered in the passage?” “What did you record that wasn’t answered?” Finally, give students time to find answers to unanswered questions by going online or using magazines or textbooks.

Fill in the Text Feature

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.4; RI.4.7; RI.5.2

What You Need: Copies of text related to a current topic of study with some or all text features removed, scrap paper, highlighters

What to Do: “When students are asked to include charts, bold letters, bullet points, and other text features in their writing, they’re using skills that will prepare them for 21st-century jobs,” says Kalena Baker, a former third- and fourth-grade teacher from Wichita, Kansas. “Being able to present information in a visual, easy-to-understand way is a valuable skill today.”

Baker, who blogs at Teaching Made Practical, suggests providing students with a passage related to a current unit (again, science or social studies work well). Before copying the passage for students, remove any text features.

Read the passage aloud, and then pair students and have them reread the passage to each other. Have them brainstorm headings and subheadings that might help them organize the passage. They can write these down on their copy of the text. This exercise will require students to identify main ideas in the sections and subsections.

Next, have partners describe diagrams, images, or charts that would enhance the meaning of the text; this will help them demonstrate their understanding of how text features can help readers comprehend complicated text. They can write their ideas on scrap paper, and then share these ideas as a class. You can show students the version of the passage that includes the text features to see if those overlap with their ideas.

Before having kids do this activity in pairs, it might be helpful to both model the skill as well as complete a sample exercise as a full class. If students need to ease into this, begin with some simpler tasks. They can underline or highlight words they believe are important vocabulary for the lesson and create a glossary out of the words. Or you might choose to provide them with images or diagrams that have had their captions removed, asking students to write useful captions for these.

Fun With Graphics

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Writing.4.2.b; Literacy.RI.4.2

What You Need: Examples of a variety of text features, such as those cut out of magazines or newspapers

What to Do: Baker also provides a writing exercise to help students better understand text features, think critically about content, and practice informational writing.

Pair students and provide each pair with a variety of examples of text features from magazines and newspapers that relate to a topic of study. During a civics unit, for instance, you might find political photographs, voter data in graphical form, or a labeled diagram explaining the three branches of the U.S. government.

Have the pairs look through their text features, discussing what the features show and why; ask them to consider the main ideas of articles that the text features might fit into. Allow pairs to brainstorm with other groups if they are having trouble understanding their text features or how they fit in with the unit of study.

Then, have each student choose one text feature from the pile. Ask them to write a paragraph or two on the topic to which the text feature might belong. They must consider the unit of study, the content they have learned related to the text feature, and what is most important to discuss in a paragraph that includes that text feature. If students struggle, they can begin by practicing writing captions for the text features. Once they seem confident writing captions, they can move on to paragraphs, and then on to multi-paragraph passages.

“These activities help students move past simply identifying the text features and into truly understanding the purpose of the text features and using higher-level thinking,” says Baker.

Terrific Time Lines

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.5; RI.5.3; RI.5.7

What You Need: Text passages, websites, infographics, magazines, or literary works relevant to an area of study; sticky notes; poster paper

What to Do: Time lines can be helpful when trying to understand information in any content area. Whether it be story events to sequence or a list of scientific innovations, a time line can help students understand how different events relate to one another.

Provide students with significant information related to your unit of study. This can be in any format—text passages, websites, infographics. Have students use sticky notes to jot down important events described within the information given. For instance, if students are learning about key advances in astronomy, they might jot down famous astronomers’ birth and death dates as well as dates of discoveries. This will help them understand the sequence of events that allowed subsequent discoveries to occur.

Next, have students sequence their sticky notes so that events run from least to most recent across the poster paper. Have them space the notes relatively proportionally so that events with greater spans of time between them have more room between them on the poster paper.

Lastly, have students neatly copy the information from the sticky notes onto the posterboard. Challenge them to enhance their time lines with colors, arrows, or some other visual to show cause and effect or other relationships between the events and to connect related events. 


Photo: Adam Chinitz

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