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Picture this: You are wandering around your first-grade classroom in awe as each and every student is madly engaged in informative writing. It’s so quiet you can actually hear yourself breathing along with the sound of pencils scratching along pieces of paper.
Informative Writing – a no-nonsense genre of writing where just the facts are delivered. It seems straightforward and like it should be incredibly easy for young children to grab onto and run.
Some do. Some run with informative writing like they’re running the 100-meter sprint at the Olympics. They can’t wait to put pencils on paper and share all the facts they know. Others encounter a gigantic cement wall in the middle of the track. They try to get over it but keep slipping to the ground.
It is absolutely critical that we gently put wings on these first-graders and watch as they soar over that wall, then make a victorious lap around the track.
So let’s get to it!
STEP 1: GRAB HIGH-INTEREST INFORMATIVE WRITING MENTOR TEXTS AND READ TO YOUR STUDENTS
Great writers stand on the shoulders of great writers. We all do it. We emulate things that stand out to us and grab our attention.
Reading wonderful informative mentor texts to students is legitimately the best way to show how this genre of writing is done. When we read informative books to our students and let our children discover all the unique features of informative writing such as headings, facts, illustrations, pictures, captions, labels, and other non-fiction text features – our students learn about this form of writing in an authentic way.
Plus, it’s fun. Who doesn’t love to sit down and read to our students?
The only problem: There are oh so many books to choose from. Ultimately, you can’t go wrong. You know your students better than anyone. Grab some high-interest books and read to your students.
Your books options are truly endless. Here are a few examples:
- A Tree is A Plant by Clyde Robert Bulla
- Hurricanes! by Gail Gibbons
- Ivan: The Remarkable Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate
- From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons
- How People Learned to Fly by Fran Hodgkins
- Frog or Toad? How Do You Know? by Melissa Stewart
- I Wonder Why the Sea is Salty by Anita Ganeri
- National Geographic Readers: Pandas by Anne Schreiber
- Animals in Winter by Henrietta Bancroft
The point here is to expose our students to lots of informative writing before we ever ask them to create informative writing pieces themselves. We’re building their background knowledge on what, exactly, this form of writing is all about.
(Looking for Done-For-You Structured Writing Units to make writing a breeze, CLICK HERE.)
STEP 2. CHOOSE THE CONTENT YOU WANT STUDENTS TO LEARN AND CREATE A PLAN
Once our students have been exposed to lots of informative texts through read alouds, they’re ready to formally begin this journey into informative writing themselves.
The first thing we’ll want to do is carefully choose a topic of high interest to teach our students (so they have something to write about). Bonus points if the topic relates to a science or social studies unit. Seriously, this is a prime opportunity to integrate!
After you’ve chosen your nonfiction topic, gather books on that topic. Or, if you’re super energetic, write your own stories for students.
The next few steps show you how to get superior writing results from your firsties. They involve creating a content-rich learning experience for students so they can rock informative writing.
STEP 3. ACTIVATE STUDENTS’ BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE
You’ve decided on your topic. You’ve gathered your books (or, if you’re the Energizer Bunny, you’ve written informative texts for your students).
Now it’s time to go!
We’ve heard it a million times, have students share what they already know – their prior or background knowledge.
And guess what, it turns out that this is not a frill. In fact, it’s the glue that makes true comprehension stick.
The research is clear on how critical activating background knowledge is prior to exposing students to new learning experiences.
When we ask students to think about what they already know about a particular topic, it gives them a prime opportunity to make new connections to their learning and build their knowledge base. It helps them make sense of new ideas.
The bottom line is we don’t want to skip this step.
What does activating students’ background knowledge look like? Stick with me as I show you.
Let’s say you’re teaching a unit on the African Savanna. You’ve decided to hone in on animals that thrive in that environment. You just know your students are going to gobble up learning about how lions survive in that habitat.
You tell them that they are going to learn about lions and you instantly hear chatter about all the things they know. That’s what you want!
Here are a couple of options for how to get students to activate their background knowledge and prime their brains for new learning experiences.
- Keep it simple. Give them time to think, pair, share – then you can record their ideas.
- Or you could kick it up a notch and have your students record their background knowledge (purposeful and authentic writing experience- BAM!).
It goes without saying that the more our students understand a concept, the better their informative writing pieces will be. Think lots of juicy details!
STEP 4: HAVE STUDENTS SET A PURPOSE FOR READING/LISTENING/LEARNING
Once students have activated their background knowledge, we want our students to set a purpose for reading/listening/learning.
Why? Because, when students set a purpose for learning, they are more focused and motivated during the content absorbing phase.
How do we go about this?
Let’s take the example of learning about lions and how they survive in their natural habitat – the African savanna.
Ask students to think about (and preferably record) what they wonder. What questions do they have?
Optional: Have students share what they wonder with a partner, then have students share with the whole class.
Sounds easy, and it is. Students now have a reason to learn as they will definitely be laser-focused and motivated to find answers to their questions. Intrinsic motivation doesn’t get better than this.
Needless to say, when our students are more focused and motivated, they learn better.
It also goes without saying that when our students learn about content at a deeper level their writing will be richer.
STEP 5: JUMP INTO THE CONTENT ABSORBING PHASE AND INCORPORATE NOTE-TAKING
You’re sitting in a great (yes, there are some great ones out there) professional development class and you’re gobbling up all the delicious information coming at you. Of course, you’re not just passively listening. No way! Instead, you’re feverishly jotting down notes as fast as your pen will fly.
Why? The simple answer is because you want to remember all the fabulous information you’ve learned so you can apply it in your teaching.
The truth is (and this is backed by lots of research) we have improved focus and comprehension when we record what we’ve learned. The same is true for children.
If we want our students to remember more of what’s being taught, we need to let them take notes. The very act of encoding actually creates new pathways in the brain that leads to better long-term memory storage. It’s science folks!
Here’s all you have to do:
First, like with anything, you’ll want to model for students how to take notes. Think aloud while you model sketching pictures and writing words to help you remember important facts and information as you read an informative book to students.
After you’ve modeled this for students, provide a piece of paper, or a graphic organizer, for students to sketch or write their own notes on as they learn.
Note-taking will not only help students with their informative writing but will also deepen learning and understanding. How awesome is that?
STEP 6: CREATING A INFORMATIVE WRITING PLAN
At this point you’ve filled your students’ minds with content-rich goodness…now they’re raring to grab their pencils and create their informative writing pieces.
Not so fast.
Leave a puppy home alone completely unsupervised for an hour and you’re likely to come home to mayhem – pillows ripped to shreds, holes in the brand new leather couch, and a once beautiful rug that looks more like a pile of day-old spaghetti. (Ask me how I know!)
Needless to say, if we skip the planning stage when asking our students to write, we’re asking for writing mayhem.
Without the planning phase, writing is typically unorganized and non-cohesive.
Now, this doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, simplicity is best. A simple web will do the trick.
Here’s what an informative writing plan might look like:
- Give students a plain piece of paper, a basic web graphic organizer, or a topic-specific made graphic organizer – the choice is yours.
- If using a plain piece of paper, have students write and/or draw the topic in the center of the web, then circle it.
- Then have students draw spokes out from the topic and write facts they want to include in their informative writing using “notes” – not full sentences.
- For your little firsties who want to add elaboration – tell more about something, this is what we do: Have students put a dot under the original idea they wanted to share and write notes to tell details about the idea. If they want to share details about the details, have them draw a line and write further details. That’s about as clear as mud isn’t it? Let’s see if this helps. Example: In the web above, the child wanted to write that lions live in Africa, but then wanted to elaborate by telling that they live in the savanna. The child wanted to further elaborate by describing the savanna as hot and dry.
And there you have it, a simple but effective plan that students will use to create their informative writing piece.
STEP 7: HAVE STUDENTS VERBALLY SHARE THEIR IDEAS THROUGH TOUCH AND TELL PRIOR TO WRITING
There’s just one more step we want our students to do before they jump in and write. It’s called touch and tell.
I can almost hear you saying: Is this really necessary?
In all honesty, no. But if you truly want your students to produce top-notch writing, you’ll give this a go.
Why does this practice improve writing? Quite simply, it’s because this activity gives our students the opportunity to fully process what they want to write verbally, using complete sentences, prior to ever putting pencil to paper. This is especially helpful for our English Language Learners.
Trust me when I say writing will be much more effortless for our students if they engage in touch and tell before they write.
Here’s how it goes:
- Put students in pairs.
- Students take turns touching each part of their writing plan and verbally sharing information about that part.
That’s it! Easy peasy!
STEP 8: MODEL HOW TO WRITE AN INFORMATIVE WRITING PAPER
Like with anything in our lives as teachers, we want to model what we expect our students to do. So during the beginning phase of teaching informative writing, we want to model how to write an informative paper prior to ever asking students to independently write one.
As we model, we want to think aloud as we write.
A model lesson for informative writing might look something like this…
“Hey, Writers! I’m ready to write my informative paper about lions. I remember that the beginning of my writing has a topic sentence. I also remember the topic sentence lets the reader know what they’ll be learning about.
Hmm…I’m looking at the middle of my web. I have the word lion there, so that is my topic. I think I’ll write this: Lions are interesting animals. If I write that, my readers will know they will learn interesting facts about lions. It’s a perfect topic sentence.
Now I remember that after the topic sentence, I want to write facts or details about my topic sentence. Since I said that lions are interesting animals, I need to give interesting facts about lions.
I’m looking at one of the sections on my informative writing idea web writing plan.
One of my sections says this:
- live in Africa
- – savanna
- -hot and dry
I know I can’t write, ‘lives in Africa savanna hot and dry’ because that’s not a complete sentence. When I did touch and tell with my partner, I said this: ‘Lions live in Africa. They live in the savanna where it is hot and dry.’
That’s what I’m going to write.
Now I’m looking at another section of my writing plan. It says this:
I remember telling my partner this: ‘Lions are carnivores. That means they are meat-eaters. They eat other animals like zebras and wildebeests.’
I’m going to write that for my second fact.
Now I’m looking at the third section of my writing plan. It says this:
- big cats
- -golden-brown fur
- -males manes
- -females no manes
I told my partner this: ‘Lions are big cats. They have golden brown fur. The males have manes. The females don’t.’
I’m going to write that fact, too.
Now that I have my topic sentence and my facts to support my topic sentence, I’m ready to finish my writing. I remember that I need to write a closing sentence. A closing sentence reminds the reader of the topic. My topic sentence is: Lions are interesting animals.
Hmmm…I don’t want to use those exact words, but I need to remind the reader of my topic. I think I’ll write this: Lions truly are interesting to learn about.
There! I did it! I wrote an informative paper about lions that includes a topic sentence, supporting facts, and a closing sentence. Now I’m ready to edit and revise my writing before I share it with a friend.”
Here are some mini-lessons students might need:
- Conventions (proper use of capitals and punctuation)
- Use of carets for missing words
- fragments vs. complete sentences
- run-on sentences
- adding elaboration (telling more about a fact, adding more details)
- adding adjectives
- using adverbs
- distinguishing facts from opinions
- parts of an informative writing piece
STEP 9 – LET ‘EM WRITE, WRITE, WRITE THEIR INFORMATIVE WRITING MASTERPIECE
Students have built their content knowledge, taken notes, written out their plan, and verbally shared their ideas with a partner, and you’ve modeled how to write an informative paper.
You’ve prepped the soil, planted the seeds, and watered.
Here’s where the sun rays warm the soil and the flowers begin to bloom.
It’s time to sit back and bask in the warm sunshine radiating over your classroom as you watch your students create informative writing masterpieces that they can’t wait to share with others.
STEP 10: EDIT
Editing, first-grade style, looks something like this:
Students read through their writing one time to make sure it makes sense. If they’ve missed a word, they simply draw a caret and insert the missing word.
They then read through their writing a second time. This time they are checking for proper punctuation and proper use of capitals.
STEP 11. REVISE
I think you’ll agree with me when I say that nothing deflates first-graders confidence and excitement toward writing more than being asked to completely rewrite their work.
Let’s stop this madness (there’s plenty of time for them to engage in a traditional revision as they move up the grades).
Revision first-grade style looks something like this:
Students read through their writing a third time and look for places they can make their writing stronger by adding adjectives or details.
Seriously, do not have students rewrite their entire paper each time they write. If you do, you’ll hear all kinds of grumbling during writing time. And we don’t want that.
STEP 12: DRAW, LABEL, CAPTION
While this step is written as the twelfth step, it doesn’t have to be. Some students produce better writing if they draw first, some prefer to draw after they’ve finished writing. Some students may not like drawing at all. In that case, provide a picture for them to color. Ultimately, you know your students best.
Now, because we are talking about informative writing, don’t just stop at a picture. Have students add labels and captions to their pictures. There’s so much purposeful/intentional integration of nonfiction text features to be had here.
Grab this opportunity and run!
STEP 13: SHARE ALL THE GOODNESS
Our students have absorbed some fascinating content, they’ve taken notes, created an informative writing plan, verbally shared their ideas with a partner using touch and tell, wrote a wonderful paper with a topic sentence, supporting facts, and a closing sentence, and created a picture with a caption and labels.
Phew! Talk about perseverance.
Now it’s time to throw a grade on it and send it home!
Did I just hear you gasp?
I thought so.
After all this hard work, our students are going to want to share their work with others.
The only problem?
Classrooms are very busy places. So much to do, so little time.
But if we don’t make time for students to share their writing, do you really think they’ll work hard to create the best writing piece possible? Probably not.
Writing is hard work! If our students know they will be sharing what they wrote with others, it not only gives them a purpose for writing, but it also motivates them to produce the best writing they can.
You may be wondering how we’re supposed to fit sharing into our already jam-packed days.
Here are a few ideas:
- Have students partner share.
- Place students into groups of 3 or 4 and have each student in the group share.
- Have an author’s chair and choose a few students to share each day of the week.
THE BOTTOM LINE ON INFORMATIVE WRITING:
Teaching informative writing is a treasure chest of gold. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on all the learning that’s going on!
We’re reading informational mentor texts. This not only builds our students’ knowledge about the world in which they live, but also begins to build a solid foundation for understanding the form of informative writing.
We’re choosing to teach our students about some wonderful content. In some cases, the content also connects to science and social studies standards (purposeful integration for the win).
We’re asking our students to think about what they wonder prior to learning new content. This sets a purpose for learning plus, for many of us, addresses listening and reading standards. Whoop, whoop!
We’re teaching our students how to take notes. While this helps our students remember fabulous facts, our students are also learning a lifelong skill.
We’re teaching our students to create amazing informative writing pieces by including a topic sentence, facts about the topic, and a closing. The beginnings of yet another lifelong skill.
We’re teaching them to edit and revise to improve their writing.
When they draw pictures, label them, and add captions, they are deepening their understanding of the purpose of those nonfiction text features.
Finally, when we give our children the opportunity to share, they are learning that what they write matters and it’s important.
Ready to dive into teaching informative writing to your first-graders and want a DONE-FOR-YOU resource, check out our First Grade Informative Writing Unit.
If you teach second grade, we’ve got your back too. Here is a link to our Second Grade Informative Writing Unit.
Need tips for teaching personal narrative writing to first graders? Click to check out our blog 11 Tips for Teaching Personal Narrative Writing in First Grade.
Dreaming of a DONE-FOR-YOU yearlong writing curriculum? Check out our YEARLONG FIRST GRADE WRITING BUNDLE.