One of the many reasons I love teaching third grade is witnessing the amazing growth that takes place throughout the year, especially in writing. Many of my students have gone from working on writing complete sentences with capital letters and periods in September to writing research reports by the third quarter. How do they come so far? My students learn research skills, note-taking, and purposeful expository writing in a step-by-step manner that makes it easy and manageable for young writers.
This week, I’m happy to share with you my strategies and graphic organizers that help my students write clear, informative, five-paragraph research reports. While my focus is on the specific reports that we do, the ideas can easily be adapted to any topic of your choosing.
Before beginning this project, my students have already been introduced to nonfiction text features. To see some of the activities that take place see my previous posts:
Step 1: Choose a High-Interest Topic and Build Background
One of the most important things I do to prepare for this project is introduce nonfiction text that is high interest. I’ve discovered the topic that engages my students like no other is disasters. For this report we concentrate on natural disasters. You can use any topic of interest to your students that has plentiful resources available such as endangered animals or habitats.
To begin, we read the book, Pompeii . . . Buried Alive, as a class. Each year students are fascinated to learn how repeated eruptions of Mount Vesuvius covered an entire city that no one even realized existed for centuries. We connect this story to our science lessons, looking at how volcanoes form, what causes them to erupt, and the types of damage they can cause.
Over the next few days, I introduce different disasters using short video clips found on Discovery Education Streaming and Scholastic’s StudyJams!. We focus on earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, and wildfires. Tip: no matter what nonfiction topic you choose to focus on, StudyJams! most likely has a video and information on it!
During this period of background building, I also make a tub of my disaster-themed books available for independent reading.
Step 2: Model Note-Taking Strategies
While watching the video clips and reading books from the disaster tub, my students take notes in their writer’s notebooks. Before doing so, however, I go over some note-taking strategies that younger students are not always familiar with, such as:
Write down key words and phrases — complete sentences aren’t needed
Bullet or number your notes
Categorize your notes with headings
Use images to help you remember key ideas
This year, for the first time, I introduced my students to visual note-taking, which I had just read about the previous day in a post by fellow blogger, Meghan Everette. Many of my students loved using this method to make their notes more visual.
When you are just beginning to teach note-taking, the resource below can be a big help.
Step 3: Students Choose the Topic They Want to Research
When students have a choice in what they write about, I find they tend to be more engaged in the effort. Therefore, after we have been introduced to the last disaster, students write down the names of three disasters, in ranked order, that they would like to learn more about on a slip of paper and turn it in to me.
Step 4: Make it a Team Effort
Putting students into groups by topics allows them to help and support each other through researching, writing, editing, and publishing.
I use the student ranking slips from Step 3 to place students on their disaster teams. If possible, I make sure all students get their first choice for a topic, however, having a second choice is helpful if I need to separate students who have shown they don’t work well together. (Teacher confession: the third choice I have them write down is just to make them feel good that they got their first or second choice!)
Each disaster team is assigned a headquarters. That’s their special area of the room to meet with their teammates to work during this two-week research project.
Step 5: Gather Resources and Take Notes
Once teams have been established, I pass out a note-taking graphic organizer for students to use. It is divided into sections that align with the main idea of each paragraph. This will help them easily translate their notes into topic and detail sentences for their report. Feel free to download and print the note organizer below. You can customize it to fit any topic you choose by changing the headings on each page.
Click on the image above to download and print these graphic organizers.
Students use books from the classroom and school library as well as online resources to begin taking notes. The key teaching point here is to stress the importance of putting information they find in their own words. Students who write down the exact words from their sources tend to include those “great-sounding” sentences in their research papers which leads to a whole new lesson on plagiarism.
During the two to three days students are taking notes, I sit down with each team to look over what they have completed and steer them onto the right track if necessary. Visiting each group and providing guidance is important to setting them up for success when it comes time to write.
Step 6: Write and Revise the Report
Once students have taken sufficient notes for each section of the report, they are ready to start writing! Each student receives a new graphic organizer which we first discuss, page-by-page, as a whole class. Students use the organizer to follow a simple, five-sentence paragraph pattern that includes a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a closing sentence. Using this formula approach helps students understand the basic format of a paragraph and how the paragraphs blend together to form a report.
The organizer students use for their writing is shown below. Remember, when you download and print the note organizer below, you can customize it to fit any topic by changing the headings on each page.
The very first paragraph, which introduces the reader to the topic, is completed while the students are still sitting on the carpet. Sentence by sentence (there are only five!) students volunteer to share what they have written. Hearing their peers’ topics and detail sentences often inspires other students, giving them the confidence to write their own. After the first paragraph is completed, students are sent to their team headquarters to continue writing.
At the start of the next class period, we gather to review what was written the day before and set a writing goal for that day. It normally takes the majority of my third graders three to four class sessions to complete their report.
Just as I did with note-taking, I visit each team at their headquarters at least once a day while they are writing independently. This allows me to provide any necessary support and guidance. It’s during these visits I also remind the students that as a team, they are there to help each other as well with revising and peer editing.
If you would like to teach students to write a well-constructed single paragraph, I love using this printable with my class.
Step 7: Publish!
Getting to type their reports is the favorite part for most students. As part of publishing, students are asked to incorporate text features that are frequently found in nonfiction text. See the sheet below for the checklist my students use as they publish their reports.
Step 8: Proudly Display and Share the Finished Product!
After approximately three weeks from start to finish, the students have a finished report they can proudly share with classmates and parents!
Writing research reports can be a daunting task at any grade level, but using a step-by-step approach with young writers breaks it down into an easy-to-manage process that will make all writers feel successful. Whether you choose natural disasters or any other topic to delve into with your students, I'm sure you will feel as excited to see your students rise to this writing challenge as I do every year!