writing research

Does Any Topic Sentence Work?

We are continuing to focus on informational writing in our classroom.  In order to give this writing context, we have been combining it with our History unit on Trappers and Traders.  We have used this content to review different non-fiction text structures and identify prompts which required us to respond in a specific text structure.  www.writenow-rightnow.com/blog/2018/informational-writing-text-structures-and-prompts-1  As we began to respond to the prompts, students were working to write appropriate topic sentences for each text structure.  This led to a discussion in our classroom – “Does every type of topic sentence work for every type of writing?”

Using the prompts from our study of text structures, we began to experiment with different topic sentence types.  I wanted the students to have a bank of topic sentences they could draw on when asked to write to a variety of informative writing prompts.  As we experimented and wrote informational essays, we collected topic sentences which worked well with each type of text structure.

Compare and Contrast Topic Sentences

Prompt:  Both trappers and traders were involved with trapping beavers.  Write an essay explaining two similarities between these people and two ways their lifestyles were different from one another.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence

The trappers and traders who worked in the Colorado Territory had both similarities and differences in their lifestyles.

“When” Topic Sentence

When studying the trappers and traders of the early Colorado Territory, historians have found both similarities and differences between these two groups.

“Number Topic” Sentence

The trappers and traders who traveled to the Colorado Territory have many similarities and differences.

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Cause and Effect Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers came to the Colorado Territory in the early 1800’s. Write an informative essay explaining a positive and negative effect on the environment due to the arrival of the trappers.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence

The trappers who came to the Colorado Territory had both a positive and negative impact on the natural environment.

“When” Topic Sentence

When the trappers arrived in the Colorado Territory, they had a positive and negative impact on the region’s environment.

“As” Topic Sentence

As historians study the history of Colorado, they have identified both the positive and negative effects on the environment caused by the arrival of the trappers.

 

Description Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers had a very distinctive appearance. Write an essay describing the unique clothing of these men.

Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

Trappers were easy to identify by their distinctive clothing choices.

“If” Topic Sentence

If spotted on the trail, an early beaver trapper was easy to identify by his clothing and appearance.

“Number” Topic Sentence

The requirements of living outdoors in rugged conditions led trappers to make many unique clothing choices.

 

Problem and Solution Topic Sentences

Prompt:  Once trappers had gathered beaver pelts, they needed a place to gather to trade. Write an essay explaining how trappers solved the problem of trading with others.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

Determining a way to trade with others was a problem faced by many trappers.

As” Topic Sentence:

As trappers gathered their bounty of beaver skins, they were faced with a problem.  How could they sell their pelts and purchase items they needed for survival?

When” Topic Sentence:

When the beaver trapping season was completed, the trappers were faced with a dilemma.  How could they now trade their pelts and purchase supplies?

Question” Topic Sentence:

“Now that I have trapped these beavers and collected their pelts, how can I exchange this for needed money and supplies?”  This was a question posed by many trappers at the end of the trapping season.

 

Sequential Order Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers had to devise the best ways to trap beavers without harming the fur. Write an informative paragraph explaining the steps a trapper followed to capture a beaver.

 

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

In order to trap a beaver, the mountain man had to follow specific steps.

“Number” Topic Sentence:

Three steps must be followed in order to successfully trap beavers.

“If – Then” Topic Sentence:

If a mountain man wanted to be a successful beaver trapper, then he must follow specific steps in the correct order.

“As” Topic Sentence:

As men traveled to the Colorado Territory to trap beavers, they quickly learned the steps required to capture these animals.

Through our work with informational text, we have discovered that some types of topic sentences work best with certain text structures.  We have also learned a lot about the lives of the early trappers and traders!  Our fourth-grade writers have gained another tool they can use when writing informational text to a variety of prompts.

 

Cause: An Engaging Cause and Effect Lesson Effect: Students Engaged, Learning and No Papers to Grade!

I was recently in a 5th grade classroom where the students were just starting to delve into the concept of cause and effect.  The focus of the lesson was to provide students with strategies to help them correctly identify cause and effect relationships in text.  When asked what they already knew about this skill, students could explain that the two concepts were linked to one another, and that one action led to another.

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To begin the lesson, students created a two-column chart.  The left side of the chart was titled Cause and the right side of the chart was titled Effect.  We then read the 5th graders the picture book If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Numeroff.  https://www.amazon.com/You-Give-Cat-Cupcake-Books/dp/0060283246  Fifth graders love the opportunity to listen to picture books and they were enthralled with the story.  While reading the book, I slowly moved around the room. As I was walking and reading, these older students were whipping around in their seats, following me with their eyes as they intently listened to the simple story.

We first read the book for the sheer enjoyment of listening to the story. During the second reading, the students and I were looking for cause and effect relationships.  As we found a cause, we would write it on our chart, followed by the effect of this action. The students quickly noticed that the cause must come first, as it is the catalyst for the effect.

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The next step was for students to create an anchor chart to keep in their Reading and Writing Folders. Completed with the students, this chart included the definition of cause and effect, examples, and key words they might find in the text when looking for cause and effect. When students are a part of creating an anchor chart, the information becomes relevant and useful to them.  

Students then browsed other If you Give…books and created a second cause and effect chart independently. Students were engaged in their reading and thrilled to be able to find cause and effect relationships throughout the new books.

 

The classroom teacher and I wanted to complete a quick formative assessment to see who required extra support on this skill. Each student took a quarter sheet of paper and in the corner of one side wrote “Cause.”  In the opposite corner, students wrote “Effect.” Students could choose to either write a Cause or Effect sentence in the appropriate corner. They then exchanged their paper with another student in the class, who wrote the relating sentence. For example: A student wrote: Cause: Tom Brady threw an interception in the last minute of the game. His partner then wrote Effect: Tom’s team lost the game to the Denver Broncos.  Another student wrote:  Effect: The vegetables in the garden were destroyed.  His partner wrote:  Cause:  Grandpa forgot to lock the gate on the sheep pen.

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Student partners shared their sentences.  As they shared, their teacher took notes on only those students she felt needed extra instruction. The following day she planned to meet with those students during a small group instruction time. All students whose name she had not written down received a passing grade on this assignment.  Within a 15 minute assessment period, the teacher had given every student an assessment and knew who needed additional support.  More importantly, the students had personally interacted with the concept of Cause and Effect and solidified their learning through the creation of an anchor chart. The students had mastered a reading and writing concept and the teacher was not taking home a stack of papers to grade! 

Step by Step, (or not giving in to “Get it done, Now!”)

Every class has its own personality.  This is both a joy and a challenge of teaching.  Organization and classroom management styles that work perfectly one year may prove ineffective the next year.  I have been reminded of this truth during the current school year.  To insure student engagement and success with this year’s students, I need to provide instruction which adds new skills in a heightened sequential manner.  Definite strategies are needed to help students deepen their critical thinking skills.

            For the past week, we have been studying the prehistoric people of Colorado.  My goal was for students to make the connection:  As prehistoric people moved from hunter/gatherers to farmers, they had time to build homes and improve their lives. I knew that this required higher level thinking skills and that students would need to follow specific steps in order to reach this understanding.

 

We began by setting up a chart where students could record their notes.  The chart was divided into Dates, Homes, Food, Hunting/Farming and Additional Facts.  As we studied each group of people, students completed the correct portion of the chart. 

The students had acquired knowledge about these groups of people, but I now wanted them to draw some conclusions from this history lesson.  What could we learn from these people outside of the facts of their existence?

 

Using chart paper, students drew pictures of the prehistoric people in chronological order.  They illustrated the homes, food sources, weapons and tools used by each group of people.  I was thrilled to watch students use ipads to discover ways to draw a kiva or an atlatl.  Every student was engaged in drawing their chart and putting forth their best effort.

Now it was time to do some critical thinking.  I introduced the phrase: “conclude or draw a conclusion,” which means to make a judgement based on evidence.  Students studied each column in their chart and drew a conclusion.  Student examples included: “Studying the prehistoric peoples’ homes, I can conclude that the people moved from living in caves and lean-tos, to building pueblos.  When they lived in caves they moved from place to place.  As they built homes, they stayed in one place.” 

We repeated the same process for food sources and weapons / tools.  Now it was time for the point of the lesson. What conclusion could students draw on how each aspect of these people’s lives impacted other areas?  I was thrilled as I listened to students draw this important connection!

As a culminating activity, students were able to share their learning using a photo and voice recording program.  (I gave my students a choice between Adobe Spark or Explain Everything.)  As they had already given their conclusions deep thought and had written their responses, this final step was seamless and enjoyable!

The point of this learning engagement was not only for students to learn about Colorado’s ancient people, but to also deepen their critical thinking skills. In addition to the content, the goal was for students to learn how to learn, to learn how to document their learning, and most importantly, how to draw a conclusion and share their thinking with others.  Slowing down and going step by step had worked well for all of us.