Non-Fiction Writing: Having students respond to their learning through non-fiction writing

By Connie Buckman, Literacy Coach


As the daily demands of teachers increase, many admit that with regret, writing is one of the first things to go. Others comment that kids do not have to write stories on high stakes assessments, so perhaps time would be better spent elsewhere. Year after year, we find ourselves covering letter writing, personal narrative, and how-to paragraphs. As we start to explore 21 st century teaching and learning we know that critical thinking and communication rank high. Many business leaders report that if schools could improve one area it would be to better equip graduates with stronger writing skills. High numbers of students graduate and need to attend remedial literacy courses when they enroll in college. Knowing writing is a weakness, but being faced with the challenge of not enough time, many teachers are looking for a light at the end of the tunnel.


Doug Reeves was quoted as saying, "With the exception of attendance, opportunities to develop skills and abilities in nonfiction writing is the number one factor associated with test scores" (Reeves, 2002). Writing in response to non-fiction not only helps students solidify their learning; but also practice their communication skills. Incorporating non-fiction writing throughout the day, focusing on math and content will allow teachers to assess their students in a variety of areas and allow students time to practice real-life writing skills.


Writing in response to non-fiction is not meant to replace content, take up large amounts of instructional time, or provide work for kids to complete without feedback. Instead, it is short pieces of text that students produce directly related to what they are learning. It is focused and comes from clear questions or prompts provided by the teacher. Asking students to respond to non-fiction is a way to increase their reasoning skills, solidify learning, and provide an opportunity for teachers to assess the students’ understanding of the content.


How do you choose prompts? Start by looking at the grade level expectations that are most frequently assessesed. Consider concepts that are critical to understanding later material. Pull from concepts that students typically struggle to understand. Look at things that really require deep thinking. Ask yourself, "What could my students write to show that they really understand __________?"


In essence, kids are writing about their learning. For example, students might complete a graphic organizer and then write a paragraph about why the organizer works for the content they are learning about, write "how-to" steps for solving a math problem or science procedures, or explain key concepts in terms of an analogy- how could you compare the government to the parts of a car. Students might evaluate a book, movie, class meeting, or even the cafeteria food. This writing often asks students to compare and contrast two concepts or summarize their thinking. When kids are responding to their learning they are often writing to inform, persuade, explain, analyze and describe what they are learning.


Flexing your writing minutes so they extend your math block might allow you time to provide an exit ticket at the end of math. A classroom teacher might pose the following question to her students, "Pretend you have 5 hungry friends, but only one pizza. What would be a fair way to divide the pizza to be sure everyone gets the same amount?" Students would then have an opportunity to write their response to the prompt. The classroom teacher would then use the prompt to not only assess their ability to solve the math problem, but also their written expression, grammar, conventions, etc. She could then provide interventions or extensions based on the information gathered through the prompt. Teachers are not doing this for every concept taught, just the high leverage concepts that are essential for students to know.


As you begin to incorporate non-fiction response writing into your classroom, you will want to start by teaching kids to deconstruct the prompts in order to be sure they are aware of what is being asked of them. Then kids need to learn how to use the scoring guides to self-assess their own writing. If you use a writing workshop approach for your daily writing instruction these prompts are the perfect tool to help teach your student how to revise. Take a look at how Mrs. Apple incorporates non-fiction writing into her classroom.


Students have been learning about kinetic and potential energy in their science class. At the end of the week, Mrs. Apple wants to make sure students have a solid understanding of the concept before moving on. She would also like to know how the students are applying some of the concepts she has been modeling during her writing workshop mini-lessons. In lieu of a quiz, Mrs. Apple asks students to take out a sheet of paper and "describe the difference between kinetic and potential energy". Students are given ample time to complete the prompt. Then, Mrs. Apple shows students the scoring guide that they have been using all school year and asks them to evaluate their response and self-score their writing. Some quickly notice something they have left out and make revisions; others are satisfied with their responses. All students submit their papers to Mrs. Apple. Depending on the length of the responses Mrs. Apple might stand at the door and provide quick oral feedback as students hand her the responses ("You forgot to address potential energy, I like the way you used transition words, Nice job being concise, I think you confused kinetic and potential", etc) or she might jot a quick note on the papers after class.


Monday morning, during their writing block, Mrs. Apple distributes the prompts back to the students. She writes the prompt on the board and underlines "potential" with a red colored pencil. Students are then instructed to look through their response and underline everything relating to potential energy with a red pencil. Then she underlines "kinetic" energy with a blue pencil and students underline their response relating to kinetic energy with a blue pencil. She reviews the difference between the two providing a few more examples. She might even teach a revision strategy if the students could use another tool in their revision toolbox. Kids are shown samples of strong writing. They also look at samples of weak responses and work together to correct them. Students are given an opportunity to ask clarifying questions and then provided time to revise their prompts so they address the question and include all necessary information.


At the end of the allotted time, students are again asked to self-score their responses with the scoring guide before turning papers in to the teacher. After class Mrs. Apple is able to see who still needs help differentiating between kinetic and potential energy, who is struggling to communicate ideas effectively, which students will need some work with conventions, etc. A key piece in this process is being sure that we are showing kids HOW to correct the writing, not just telling them to revise. Giving our students feedback only works when they know what to do with the feedback.


Non-fiction response style writing allows students to apply the skills that they have learned and practice effective communication. It allows classroom teachers to assess multiple areas at one time and incorporate critical thinking, effective communication, and possibly a little fun into their day!

Sample prompts:

What is the difference between a human and a natural resource in a community?

How would I know if I was on an island or a peninsula?

Paul had a fish tank filled with rocks, treasure checks, snails, fish, and even a pretend scuba diver. Explain which things were living and which were non-living. How did you know?

The Earth revolves around the Sun each year. If the Earth were to stop revolving around the sun, how would our weather change?

What is the difference between a series circuit and a parallel circuit?

There were two magnets lying on the table. Zach kept trying to push them together, but the magnets just pushed apart. Why might this have happened?

How would the water cycle be different if condensation would be removed?


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