Charting Science Writing

We have received many requests from teachers looking for ways to use charts that reinforce their teaching of information writing, so when Katie Wears, a staff developer at the Reading and Writing Project, shared with us some photos of science writing charts her teachers at Kiel Elementary School in Kinnelon, New Jersey had made during their “Writing Like Scientists” unit, we immediately asked if they would share their process with all of us at here at Chartchums. They generously agreed and the following guest blog post is the result. Our thanks to Liz Mason, first grade teacher, Jenna McMahon and Nicole Gillette, second grade co-teachers, and to Katie Wears for bringing us all together!

We are honored to be contributing to Chartchums; a place where educators from all over come to collaborate and be inspired by Marjorie, Kristi, teachers, and the students they work with. Thank you for letting us share some of the things we have been working on.

When spring arrived, the teachers at Kiel Elementary School were excited to think more about science and science writing. We planned with each other and brainstormed many possibilities for the science units and how to inspire science writing and thinking. Currently, First Grade is finishing up their study of Properties of Matter and Second Grade is studying Forces and Motion.

One goal was to help students better understand the scientific process and be able to feel successful with this “new” kind of writing. We created these two charts to provide a scaffold for the students and to support independence with the scientific process and writing about science.

"The Scientific Writing Method" chart with a couple of close-ups to show the tips.

“The Scientific Writing Method” chart with a couple of close-ups to show the tips.

Introducing the scientific process with some prompts to use when talking and writing.

Introducing the scientific process with some prompts to use when talking and writing.

Exemplars were created to give the young scientists a vision of how their writing could go. This chart was created to support students with the procedure part of the lab report. It was exciting to see the children discuss the things they noticed in the exemplars and put those things into their own lab reports. The children were eager to use the exemplars as models for their own writing, to set goals, and to become independent. Young scientists looked at their own writing alongside the exemplars and used the exemplars to give their partners “stars” and “wishes” or compliments and tips.

This exemplar chart provides clear expectations and suggestions for including procedural writing.

This exemplar chart provides clear expectations and suggestions for including procedural writing.

Here are some other exemplars that were created during the first part of our units.

This exemplar has been annotated with the class' observations.

This exemplar has been annotated with the class’ observations.

Close-up of the annotations written on post-it notes.

Close-up of the annotations written on post-it notes.

This shows how technical drawings are labeled.

This shows how technical drawings are labeled.

Another goal of this unit was to increase academic vocabulary. These charts and tools give students the vocabulary they need to share their learning and thinking during discussions and through their writing. The vocabulary was introduced and reinforced through real alouds, shared reading, video clips, experiments and writing. The young scientists use these charts to show everything they know.

Two different ways to highlight  science vocabulary.

Two different ways to highlight science vocabulary.

Descriptive vocabulary to use when observing like a scientist.

Descriptive vocabulary to use when observing like a scientist.

We also wanted the young scientists to be able to use writing and the scientific process to be able to deepen their understanding and thinking. Scientists analyzed their results to draw conclusions and share their thinking. The writing on this chart was done with Jenna’s second grade class during shared writing. The chart was then created during writing minilessons when Jenna and Nicole were teaching students how to develop their conclusions and revise their thinking. They give students a model of how to share their learning through their writing.

Annotating the shared writing helps reinforce the teaching.

Annotating the shared writing helps reinforce the teaching.

Small versions of the charts were made and are available for the young scientists to use.

Another fun way to create table charts.

Another fun way to create table charts.

The young scientists are now using these charts and tools to support each other and work collaboratively in science clubs. In their clubs they make decisions, have different roles, formulate questions, and go through the process of gathering the materials to conduct experiments.

Science reading clubs came up with their own group names.

Science reading clubs created their own group names.

The prompts on the charts guide the students and help them have more meaningful scientific conversations about their learning and discoveries. As a result, each student has developed an identity as a scientist who is curious about the world and knows how to search for answers and share scientific results and thinking with others.

Best of luck,

Liz, Jenna, Nicole, and Katie

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Hello Everyone!

We hope that you are enjoying the first steps towards spring! The sky stays light later, birds are chirping, and our children are edging towards the next grade. For Kristi, the spring thaw is also bringing opportunities to study the active construction site next door to the school, and a renewed sense of purpose to inquiry.

Inquiry is one of the areas that Kristi wanted to focus on when she returned to the classroom. How do you teach children to cultivate thoughtful wonderings, develop theories, and follow those theories up with study to confirm or revise them… all while teaching the social studies and science content for the grade?

Inquiry can exist with different amounts of scaffolds: the teacher can choose the topic and guide the inquiry, or the entire study may be driven by student interest. Kristi knew that kindergarten was entering the neighborhood study, but she let the children’s natural curiosity drive what part of the neighborhood they studied. Of course, the construction site right next door drew the most amount of lingering attention, and so the construction site inquiry was born.

Charts and Tools to Support the Study

One of the first things the class did was visit the site to observe and sketch what they noticed. At the same time, Kristi took photos. She printed and enlarged the photos and the class studied them. As they read books about construction, and interviewed people connected with the site, they labeled the pictures with their new knowledge and vocabulary.



The class visited the site repeatedly and were fortunate to see some major demolition in action. Kristi used her phone to record video of a column being pulled down and the class later watched and rewatched the video to understand what was happening. From that, the following how-to class book was born:



As the process went on, the questions children asked changed from, “What is that?” while pointing to a machine, to bigger questions like, “How do they know how to make the building?” which has led the class off in the direction of architecture and blueprints.

After a few visits to the construction site, children began to replicate some of what they had seen in choice time. In this way the vocabulary was used and reused. To help children imagine the possibilities, Kristi taught a choice time lesson that showed them that you can make what you saw on an investigation!


Construction is everywhere in choice time now: blocks, legos, and even in cardboard!


This is a two story cardboard dollhouse, made by two students, complete with people!



The class inquiry is continuing on in the direction set by the children-blueprints and models-and Kristi is referring again and again to the standards for social studies to ensure that she is also covering the requirements through read aloud, interviews, and videos.

Happy charting, and happy inquiring!

Kristi and Marjorie

Vocabulary Visuals – Using Charts to Help Make Words Stick

On Friday, Marjorie presented a workshop at Teachers College on vocabulary acquisition with Ken Pransky. Ken is the author of Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Realities of Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Young Learners K-6 ( ) and My Fantastic Word Book: Young Student Thesaurus. The student thesaurus is a wonderful resource for vocabulary acquisition that uses graphics, font size and pictures (the key elements of any good chart) to illustrate useful vocabulary. The words are clustered by meaning or placed on a continuum to show gradations of intensity. The book is currently only available through the Collaborative for Educational Services (, but will also be available from Amazon soon.

Teaching academic vocabulary, or the vocabulary of school, is something every teacher pays attention to, but is often an area of concern, and even frustration, when students don’t seem to internalize and use the words taught each and every week. While immersion is important, it is not enough because the teacher is doing most of the work. Ken Pransky advises teachers, “Never work harder than your students!” and this could not be more true than when it comes to teaching vocabulary. Just think about how much time you spend choosing words, making worksheets, designing crossword puzzles, and grading spelling tests. What are the kids doing? Often they are the passive receivers of all this information, not active participants or creators.

In Smarter Charts we talk about the power of visuals, or the picture superiority effect, for enhancing recall beyond that of words alone, especially when exposure time is limited (and in schools, time is always limited!). Using limited, but strong graphic elements like bolding, font size, and symbols can also make information compelling and memorable. This is why we are so excited by Ken’s My Fantastic Word Book. It makes use of all of these elements to show children how to expand upon overly used adjectives and verbs.

An example of words that describe from My Fantastic Words Book by Ken Pransky.

We have also talked about making things memorable by using music, chanting, and rhyme (Smarter Charts, p. 47-51) just like advertisers do to make their products stick in your brain. Ken refers to the stuff that makes things stick in your brain as “goop” or the myelin sheath. And it is repetition and practice that helps make things stick. Teaching through songs and jingles is one way to do this, and then pair it up with gestures and hand signals to really reinforce the concept or word. During the vocabulary workshop Ken asked teachers to come up with songs using familiar tunes to teach some key academic vocabulary that we often assume kids understand, when in reality they often do not. Here is a song Kat Yanez shared to the tune of “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”

Infer, so we can make meaning (repeat x3)

We read between the lines.

 What can we figure out?

What are these words about?

Infer so we can make meaning

We read between the lines.

Charts can support the teaching of vocabulary by making a visual record of what is being taught and learned. Reading aloud picture books and chapter books is a great way to highlight the power of vocabulary to impact readers, whether narrative or informational, and to anticipate what will be needed to strengthen children’s reading and writing. For example, we often find young writers using very passive verbs in their writing, like “I went to the park” or “I was eating pizza.” So teaching vivid verbs might become one possible vocabulary focus when reading aloud. The chart below is the start of a chart showing three verbs the teacher and the students noticed upon a second reading of Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts. They talked about how the words were used and what the words meant. Then the students were asked to be on the lookout for these words across the day – when they saw them or used them when reading, writing, or talking. One thing that ended up being discussed was how certain words showed up more often or were used more often than others. Using the words when talking is extremely important as a precursor to using the words in writing.

This chart captures some verbs the author, Maribeth Boelts, used to make her writing more “vivacious.”

Shared reading is another component of balanced literacy that can be used to highlight vocabulary and show ways to develop word meanings. One thing that Ken Pransky pointed out was that when teaching children to use context clues to figure out a word, the text should be at a just right level. In other words, children should know 18-19 out of 20 words before having them guess meaning from context. Below are some examples from big books where this has been done during shared reading.  The teacher, Kelly Holt, returned to some words that her children did not seem to understand clearly. For example, on the page that said, “You can clean a car.” the children kept saying “wash” instead of “clean.” In this case, it was the syntax, more than the meaning, that seemed to cause some confusion.  The teacher used a wikki stix to highlight the word and point to the clue in the picture to show how to figure out what the author meant.

Using the picture to help understand the use of the word ‘clean’ in this sentence.

On another page, it was the meaning of the word that was unfamiliar.  Most children had never gone snorkeling or if they had ever seen a snorkel, did not know what it was called. In this case, the teacher was teaching the name of something, but it is not a vocabulary word that is high on the list of important nouns to learn.

The red line connects the word ‘snorkel’ with the picture of a snorkel.

In a second grade classroom, shared reading was used to show children how to use a glossary to figure out word meanings, but to add to it using their own words. In the case of the word extinguish, the glossary defined the word as “to put out.” The children used the picture to add to that definition, saying “to blow out.” Using their own words and understandings helps them to take more ownership of the word.

Placing the glossary definition in context with the text, Fire by Luana K. Mitten and Mary M. Wagner

Interactive writing is another component that can help children become more confident vocabulary users. We often find that children may use certain vocabulary in their spoken language, but don’t use the words in their writing. This is often because they are insecure about the spelling and afraid to take risks. Interactive writing provides a nice scaffold and a safe place to try things out in a risk-free environment. Returning to a familiar big book is a nice way to revisit word choice and consider alternatives. In the book, Fire, illustrated above, the class thought about how information book writers often use very specific vocabulary words when teaching about a subject. With this in mind the students decided to revise the heading of the first chapter, changing the word ‘light’ to the word ‘ignite’ which they had come across in other texts about fire. They also changed the word in the text as well, immediately lifting the level of text complexity. The kids also felt rather superior as a result.

Interactive writing was used to capture the vocabulary revisions made by the students.

Lastly, charts can be used to remind children of the many strategies they can call upon when trying to figure out the meaning of unknown words. Remember, these strategies will be most effective when the children are reading books that are within their zone of proximal development.

The chart above was used often as the children came across words they did not know and were asked to share ways they figured out the meaning. Jamie Mendelsohn at PS 59 M came up with the idea of having a “Sticky Note Day” every Friday with her group of second graders. Each child was given a sticky note and told to be on the lookout for a word they thought was particularly important to understanding the book they were reading. Towards the end of reading workshop they would get together with a partner and talk about why they thought the word was important and what they tried to figure it out. Then the whole class would get together and talk more about one or two of these words.

This is the beginning of a chart that shows an example of how an unknown word was chosen and figured out.

Once again, it is the children who are actively figuring out possible meanings of the words, not the teacher or a dictionary. Kids love being word detectives and feeling smarter as they come to own an increasingly larger amount of academic vocabulary.

We hope to see many of you at the upcoming NCTE convention in Las Vegas. We will be signing copies of Smarter Charts at the Heinemann booth at 2 pm on Friday, November 16th.

Until then, happy charting!

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz