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Third Grade Writing Units of Study – A First Look

UnitsHas your school year finished? We are nearly there and while this year is winding down, goals are being set for next year. I am changing schools (and countries) this summer so I am not a part of a formal process of goal setting at this time, but I am anticipating what I will be focusing on next year. On top of moving I will be teaching third grade for the first time come August. One thing I know I will need to get my head around are the third grade Units of Study for writing. If you are not familiar with them check out this post where Beth gives some great step by step advice. I have taught the fifth grade “new” units of study the past two years so the structure is familiar, but delving into third grade is completely new to me. I borrowed a colleague’s books and spent some time familiarizing myself with the big ideas for each unit. Here is what I found.

Unit 1: Narrative – Crafting True Stories

Third grade is where writer’s notebooks are introduced, how fun!


The year begins with exposing writers to this essential tool and then diving into the work of writing. It is a year of independence and growth and the tone is set with the expectations of this first unit. Third grade is about moving from primary to intermediate work.

This unit looks at finding ideas and then encouraging writers to move from plot-driven to character-driven narratives. Conferring and self-assessment are essential parts of any writing workshop and begin in Bend 1, setting the tone for the year. As writing teachers, we also play the role of cheerleader, helping students to build their writing stamina and to understand that writing can be hard, thus giving tools and strategies to use when the going gets rough. Learning to move from summarizing what happened to telling a story is a large emphasis of this unit. How do you write in a way that allows the reader to see a movie in their mind? Another skill that is focused on is to edit along the way, rather than when you are ‘finished’ with a piece of writing.

Come On Rain!

Mentor Text: Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse with illustrations by Jon J Muth

Unit 2: Information – The Art of Information Writing

Resist the urge to think about this unit as “All About Books” because it is more than that. Information Text is such a huge genre. Have fun brainstorming all the different types.

Info text types

Third graders are more than willing to tell you all about what they know best. Channeling their richness of experience into writing is what this second unit is about. Organizing information and developing ideas are the focus of this unit. In second grade writers learned how to group information. For third grade, writers learn logical groupings. This organization is joined with a simple introduction, a few sentences to elaborate on each topic, all the while infusing domain-specific vocabulary into their writing.

In order to lead students through this unit I have started brainstorming what I could be an expert on. What is something you know well?

Expert On

Deadliest Animals!

Mentor Text: Deadliest Animals! by Melissa Stewart

Unit 3: Opinion – Changing The World

voices have power

You could think of this as a ‘baby essay’ unit, as it is laying the foundation to all essay writing.

Students will:

  • introduce topics
  • support topics by
    • list reasons
    • support with fact and details
  • use transition words
  • make word choices for
    • effect
    • audience
  • research
  • organize evidence
  • utilize what they know about spelling
  • continue to self-assess
  • continue to use the writing process

We’ve all had students try to convince us of something, be it that their football team is the best or that we should extend recess. Watch out! You are about to equip them with the tools to support their ideas and rally around what is important to them. This unit begins with writing persuasive speeches, moves to petitions, editorials, and persuasive letters, and finally sets up collaborative “Cause Groups” that incorporate all they have learned as they move others to action.

Unit 4: Narrative – Once Upon A Time

From facts to storytelling is the journey writers encounter as they walk in the world of fairy tales. The unit’s introduction points out that fairy tales are participatory, gleeful, and even gruesome AND we love them. What better way to teach story arc (and to use a storyteller’s voice) than to explore creating a world and bringing the characters to life.

sticky for unit 4

This unit goes through three narrative cycles. The class first walks through adapting one of the mentor texts. (It is suggested that you use “Cinderella” for your modeling and let the class chose one other for shared writing.) Once writers have guided practice of changing setting and characters, perhaps adapting the need and motivation of those characters, they are ready to adapt one of their own favorite fairy tales. Finally, students are asked to write an original fairy tale, using all they know about writing to draw their readers into their own story.

Mentor Texts: “Cinderella”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”
(Do you have a favorite version of any of these? I would love to start a collection.)

Now What?

For any grade level the units are so dense that taking the time to understand the overview of each unit helps me to get my mind around what is being asked of the students over the course of the year. I feel like I now have a good foundational understanding of what is expected for writing next year. I am still at the ‘broad strokes’ part of tackling these units. Deciding dates for each unit, as well as additional units, plush publishing parties, etc. are not up to me at this point. I’ll see what has been decided when I arrive in August. Until then I have some mentor texts to get to know this summer, some writing to do, and some relaxation ahead of me.

What about you? Any tips for the third grade units? Are you changing grade levels? How do you approach new units?

Kristi Lonheim teaches internationally, in the Middle East for the past ten years. She is passionate about dark chocolate and encouraging life-long learners. The latter necessitates the need for students to be competent writers with a love of reading. When not at school she likes to hang out with her family, travel, enjoy the outdoors, offer hospitality, and read. Kristi blogs at and tweets from @lonheim.

25 thoughts on “Third Grade Writing Units of Study – A First Look

  1. This is such a wonderful overview for second, third and fourth grade teachers. We always want to know where our kids have been in their writing and what we need to prepare them for to be successful in their new grade. It’s great for me to see what others are doing on a global level too. Thanks so much!


  2. We did all these new units of study in my third grade class this year and i am so proud to tell you that these units helped produce amazing writers! we just finished our fairy tales and even during this last week of school, my students were busy finishing up 3 page stories! I am thrilled with their results and would love to help you with questions you may have! I think it definitely helped that I participated in Colombia Teachers College’s long distance writing sessions this year. You will love the new units!


  3. Kristi~
    Looks like you are planned out and ready to go with your writers! Good Luck in your new classroom in a new country! I would love to connect our writers in the coming school year! Do you know where you will be teaching?
    Thanks for sharing all your thoughts!


    1. Hi Deb, I feel like I have barely begun to grasp the new units as I know how much work it takes to work through something completely new, especially the first year. (And even more so in a new grade level.) I’ll be in touch to connect for next year.


  4. These units look really exciting, Kristi! Thanks for sharing your thinking about them. I am starting a new position in the fall in a new school district which uses the Units of Study. I’ll be sure to return to this post!


  5. The new 3rd grade Units look exciting! We have been using the old units of study, grades 3-5. I looked at the description of the new 4th grade units, and I’m interested in buying them, but not all of the grades at my school use the Units of Study (we can choose how we teach writing). Does it make sense to use the 4th grade units if 3rd and 5th aren’t using them? Opinions please!


    1. Hi Becky! I prefer the new units to the old ones as there is more rigor and they are more aligned with the standards. If you are already doing something different I suppose it would depends the level of writing you are getting from the students coming into your class. I know that a few years ago I was modifying the grade level below me as it better fit the needs of my students. Does that make sense?


      1. Thanks, Kristi. Yes, that makes sense. I was excited to see separate curricula for each grade. That was an issue when we first got the old Units of Study – which genres was 3rd going to do vs. 4th. And I know you can repeat them, but that didn’t seem to be a popular solution. I will have to discuss with my partner. Thanks!


    2. I totally agree that you can use these without the bridge from the previous grade. I did teach from the previous 3-5 grade units and like these better because they are developmentally appropriate and fit your grade level,better. I promise the 5th grade teachers will thank you for preparing their students so well and then they will want to teach with them!


  6. The year I went down a grade level was also the year I moved from NY to RI. And I was planning a wedding! (Crazy, right?) Anyway, going down is tough business because our expectations are higher. Remember that they aren’t going to be nearly as capable as your third graders and you should be fine. (I didn’t realize how much behind my fifth graders my fourth graders would be. But basically it was like teaching rising third graders after teaching entering sixth graders.) Alas, it worked and by year two, my mind was wrapped around what they could truly produce in September, which helped.

    Good luck with the move!


    1. Great advice, Stacey. Thanks. I figure if I think of them as capable as I remember my 1st graders being at the end of the year I should be near the mark. That makes them rising 2nd graders many years removed from the present and I am sure they have improved with memory. 😉


  7. Kristi-
    You have made the 3rd-grade units of study delicious! I’m a long time 5th-grade teacher and it is so wonderful to see the seeds planted during the early grades. I just love the excitement you build up with each unit of study. Thank you for this beautiful synopsis of the units. I know you will love writing in your new county (wow I thought moving classrooms was a big deal) and your new grade level!


  8. Cinderella Skeleton is a great fairy tale adaptation. For the informational writing, I have a bunch of the National Geographic Kids books at all different levels. They are great mentor texts and I have even been able to find some at Dollar Tree. Good luck! You will love it!


  9. Great post! This was my first year in third grade after many years in kindergarten. We were partially following the Units of Study but next year will thankfully be fully back in Writing Workshop. If you have the CD-ROM that goes with the units, there are some nice student mentor text until you build up your own collection. I would love to collaborate as third grade teachers!


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