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Building Ideas in Research Writing

I’m currently helping my husband, James, with a book project. It is an exciting venture. It’s based on the story of Charles Moore, a gold medalist in the 1952 Olympics whose career focus has been corporate turnarounds and philanthropy. Charlie, who has become a family friend, spent months writing his stories. He then passed them to James, who was charged with extracting the universal lessons and theories that would make them all add up to something, the kind of book that (we hope) lots of people might want to read.

In the end, the book will be abridged versions of Charlie’s true stories with James’s interpretations of them. It will not simply be a retelling of Charlie’s life. The book is part narrative, part research report, part how-to nonfiction. It is an expository book, but with narratives elaborating most of the points. At the highest levels, this is more often that not the case, that several genres of writing blend. Information writing becomes less facts, more theories and ideas.

In Part Three of Bringing History to Life, my 2013 book with Lucy Calkins (Heinemann), we share a series of lessons that help students to progress in their research-based information writing from sheer reporting of the facts to more in-depth, insightful interpretations of their reading. Here’s a quick guide.

While reading to research for writing:

  • Teach students to jot ideas while reading nonfiction the way they jot ideas in fiction, rather than just recording facts. They can push their thinking and writing using prompts (This makes me think…I’m wondering…This is important because…On the other hand…)
  • Invite students to share some of the ideas they are growing about their nonfiction with each other, and to talk for at least two minutes about a single idea with the goal of growing new ideas about the information.
  • Teach students to search for and write about similarities and differences as they read nonfiction. For example, they might compare a historical event to an event in more recent history.
  • Teach them to re-read texts they have already read, and to jot possible themes or life lessons they see.
  • Teach students to ask the kinds of questions that don’t have a ready answer. Teach them to formulate hypotheses by asking, Could it be… and to read on, jotting possible answers.

While drafting and revising writing:

  • Teach students to add their interpretations to their writing. They might use transition phrases such as: It was possible that…, One reason this might have been so…, or One could hypothesize that…
  • Teach students to present multiple points of view in their writing and to add possible explanations for the opposing views.
  • As a nearing-publication revision move, teach students to re-read their writing with an eye for parts that were not written in their own voices, and to go back to add their own interpretations to these parts, using some of the teaching points from the section above.

One wonderful by-product of this process is that, because they are doing the interpreting, students learn that most (if not all) texts labeled as nonfiction are really someone’s interpretation of a set of facts. Knowing this piece of wisdom and holding it close will stand them in good stead as they face information bombardment in their years to come. Spoiler alert: Not everything on the Internet is true, even stuff that looks like news.

Happy research writing!

Your Turn

We’d love to hear your tips for helping students to grow ideas to prepare for research writing.

Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).

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