Getting Ready to Write How-To Books

Remember when you knew everything about teaching?  I do.  I had just graduated from college and I was ready to bring all my gifts and talents to the world of teaching. That summer before my first job, I would tell anyone who would listen all about Whole Language, Continuous Quality Improvement, Guided Reading, and a dozen other things I had read about in my education courses.

Um, reality check.

There's nothing like a week (or even just the first day) of brand-new-teacher hell to humble you into the truth that you have a LOT to learn... about everything!  It reminds me of a magnet my mom used to have on her refrigerator:  "Ask a teenager while they still know everything."  Ouch.

It wasn't long before the teacher in me began craving learning.  It's a fun thing to be a lifelong student and what better laboratory than a classroom full of energetic, curious children to make you question and refine your practices.  For me, one of those shifts in teaching was understanding the inquiry process.  It made sense in science, but as I began implementing it in my both my reading and writing workshops, I started realizing the difference it was making in the eventual success the children experienced. And all I had to do was let the children make discoveries instead of telling them what I already knew...

...which is harder than it sounds,

...because I like to tell children everything I know.

The shift?  Now I create the conditions for children to collaboratively explore a topic and invite them to tell me what they know.  For example, right after the holidays, we begin our informational unit of study focusing on "How-To Books."  Years ago, I would've just jumped right in with all my carefully planned lessons showing the kids everything I knew about How-To books.  What's the problem with that?  Nothing terrible, I suppose, but I think there's a better way to do it.  And honestly, I think children tend to make quicker work of things that I may unnecessarily drag out over too many days.   

And I take it personally when kids are bored in my classroom.  If you tend to be a lecturer... and I'm not judging because Lord knows I'm one myself... give inquiry a go. I don't think you'll be disappointed.  It's like Toby Keith's country song, "A little less talk and a lot more action."  

But not that kind of action.  The listening kind.

One of the tricks to using the inquiry process during writing workshop is finding the right resources.  It's critical that I find books the children can actually read and understand, otherwise the only thing they're discovering is frustration.  Luckily, my reading series has several age-appropriate How-To (or procedural) titles in the set.  I also borrowed a few more from my colleagues so I'd have a well-rounded set of samples for the kids to work from.  In launching the writing unit, I kept the children in their student teams, gave each team one How-To book, and posed the question for inquiry:  What do we notice about How-To books?  With the question in their heads and Post-It notes in their hands, they began flipping through the pages, discussing their ideas, and jotting down their observations.  One of my main goals during this time of inquiry is to see if the kids can identify features that make How-To books unique.  If they can recognize and name these, they'll be better prepared to write their own How-To books.  To help children move past blah-blah observations like...

• It has an author.
• It has page numbers.

...nudge with questions like:

• Why do you think the author wrote this book?
• What do you notice about the first few pages?
• How is this book different from a fictional story?
• What purpose do the pictures have?
• What does the author do to help the reader understand?

Even these questions are a little bit leading, so I only ask them if a team seems stuck and needs a little guidance moving forward.  Otherwise, stick with your first question, What do we notice about How-To books?, and see what they come up with. They're amazingly good at discovering exactly what I want to teach them anyway. Take a look:

• it shows you how to make a volcano
• has pictures
• has steps
• it shows you what you need
• it has what you will need

• they are using objects
• they are teaching you how to make things
• there are steps in the book
• there are details in the book
• there are pictures in the book
• it seems that the steps have to be in order  

• it seems the book has introductions
• instead of using one, two, three, you can use first, second, third

• uses words instead of numbers
• bold words
• they tell us what to do

Once teams were done discussing and taking notes, we met on the floor and asked each group to share their observations.  This was so productive as the kids began to see common threads across all the titles.  I just sat back and let them teach each other:

"Hey, that's just like our book.  See?"
• "Our book had steps, too.  But this author used next and then instead of numbers."
• "The author doesn't just tell us what to do.  The pictures show us what to do."
• "We think the bold words are important.  They go with the thing he's making."

Instead of making a big fancy anchor chart during this lesson, I just used paper clips and sticky-tack to display their work.  This initial session served a great purpose, getting the kids excited about the writing they'd be doing and laying the groundwork for many of my upcoming lessons.  This upfront immersion also means I can get the kids actively writing right away because they know the total look of the genre... and if you have age-appropriate samples for them to refer to, they'll believe, "I can do that!"  


As a side note, this is an old chart I found from one of our letter-writing units.  This chart followed 3 days of me sharing literature written in letter-form.  The books were too hard for the kids to read, so I read aloud and then recorded their observations in a whole group setting.  I like the samples above better (because the kids were more engaged), but sometimes you don't always have the resources that are age-appropriate and I just didn't have enough letters written at their reading level to share. Still, they noticed a lot of features that became the important points of our work during this study.

Do you have any tips for us about the inquiry process?  Do you use it? How?  Or when?

Happy teaching!  :)


  1. Awesome post today!! I like your inquiry based approach to subjects other than science.
    Connie Anderson

  2. I absolutely love this! Can you please share what books you used for this activity? Thanks for sharing!!!

  3. I would like to know what books were used for the how to?

  4. Where are the books from?

  5. This is spectacular!!!! GREAT post! Awesome anchor chart! Would love the titles of the books you used as well. Thanks!


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