Building Background Knowledge: Animal Defenses and the Research Process | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA G4:M2:U1

Building Background Knowledge: Animal Defenses and the Research Process

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In the first unit of this module, students begin by building background knowledge on animal defense mechanisms using an Animal Defenses research notebook to record notes and synthesize new information. Listening closely and close reading of informational texts about animal defense mechanisms will prepare students for the mid-unit assessment, in which they listen to and read new texts about animal defense mechanisms. Students continue their study of the topic in the second half of the unit. They will continue to record notes and to synthesize new information in their Animal Defenses research notebooks. This whole class study of animal defenses will act as a model for students as they research an animal of their choice in Unit 2. At the end of this unit, students select their "expert animal" to research with a small group during Unit 2.

As of February 15, 2019, the website is no longer available. This website is used as a resource in Grade 4, Module 2 of the Module Lessons and ALL Block.  You can still access content, texts, and images, using the links below. These links are archived versions of the original content, text, and images, that were found on

Please note these links are single images of each animal; video and slideshow could not be captured in the archiving process.

We will post any new updates here.




Big Ideas & Guiding Questions

  • How do animals' bodies and behaviors help them survive?
  • To protect themselves from predators, animals use different defense mechanisms.
  • How can writers use knowledge from their research to inform and entertain?
  • Writers use scientific knowledge and research to inform and entertain.

The Four Ts

  • Topic: Students begin to build background knowledge about animal defense mechanisms. They learn about different animals' physical and behavioral defense mechanisms that allow them to survive.
  • Task: Students view and read new informational texts and answer selected response and short answer questions about them (mid-unit assessment). Students read a new informational text, answer selected response questions about it and summarizing it (end of unit assessment).
  • TargetsRI.4.2, RI.4.4, RI.4.7, SL.4.2, L.4.4a, L.4.4b, L.4.4c and L.4.4a-c.
  • Text: Selections from Animal Behavior: Animal Defenses and Fight to Survive! written by EL Education for instructional purposes 


Each unit in the 3-5 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize their understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. But the module intentionally incorporates Science content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.


Note: also consider using EL's 4th grade Life Science Module, a separate resource that includes approximately 24 hours of science instruction. This life science module explicitly addresses 4th grade NGSS life science standards, and naturally extends the learning from this ELA module.

Next Generation Science Standards  

Life Science Performance Expectation: 

  • 4-LS1-1: Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
    • LS1.A: Structure and Function: Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction. (4-LS1-1)

Habits of Character/Social-Emotional Learning Focus

In this module, students work to become effective learners: develop the mindsets and skills for success in college, career, and life (e.g., initiative, responsibility, perseverance, collaboration). 


Each unit is made up of a sequence of between 5-20 lessons. The “unit at a glance” chart in the curriculum map breaks down each unit into its lessons, to show how the curriculum is organized in terms of standards address, supporting targets, ongoing assessment, and protocols. It also indicates which lessons include the mid-unit and end-of-unit assessments.

Supporting English Language Learners

The Meeting Students' Needs column in each lesson contains support for both ELLs and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and some supports can serve a wide range of student needs. However, ELLs have unique needs that cannot always be met with UDL support. According to federal guidelines, ELLs must be given access to the curriculum with appropriate supports, such as those that are specifically identified as "For ELLs" in the Meeting Students' Needs column.

  • Prioritizing lessons for classrooms with many ELLs: To prepare for the Unit 1 assessments, consider prioritizing and expanding instruction in Lessons 3-5 and 7-9, which establish the concepts of reading scientific text, close reading, Language Dives, writing summaries, and interpreting diagrams. If necessary, consider placing less focus and condensing instruction in Lessons 1, 2, 11, and 12, which provide helpful background, practice, and repetition, but don't introduce as many new concepts. Although the Science Talk in Lessons 11 and 12 is not formally assessed, it can be a particularly effective way to maximize English language development.
  • Language Dives: ELLs can participate in an optional Language Dive in Lesson 7. This Dive introduces students to a sentence and language structure they will encounter and use repeatedly throughout the module. It is the first part of two connected Language Dives in Units 1 and 2: Part I, in Unit 1, guides students to deconstruct, reconstruct and practice the structures of a main idea statement for a summary. Part II, in Unit 2, Lesson 8, guides students to use the same language structures as a model for writing a focus statement for an informative piece. Many lessons also include optional Mini Language Dives for ELLs. To maximize language practice and accommodate time, consider dividing or reviewing each Language Dive over multiple lessons. Beginning in module 2 and going forward, create a "Language Chunk Wall"--an area in the classroom where students can display and categorize the academic phrases discussed in the Language Dive. At the end of each Language Dive, students are invited to place the Language Dive sentence strip chunks on the Language Chunk Wall into corresponding categories, such as "Nouns and noun phrases" or "Linking language." Consider color-coding each category. Examples: blue for nouns and subjects; purple for pronouns; red for predicates and verbs; yellow for adjectives; and green for adverbs. See each Language Dive for suggested categories. Students can then refer to the wall during subsequent speaking and writing tasks. For more information on Language Dives and supporting ELLs, see the Tools page.
  • Goals 1 and 2 Conversation Cues: Continue to encourage productive and equitable conversation using Goals 1 and 2 Conversation Cues, which are questions teachers can ask students to help achieve four goals: (Goal 1) encourage all students to talk and be understood; (Goal 2) listen carefully to one another and seek to understand; (Goal 3) deepen thinking; and (Goal 4) think with others to expand the conversation (adapted from Michaels, Sarah and O'Connor, Cathy. Talk Science Primer. Cambridge, MA: TERC, 2012. Based on Chapin, S., O'Connor, C., and Anderson, N. [2009]. Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn, Grades K-6. Second Edition. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions Publications). See the Tools page for the complete set of cues. Heightened language processing and development is a primary potential benefit for ELLs.
  • Diversity and Inclusion: Investigate the routines, practices, rituals, beliefs, norms, and experiences that are important to ELLs and their families. Integrate this background into the classroom as students investigate animal defense mechanisms. Take time to draw out students'prior experiences and associations with the animals introduced in this module if students are comfortable sharing. Some students may have ties to or experience with the countries of origin of the animals.
  • Text Meaning: The lesson supports contain multiple "Mini Language Dives." These are brief, guided conversations about the meaning of phrases or sentences that appear in classroom texts. Spend 20 minutes per day focusing on and unpacking the meaning of a complex sentence. Students will benefit greatly, not only in developing language and habits of mind, but also in processing the sheer volume of text they are asked to read.
  • Language Processing: Give ELLs sufficient time to think about what they want to say before they share with other students or write.
  • Note-taking: Both in the lessons and assessments, the unit requires students to develop and demonstrate note-taking skills. Provide ELLs with note-taking strategies: identifying key words; creating categories to organize thinking; reviewing notes at the end of the lesson. 
  • Summarizing: Help ELLs learn the language of summarizing by focusing on synonyms and paraphrasing. Help them develop the skills necessary to distinguish key ideas from minor details. Be explicit when telling ELLs that summaries must use original language and credit another person's ideas. The concept of intellectual property may be different in the United States than in other countries the student has lived.
  • Celebration: Celebrate the courage, enthusiasm, diversity, and bilingual skills that ELLs bring to the classroom.

Texts to Buy

Texts that need to be procured. Please download the Trade Book List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
Animal Behavior: Animal Defenses
by Christina Wilsdon
1 per student
ISBN: 9780816085125
by Marilyn Singer
1 per class
ISBN: 9781467749091

Preparation and Materials

Animal Defenses research notebook

In Lessons 1-12, students will use an Animal Defenses research notebook to record notes and observations about general animal defense mechanisms. This journal will be referenced and used in Units 2 and 3 as students write the informational and narrative pieces of the final performance task.  

Before Lesson 1, this journal should be prepared for students and will be used in each subsequent lesson of the unit. Later, in Unit 2, once students have selected an animal to research with a small group, they will use another notebook for their research (Expert Group Animal research notebook) with similar graphic organizers and note-catchers. This will help students gather evidence from the texts they read and synthesize their new learning in a similar fashion to Unit 1.

In advance, consider preparing the Animal Defenses research notebook (in Lesson 1) as a copied and stapled packet. In addition, consider providing students with a research folder for use throughout the module. This will help students keep their materials (research notebooks, texts, writing) organized and in one place.

Each lesson contains examples of completed pages of the Animal Defenses research notebook for teacher reference.

Note that the Working to Contribute to a Better World anchor chart and the Determining the Main Idea anchor chart are introduced in this unit and will be referenced throughout the module and school year.

Vocabulary Log

Students began a vocabulary log in Module 1 to collect new academic and domain-specific vocabulary. Students can continue to use the same vocabulary book for this module if they have pages left; however, they will need to start a new section for the domain-specific vocabulary from this module at the back of their vocabulary log. This could be done using flags or sticky tabs for each module. An example of a vocabulary log can be found in this unit's supporting materials.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Google Docs - Create collaborative online word-processing docs and spreadsheets in folders. 
    • Consider creating the research notebooks in Google Docs for students to complete online.
    • Consider creating the Expert Group Animal research notebook in Google Docs for students to complete online. To do this, create folders for each expert group animal. Within those folders, create a folder for each student and convert each page of the research notebook to a Google Doc. A Google Form could also be used for the Web Page research guide, in which students answer questions after closely reading the text. Consider creating collaborative expert group documents--for example, the KWEL chart. See the suggested file organization hierarchy below:
    • Class
      • Folder: Expert Group
      • Folder: Student 1
      • Folder: Expert Group Animal research notebook
      • File: Gist chart
      • File: Web Page research guide
      • File: Organizing Research note-catcher 
      • Folder: Student 2
      • Folder: Student 3
      • Folder: Student 4
      • File: Expert Group Animal KWEL chart
    • Informative text about the expert group animal: Consider having students write their informative text on a Google Doc so both you and they are able to access and edit their work online. 
  • Padlet - Create online notice boards / anchor charts that you can add notes to. 
    • Create digital word walls: Academic Word Wall and Domain-Specific Word Wall. 
  • Seesaw - Create student learning portfolios to share with other students, families, and the teacher. 
    • Students can create work or take pictures of their work on this app that can be accessed by the teacher or by families.

Additional Language and Literacy Block

The Additional Language and Literacy (ALL) Block is 1 hour of instruction per day. It is designed to work in concert with and in addition to the 1-hour Grades 3-5 ELA "module lessons." Taken together, these 2 hours of instruction comprehensively address all the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

The ALL Block has five components: Additional Work with Complex Text; Reading and Speaking Fluency/GUM (Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics); Writing Practice; Word Study and Vocabulary; and Independent Reading.

The ALL Block has three 2-week units which parallel to the three units of the module.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • If you have a number of English language learners speaking the same home language, invite family members to come into the classroom to talk with ELLs about their expert group animal and their narratives in their home language.


  • Invite an expert from the local zoo/wildlife conservation organization to come in and speak with students about animal defense mechanisms.
  • Have a professional writer visit the class to discuss the writing process. Ask the writer to share how he or she researches topics to write about.


  • Visit the local zoo or wildlife/animal park to observe animal defense mechanisms and students?expert group animals in action for additional research to inform writing.


  • Find out about organizations working to protect students' expert group animals and their habitats. Get involved in helping/promoting this organization.
  • Share narratives with the local zoo. Perhaps they can be displayed or used for classes.

Extension Opportunities for students seeking more challenge:

  • Choose an animal to conduct a deeper study of: Compare and contrast different species and their defenses.
  • Create a food web for different animals to explore the relationships between predators and prey.
  • Read about habitats and ecosystems and the role of individual species in maintaining balance.
  • Collaborate with the art teacher to teach students how to create scientific drawings of different animals and their defense mechanisms.
  • Conduct hands-on science experiments and demonstrations. Note: The goal of the lessons in this unit is for students to build scientific knowledge while becoming better readers. These lessons do not fully address science content standards, nor do they replace hands-on, inquiry-based science.
  • Ask students to conduct additional research on their expert group animal with additional texts or websites. Expand the web research that students engage in to include an open search and evaluation of online resources. Teach students to evaluate the reliability of these resources.
  • Have students create a third choice ending for their narratives.
  • Have students read aloud or perform their narratives for the class.

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