Building Background Knowledge: Why Scientists Study the Rainforest | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA G5:M2:U1

Building Background Knowledge: Why Scientists Study the Rainforest

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In this unit, students build background knowledge about the rainforest, including rainforest destruction, to understand why scientists study the rainforest. In the first half of the unit, they read excerpts from The Most Beautiful Roof in the World by Kathryn Lasky and other informational texts to analyze and compare text structure and write summaries. For the mid-unit assessment, students read, summarize, and compare the structure of two new informational texts about the rainforest.

In the second half of the unit, students transition to conducting web research in the second half of the unit to answer the question: What can I do to help the rainforest? They prepare for a Science Talk in which they discuss the things they can do to help and also the realistic challenges of implementing some of those things. For the first part of the end of unit assessment, students complete research independently using new sources to participate in a Science Talk in the second half of the assessment.

Big Ideas & Guiding Questions

  • Why do scientists study the rainforest?
  • Scientists study the rainforest because it is home to a diversity of life.
  • Scientists study the rainforest to determine the impact of deforestation on biodiversity.
  • What can we do to help the rainforest?

The Four Ts

  • Topic: Students build background knowledge about the rainforest, including rainforest destruction, to understand why scientists study the rainforest.
  • Task: Students read informational texts, and answer selected responses questions and write a summary about them. Students research to determine ways they can help the rainforest and discuss their findings, including the challenges with implementing those ideas, in a Science Talk (end of unit assessment).
  • Targets: Standards explicitly taught and assessed: RI.5.1, RI.5.2, RI.5.5, RI.5.7, RI.5.10, W.5.7, W.5.8, SL.5.1
  • Text: The Most Beautiful Roof in the World: Exploring the Rainforest Canopy, "Saving an Important Resource" written by EL Education for Instructional Purposes (mid-unit assessment), "Natural Events and the Rainforest" written by EL Education for Instructional Purposes (mid-unit assessment), Rainforest Alliance website (end of unit assessment)


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.

Science (based on NGSS) or NGSS:

Note: Also consider using EL Education Grade 5 Life Science Module, a separate resource that includes approximately 25 hours of science instruction. This life science module explicitly addresses fifth-grade NGSS life science standards and naturally extends the learning from this ELA module.

Next Generation Science Standards:

Life Science Performance Expectation:

  • 5-LS2-1: Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.
    • LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems: The food of almost any kind of animal can be traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plant parts and animals) and therefore operate as "decomposers." Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem.

Habits of Character/Social-Emotional Learning Focus

Central to EL Education's curriculum is a focus on "habits of character" and social-emotional learning. Students work to become effective learners--developing mindsets and skills for success in college, career, and life (e.g., initiative, responsibility, perseverance, collaboration); work to become ethical people, treating others well and standing up for what is right (e.g., empathy, integrity, respect, compassion); and work to contribute to a better world, putting their learning to use to improve communities (e.g., citizenship, service).

In this module, students work to contribute to a better world, putting their learning to use to improve communities (e.g., citizenship, service). Throughout Unit 1, students practice using strengths to help others grow, as they provide peer feedback, and taking care of shared spaces and applying learning to help the school, the community, and the environment, as they research things they can do to help the rainforest.


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.

Accountable Independent Reading

The ability to read and comprehend texts is the heart of literacy instruction. Comprehension is taught, reinforced, and assessed across both components of this curriculum: module lessons and the Additional Language and Literacy block. Refer to the 5M2 Module Overview for additional information.

In this unit, students continue to follow the independent reading routines set up in Module 1. They select new texts based on the new topic for the module, read them independently for homework and engage in frequent research reading shares during the module lessons for accountability.

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 2, 5-7, and 9-11, which build the routine or concepts of discussing text structure, close reading, summarizing, reading fluently, participating in a text-based discussion, and doing web research. If necessary, consider placing less focus and condensing instruction in Lessons 1, 3-4, and 8, which provide helpful background, practice, and repetition, but don't include as many different concepts. However, be sure to guide students through the optional Language Dive in Lesson 3.
  • Language Dives: All students participate a Language Dive in Lesson 6. ELLs can participate in an optional Language Dive in Lesson 3. 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.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Investigate the routines, practices, rituals, beliefs, norms, and experiences that are important to ELLs and their families. Some students may have ties to or experience with rainforests and Central and South America, the setting for the texts in this unit. Consider weaving this background into the curriculum. When discussing The Most Beautiful Roof in the World, help students understand that indigenous people have been living in the rainforest canopy for a long time. (See, for example, the Korowai tribe in Papua New Guinea.) Consider providing information about indigenous communities that live in and explore the forest canopy.
  • 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). Refer to the Tools page for the complete set of cues. Heightened language processing and development is a primary potential benefit for ELLs.
  • Strategic grouping: As students are invited to pair up to research and take notes about rainforests throughout this unit, seriously consider matching ELLs to a partner who has greater language proficiency. The conversations that happen as a result of such strategic pairing will greatly serve the language development of both partners.
  • Language processing time: Give ELLs sufficient time to think about what they want to say before they share with other students or write.
  • Text structure: Students will receive explicit instruction on how to analyze and delineate the structures of different texts. This instruction is both critical and challenging for ELLs. Students may struggle to comprehend the content of the text while being asked to identify structure. Focus students on the graphic representations of each structure. Use color-coding and think-alouds to illuminate how structure communicates meaning.
  • Science Talks: Students begin to explore discussion norms and to practice accountable talk protocols. ELLs may be challenged by this for cultural, linguistic, and social/emotional reasons. Participating in this kind of conversation can be overwhelming. Do whatever possible to create a supportive classroom environment in which students are rewarded for taking risks. Scaffold student participation by generously providing prompts and sentence frames.
  • 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
The Most Beautiful Roof in the World
by Kathryn Lasky
1 per student
ISBN: 9780152008970
Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace
by Jen Cullerton Johnson
1 per class
ISBN: 9781600603679

Preparation and Materials

  • To assess RI.5.7 and W.5.8, students will need technology to access digital sources in their research. Connect with technology specialists in advance to secure the resources and expertise needed to support this work effectively.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Google Docs - Create collaborative online word-processing docs and spreadsheets in folders: Consider having students write their literary analysis essays and their narratives directly into Google Docs. To do this, create a folder for each student and invite them to create pages for each piece of writing.
  • Seesaw - Create student learning portfolios to share with other students, families, and the teacher: Consider having students document the process of creating their Rainforest Adventures ebook with a series of photographs and/or videos.
  • Rain Forest - Additional reading and research: Students read and research to learn more about rain forests (independent reading time, pair/small group work, whole class). 
    • 'Rain Forest'. National Geographic. Web. Accessed on 24 May, 2016. 
  • Rainforest Alliance: Kids Corner - Additional reading and research: Students read and research to learn more about the rainforest (independent reading time, pair/small group work, whole class). 
    • 'Kids Corner'. Rainforest Alliance. Web. Accessed on 24 May, 2016. 
  • Rainforest People - Additional reading and research: Students read and research to learn more about the indigenous people of the rainforest (independent reading time, pair/small group work, whole class). 
    • Rainforest People'. Mongabay. Web. Accessed on 24 May, 2016. 
  • Rainforest People - Additional reading and research: Students read and research to learn more about the indigenous people of the rainforest (independent reading time, pair/small group work, whole class). 
    • 'Rainforest People'. WWF Global. Web. Accessed on 24 May, 2016. 
  • The Wings of the Butterfly - Additional rainforest folktale for reading aloud: Consider reading the tale aloud to students. 
    • Shepard, A. 'The Wings of the Butterfly'. Aaron Shepard. Web. Accessed on 24 May, 2016. 

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 native language, invite family members to come into the classroom to talk with them about the rainforest in their native language.


  • Have a biologist visit the classroom to talk about the diversity of life in the rainforest.
  • Have an author visit the class to talk about craft and author's techniques to engage the reader.


  • Visit the local zoo to observe and draw/photograph rainforest animals and birds to be able to describe them more accurately in narrative writing.
  • Visit a local botanical garden to observe and draw/photograph rainforest plants to be able to describe them more accurately in narrative writing.


  • Help the class organize a fundraiser to contribute to a rainforest preservation organization.
  • Work with students to implement some of the ideas they find to help the rainforest within the school: recycling in the classroom or writing a letter/email to encourage teachers to buy recycled paper, for example.

Extension opportunities for students seeking more challenge:

  • Students could complete an independent internet research project about the diversity of life in the rainforest and/or rainforest destruction.
  • Have students read aloud excerpts of The Most Beautiful Roof in the World as a performance for the whole group.
  • Have students record an audiobook component for their ebooks.
  • Have students read aloud or share their books with students in other grades.

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