Reading to Engage and Build Knowledge: A Study of Living and Nonliving Things | EL Education Curriculum

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Reading to Engage and Build Knowledge: A Study of Living and Nonliving Things

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In Unit 1, students engage in a variety of experiences to build their excitement and curiosity as they answer the unit guiding question: "How do we know that something is living?" Students' engagement and curiosity are piqued by closely observing and sorting a variety of living and nonliving objects (or pictures of objects) and discussing any noticeable patterns. As students build background knowledge about living and nonliving things through the text What's Alive?, they develop their skills as readers of informational texts and researchers. In addition to reading, students participate in structured conversations, observational drawing, shared writing, and independent writing in their Living Things research notebook. Students deepen their understanding of the criteria that make living things living by observing previously grown plants that have been provided varying levels of care. Through all of these experiences, students develop a growing understanding of what makes a living thing living and patterns that exist among living things.

For the Unit 1 Assessment, students engage in an informational text reading assessment in which they listen to two sections of the text What's Alive? read aloud again and respond to selected response and open response questions (RI.K.3, RI.K.7). Students finish the unit by applying their knowledge of what makes a living thing living to trees as they prepare for and engage in a Science Talk to answer the questions: "Is a tree living? How do you know?"

Big Ideas & Guiding Questions

  • How do we know that something is living?
  • Living things have needs to live and grow.
  • Plants (trees) need water and light to live and grow.

The Four T's

  • Topic: Reading to Engage and Build Knowledge: A Study of Living and Nonliving Things
  • Task: Reading and Answering Questions about an Informational Text
  • Targets (CCSS assessed): RI.K.1, RI.K.2, RI.K.3, RI.K.4, RI.K.6, RI.K.7, SL.K.1b, L.K.1c, L.K.1d, L.K.5a
  • Text: What's Alive?


Each unit in the K-2 Language Arts Curriculum has one  standards-based assessment built in. 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.

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Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block of the school day. The module also intentionally incorporates science content that many teachers across the nation are expected to address in first grade. These intentional connections are described below. (Based on your state or district context, teachers may also choose to address additional specific social studies or science standards during other parts of the school day.)

Science (based on NGSS):

  • K-LS1-1

Habits of Character/Social-Emotional Learning Focus

Central to the EL Education 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 become effective learners: develop the mindsets and skills for success in college, career, and life. While students focus on specific habits of character in Units 2 and 3, there is not a specific focus in this unit.


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 text is the heart of literacy instruction. Comprehension is taught, reinforced, and assessed across all three components of this primary curriculum: Module Lessons, Labs, and the K-2 Reading Foundations Skills Block (see the module overview).

For Unit 1, during the independent reading in the Skills Block, reinforce the comprehension skills and standards that students are practicing during the Literacy block:

  • RI.K.1: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
    • Invite students to point to a picture in an informational text and then answer questions about the illustration.
    • Read aloud the first few pages of an informational text and ask:

"What questions do you have? What are you wondering?"

  • RI.K.2: With prompting and support, identify the main topic and retell key details of a text.
    • Read aloud the first few pages of an informational text and ask:

"What is this text mainly about?"

  • RI.K.3: With prompting and support, describe the connection between two individuals, events, ideas, or pieces of information in a text.
    • When conferencing with students, ask them to explain how two ideas, individuals, or pieces of information from a text are connected.
    • Ask:

"How are these two ideas alike? What is the same about them?"

  • RI.K.4: With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about unknown words in a text.
    • When conferencing with students, ask them to identify words that are unknown and to ask questions about those words.
  • RI.K.6: Name the author and illustrator of a text and define the role of each in presenting the ideas or information in a text.
    • Invite students to identify which parts of an informational text the author contributed to and which parts the illustrator contributed to.
  • RI.K.7: With prompting and support, describe the relationship between illustrations and the text in which they appear (e.g., what person, place, thing, or idea in the text an illustration depicts).
    • When conferencing with students, ask them to explain how the illustration or details in the text relate to the key ideas in the text.
    • Ask:

"How do these illustrations help you understand the text?"

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.

  • New: ELL supports now labeled and condensed. Beginning in Module 3, ELL supports within the Meeting Students' Needs column are labeled and explained in detail the first time they are used. Supports repeated in subsequent lessons are also labeled but condensed for easier reading, and at times adjusted to provide lighter support. Attend to the detailed supports and labels early in the module to more easily apply them as the curriculum progresses. Note that a number of the supports may seem familiar, as they have been suggested repeatedly in Modules 1-2.
  • Prioritizing lessons for classrooms with many ELLs: Consider prioritizing and expanding instruction in Lessons 2-5 to support comprehension of the anchor text, What's Alive?, in part through Language Dives. This will give students additional practice collecting evidence, determining the criteria for living things, and recording observations in the Living Things research notebook. Students may benefit from additional time with writing, as the unit introduces how to record observations as a researcher, a skill that will be used throughout the module. To ensure students have ample time to practice reading, writing, and speaking, consider condensing instruction during the scavenger hunt in Lesson 6 by limiting exploration to 10 minutes; however, be sure to complete the Language Dive. Consider placing less focus on the Closing in Lesson 8, because students will have multiple opportunities to reflect on how living things get their needs met in the remainder of the module.
  • Language Dives: All students participate in a Language Dive in Lesson 5, and ELLs participate in optional Language Dives in Lessons 3, 4, and 6. These Language Dives support ELLs and all students in understanding and practicing the meaning and structures of sentences from What's Alive?. Be aware that in Modules 3 and 4, Language Dive goals remain the same: to empower students to analyze, understand, and use the language of academic sentences; however, beginning in this unit, and continuing throughout Modules 3 and 4, the Language Dive Guide and the Mini Language Dive formats have been modified. The modified format follows the Deconstruct-Reconstruct-Practice routine, which should seem familiar as a general process (see Language Dives on the Tools page). Additionally, beyond the teacher-led questions and answers as in Modules 1 and 2, there are suggested language goals that students should try to understand and apply for each chunk. Thus, this modified format goes beyond teacher-led questioning. It attempts to encourage students to take more of the lead in the conversation and build greater independence by taking an inquiry based approach to language in general, and the selected sentence in particular. Although students should briefly discuss all chunks in each Language Dive sentence, the new format invites them to slow down during one chunk, called the focus structure, to investigate and practice a particularly compelling language structure. For more context, consider reviewing the Language Dive Guide in Lessons 3, 4, 5, and 6 of this unit, as well as a range of questions students might ask one another in Questions We Can Ask During a Language Dive on the Tools page.
  • Goal 4 Conversation Cues: Encourage productive and equitable conversation with 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. Goal 4 Conversation Cues are introduced in Lesson 1. 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 explore an informational text that takes place across different cultures and countries. The anchor text, What's Alive?, features a white, middle-class, able-bodied girl in a suburban setting. Consider seeking out additional literature that represents the ethnic, linguistic, and geographic diversity of your class and the U.S. Look for this book or one like it in the different languages your students speak at school and/or at home. On page 5, the author compares a child to a cat by saying that they both "run and jump." If there are students with limited mobility or who use a wheelchair (or students who have a family member who does), take time to discuss the different ways people in wheelchairs can move and jump. Invite students to share how it makes them feel to not be represented. Consult with a guidance counselor, school social worker, or ESL teacher for further investigation of diversity and inclusion concerns.
  • Reading aloud to research: Students will participate in a series of reading sessions during which they will hone their research skills by focusing on collecting evidence to reveal the patterns among all living things.  Through reading and discussing a section of What's Alive?, students will be asked to consider the similarities and differences between themselves and other living things (e.g., cats, plants, trees). Some students may grapple with using details from the text to explain how living things are connected. Provide additional support with this skill when possible. Use the Language Dive sentences, realia, and think-alouds to reinforce the skill.
  • Living Things research notebook: Using observations, an anchor text, and the Living Things Criteria anchor chart, students will record observations about living things in a research notebook. Before writing, students gather evidence from multiple sources to inform their ideas. Students benefit from explicitly modeled lessons that support them, step by step, as they collect evidence and describe what connects living things. Some students may need additional modeling before feeling confident enough to complete the writing task independently. Students who have trouble with writing may also benefit from having an adult scribe their ideas initially.
  • Science Talk protocol: In Lessons 7-8, students prepare for and participate in a Science Talk protocol where they will be asked to present evidence to support their ideas about living things in small groups. This activity is inherently supportive of ELLs by providing a small, supported context for them to share their knowledge while practicing newly acquired syntax and vocabulary. Even so, some students may be hesitant to participate. Ensure they are placed in heterogeneous groups to offer peer models. Practice the sentence frames and hand gestures that support language expression. Empower students to speak up if they need support from teachers or peers.
  • 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 Quantity ISBNs
What’s Alive?
by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
Six per classroom
ISBN: 9780064451321


For basic lesson preparation, refer to the materials list and Teaching Notes in each lesson. The following are materials that may take more time or organizing.

One to two days before the start of Lesson 1: Obtain 15 small, previously potted and grown plants of the same variety (suggested varieties: cilantro, sweet potato vine). Divide plants into sets of three (one set for every four or five students) and, using a marker and labels, label each plant in the set as 1, 2, or 3. Refer to the Directions for Live Plants Observation Setup below.

  • Lesson 2: Plant 1 (see Directions for Live Plants Observation Setup below for care instructions)
  • Lesson 3: Plant 1 and Plant 2 (see Directions for Live Plants Observation Setup below for care instructions)
  • Lesson 4: Plant 1 and Plant 3 (see Directions for Live Plants Observation Setup below for care instructions)

LANDSCAPE Directions for Live Plants Observation Setup

(For Teacher Reference)


In order to support students' developing understanding of the criteria that make a living thing living and to provide illuminating examples of each of the criteria, students observe a set of three plants over the course of the unit with a small group. During Lessons 2-4, groups observe one or two plants from the set of three. Before these observations, the teacher provides varying levels of care to each plant. The effects of this varying care highlight what happens to a living thing when one of its needs is not met.

If it is not possible to purchase enough plants for each small group to observe their own set, consider conducting this activity with one set of three plants for the entire class to view. Follow procedures outlined for the observation of plants in Lessons 2-4, making adjustments to ensure that all students are able to view the plants closely.


  • Approximately 15 small plants of the same variety (suggested varieties: cilantro, sweet potato vine). Plants should be purchased already potted, with growth previously started.
  • Sealable bag (gallon-sized; one per set of plants)
  • Marker (one; used by the teacher to label plants)
  • Label (white; 2x2 inches; one per plant)
  • Water (used by the teacher to water plants)

Setup Procedure:

  1. One to two days before the start of Lesson 1: Obtain plants; divide plants into sets of three (one set for every four or five students).
  2. Using the marker and labels, label each plant in the set as 1, 2, or 3.
  3. Use the following care guide for each of the plants for Lessons 2-4. (Note: The care guide should be followed before start of the specified lesson.)

Technology and Multimedia

Google Drawings - Students draw online: Students can draw their responses online rather than on paper to share on classroom blogs or websites with families.

Seesaw - Create audio recordings of texts for students' individual and small group research: Audio record yourself reading the various research texts throughout the module to serve as an extra support for those students who may need it.


Labs are 1 hour of instruction per day.  They are designed to promote student proficiency and growth.

There are 5 distinct Labs: Explore, Engineer, Create, Imagine, and Research. Each of the Labs unfolds across an entire module and takes place in four stages:  Launch, Practice, Extend, and Choice and Challenge.

During their Lab time, students break up into smaller Lab groups and go to separate workstations (tables or other work spaces around the classroom). This structure creates a small collaborative atmosphere in which students will work throughout their Labs experience. It also supports the management of materials (since each workstation has its own materials).

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 ELLs about living and nonliving things.
  • Invite families to collect and bring in different foods that grow on trees to share with the class (e.g., bananas, coconuts, tamarind, mangoes, apples, almonds, etc.).
  • Invite cafeteria workers and/or the nurse to the classroom to share the healthy foods included in students' lunches and snacks that come from trees (e.g., apples, bananas, cherries, etc.).
  • If you have a number of ELLs speaking the same native language, invite family members to come into the classroom to talk with ELLs about different food they eat from trees and different animals that eat food from trees.


  • Invite people who are experts or have experience with life science to share their experiences and tools used for studying living and nonliving things.
  • Invite produce experts such as farmers and grocery store employees to share their knowledge about fruits and nuts that come from trees with the class.
  • Invite foresters, park rangers, and other tree-related community experts to share their knowledge on local trees and of how different animals depend on trees.
  • Invite community educators, tour guides or scientists from local arboretums to share and answer questions about trees.  Brainstorm questions beforehand, students interview and then write what they've learned.


  • Take walks around the community and observe different living and nonliving things. Use the criteria to help determine whether something is alive or not.
  • Visit a local park or forest to observe the animals or evidence of animals that live among and depend upon trees. Sketch and take notes about different animals you see and the parts of the tree they are eating.
  • Visit local farms, orchards, or arboretums that grow fruits or nut trees to learn more about the foods that grow on trees (i.e., apple orchards, orange groves, peach orchards, etc.).
  • Take a community walk to notice the kind of trees around the school and identify, classify, compare and contrast trees.
  • Collect leaves, bark and branches/sticks to describe and use in a collage.
  • Students consider where they could plant trees and why.


  • Connect with other classes in the school and have students share learning about living and nonliving things with them.
  • Create a guide of all the living and nonliving things that can be found in the school playground. Post it in the playground to teach others about what is living around the school.
  • Create bird feeders for animals to eat from when trees no longer have leaves, seeds, buds, and nuts in the winter.
  • Visit other classrooms in the school to share writing booklets and to teach others about the different animals that depend on trees.
  • Visit other classrooms in the school to share Informational Collage created and why trees are important.
  • Create a local tree field guide to post in the community to share knowledge about trees, their needs, and what they provide.


  • Create an observation center where students can observe real living things (e.g., fish, worms, best bugs, etc.) or videos of living things.
  • Create a collage using leaves, bark and branches/sticks collected and discovered during the community walk.

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