Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: How to Be an Elephant

The hardest part of writing is sitting down to write.

Years ago, I watched a masterful literacy coach* tell my second grade students that ideas are like bubbles. They sat transfixed as she blew a stream of bubbles into the air and explained that our ideas could float away, just like those bubbles.   She then presented them with sticky notes and made them promise to write their ideas down so they wouldn’t float away.

For me lately, the hardest part of writing has sitting down to write.  Ideas have popped into my head over the past ten months, but I’ve let them all float away, just like those bubbles. No more! This month, this year, I’m committing to grabbing onto my ideas and holding on tight.

Getting Inspired: Elephants and Caldecotts

Last year I was introduced to the absolutely enthralling Elephants: A Book for Children by Steve Bloom (photographs) and David Henry Wilson.   It captivated students and teachers alike with its stunning photographs and truly informative and surprising text.  I’ve always liked elephants, but after reading this book, a number of us in our school community bordered on obsessed.

caldecott medalFast forward to December 2017 when I stumbled across Katherine Roy’s  How to Be an Elephant in a list of Caldecott Medal contenders.  Elephants and Caldecotts?  Two of my favorite things! I ordered a copy and was rewarded with one of the best nonfiction titles I’ve read in long time.  I was finally inspired enough to grab onto some ideas and write them down for you!

Book Spotlight

If you’ve read my blog in the past year, you’ll know that in my book spotlights, I share a title and recommend some ways you might use the book.  I believe text selection is a critical element to good instruction.  My goal is helping you find the right book, right when you need it, for exactly the right skill or topic you need.

So onto the book!How to be an elephant

How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild begins with the birth of new baby elephant.  We follow as she learns…how to be an elephant!  As she learns to walk, to use her sense of smell, to use the various functions of her versatile nose, and as she develops her vocabulary of sounds, we learn about each of those topics as well.  Roy takes us through this elephant’s life, mixing the story of the baby elephant with expository spreads.

What really makes this book special are the illustrations.  It’s definitely my pick for Caldecott!  Roy juxtaposes beautifully broad-stroked illustrations of the baby elephant and her family with precisely detailed pictures, diagrams, close-ups, and cross-sections that teach about each aspect of the elephant’s life and body.  The two illustration styles work perfectly together to help students navigate the two text styles: narrative nonfiction and expository text.

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My favorite spread from the book combines the creative depiction of the trunk’s functions on the left with the beautiful illustration of elephants using their trunks on the right.

How can you use this book with students? While there are many options, several jumped out at me.  Here we go:

Main Ideas and Text Structure

  • The text follows a chronological/life cycle text structure. We begin with the birth of the female baby elephant and end with the birth of her son.  I might use this book to both notice text structure and to analyze how text structure reveals the main ideas of a text.
  • The headings of each section reveal the main topic of the section and should help students determine the main ideas of those sections.  Students could then practice finding the main idea of the entire text by looking across the main ideas of each section.
  • For students ready for a challenge: Why did the author choose to use a narrative nonfiction style alongside expository sections?  What does this accomplish?

Text Features

  • Each expository section is accompanied by a beautifully drawn text feature–often a diagram, close-up, or cross-section.  Students could work to discuss how these features contribute to or clarify the accompanying text.
  • Roy’s headings are often plays on words, but also often reveal more about the main idea of the section.  Students could explore how the headings help them determine the main idea of the section.Screen Shot 2018-01-25 at 8.57.43 PM


  • Students will have lots of elephant-specific vocabulary that they’ll need to use context to define.  I, for one, learned that elephants’ trunk whiskers are called “vibrissae.”
  • Tier 2 vocabulary words are scattered plentifully across Roy’s descriptive text and will provide opportunities for teachers to work with students on adopting new vocabulary that will help them speak well about the topic.  Think: grasping, amplification, nourishment, radiate, and vibrations.

Let’s Love on Some Nonfiction

If you don’t read How to Be an Elephant for any of those reasons, you should just read it for the love of reading.  I don’t think kids ever get enough just-for-fun read alouds of nonfiction texts.  (I also discovered another of Roy’s books, Neighborhood Sharkswhich I can highly recommend for this purpose!)  Also, get that other elephants book I mentioned.  You won’t regret it.


To elephant obsessions and catching our idea bubbles before they float away,

Emily @pickofthelit


*My coach was Kate Franz.  She’s brilliant.  You should follow her.


Posted in Skill Spotlights

Skill Spotlight: Vocabulary in Informational Text

Sound familiar?  Students give an example or a description when you ask what a words mean.  Yeah, a chrysalis is a chrysalis that the butterfly wraps up in!  You know they have the right idea, but they can’t quite get it out.

Defining new vocabulary is something that can be difficult for elementary students. Often, instead of a definition we get a description or an example, as seen above. Much like my skill spotlight on retelling, this is a skill that seems easier than it actually is.

The way informational texts deal with vocabulary varies widely.  When students struggle with this skill, choosing the right texts becomes very important. Today we’ll take a look into tiers of vocabulary and choosing texts to support students

Tiers of Vocabulary

The Common Core State Standards Appendix A discusses the three tiers of vocabulary.  All three tiers are vital to reading comprehension, but “learning tier 2 and tier 3 words typically requires more deliberate effort…” (Appendix A).screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-4-01-57-pm-1

The standards call for special attention to Tier 2 words.  These are words that are used across content and topics and are generally not defined in context, making them both more usable in daily life, and harder to figure out.  (That’s a post for another day!)

Beginning in second grade though, the standards also call for students to be able to determine the meaning of Tier 3, or domain-specific, vocabulary words.

How do I pick books for tier three vocabulary practice?

If you’re starting to pick up a theme for this blog, you know that I’m going to say text selection matters.  Just handing students any old nonfiction text when they are struggling with defining tier three words isn’t nearly deliberate enough on our part.

How tier three words appear in the text makes a huge difference in the level of effort required to determine their meanings.


Here are some common scenarios in which tier three vocabulary appears, listed from easier scenarios to harder.

Definition appears in a text box on the same page that the word is found in context:The definition is stated explicitly, so students don’t have to infer what a word means from context.  For most students, this makes this a fairly easy scenario in which to define a new word.  (Keep in mind, though, that for students who tend to skip over text features, this would be a more difficult scenario).

In this example from the National Geographic Kids book Planets by Elizabeth Carney, many domain-specific words are defined in text boxes nearby.

Embedded definition in context with picture support:  While students still don’t have to infer a definition, typically these definitions are contained in clauses within a complex sentence.  Navigating this sentence structure can create more of a challenge, however, pictures that give a visual of the new word can compensate for this.

In this example from Nic Bishop’s Butterflies and Moths, the sentence contains a definition (“a long feeding tube”) and the picture also shows a clear picture of the proboscis.

Embedded definition without picture support: Just like in the example above, students don’t have to infer a definition, but they do have to navigate trickier sentence structure, except this time, without picture support.

In Dolphin Talk Whistles, Clicks, and Clapping Jaws by Wendy Pfeffer, the definition is embedded in the sentence, but the pictures isn’t much help.

Definition can be inferred from context and picture support:  This scenario is slightly harder.  The sentence doesn’t define the word directly, but contains information that would help the reader infer a definition.  The picture also contains helpful information that would support students in their attempt to define the word.

In looking at this example from the prolific Bobbie Kalman’s Tadpoles to Frogs, students could infer that gills are  a body part on a tadpole that help it breathe under water.

Definition can be inferred from context (no picture support):

Nic Bishop writes about butterflies again in an easier reader for Scholastic called simply Butterflies.  While the text level is easier than Butterflies and Moths, in this example readers have to rely on context alone to define molt.

Use of a glossary is necessary*:  In a big ol’ pile of nonfiction ranging from first to fifth grade levels, I couldn’t find an example of a tier three word that could ONLY be defined using the glossary.  I did find, though, that some tier two words fit this scenario.  This is tough because readers have to realize a word is new to them, check for clues on the page where the word is located, then check for a glossary.


In these examples, from the Pebble Plus book Ants and Their Nests by Linda Tagliaferro, the context and picture don’t support defining the tier two word “chambers” but the glossary contains a definition.

What are your best tips for helping students with new vocabulary in nonfiction text? Leave them in the comments!