Charts: Inspiration for Writing

Charts: Inspiration for Writing

The Etruscans invaded Italy about 600 BC. They settled in an area by the Tiber River they called Rome. The Etruscans were farmers and they also traded with cities like Carthage. They built roads and cultivated the land. The Gauls defeated the Etruscans in 390 BC. and sacked Rome.

And so on. And on . . . and on. Teachers will have no trouble spotting the generic, aimless, encyclopedia-derived report unfolding in the example above. Unfortunately, much of student “research” results in this uninspired litany-of-fact writing.

But what about the interesting stuff? What questions might we have about ancient peoples like the Etruscans that our information could answer? What was life like in an Etruscan community? What did they believe? And what impact did these people have on the succeeding Roman civilization?

Teaching/Learning Activities:

The Inquiry Chart (Hoffman) is an activity that helps students generate meaningful questions which can focus their research and organize their writing. I-Charts can be used as a framework for the entire class, or they can be the basis for small group or individual inquiry.

Step 1: Select a topic somewhat familiar to students and solicit possible questions about the topic which could be explored. List these on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency. Next ask the class to choose three or four questions that seem most interesting. These will provide the direction for student inquiry.

images-37Introduce the I-Chart (see example below) and record the questions in the boxes along the top. A giant I-Chart made from butcher paper, or a section of the chalkboard subdivided into an I-Chart, can be an effective way of modeling using the chart to organize information. Students may also be provided with a blank I-Chart duplicated on a sheet of paper.

Step 2: In addition to posing questions, brainstorming pre-existing knowledge about the topic is a critical preliminary stage of inquiry. Ask students to offer what they know about the topic and have them indicate which question on the chart this information might answer. Knowledge not germane to the questions can be placed in the column labeled “other interesting facts.” This process may also uncover misconceptions about the topic which will be confronted as students learn more.

Step 3: During inquiry, students should consult multiple sources to answer their target questions. Provide access to a variety of materials, including newspaper and magazine articles. One possibility is to have students work in cooperative groups, with each group consulting a different source. The target questions serve to guide students as they decide which material in a source is useful, and which is extraneous.

Each group records its information on sticky notes, one fact per note, so these can be affixed to the chart paper or chalkboard under the appropriate question. In addition, color-coded pads of sticky notes make it easier to identify from which source the information was taken. As notes are added to the I-Chart, it becomes clearer whether enough information has been discovered and whether each question has been adequately answered.

Step 4: Finally, students need to synthesize the information for each question into a summary. In some cases contradictory material may have been uncovered, and this also needs to be acknowledged. Summarization provides a transition from inquiry into writing, as students decide upon main idea statements for each question, and organize the pertinent details.

Step 5: Students are now ready to write about their topic, proceeding to discuss each question and the information that relates to it. Each vertical column may comprise a paragraph – or with more sophisticated inquiry a section – of a written discussion of the topic.
Students may also wish to respond to an additional question or two that occurred to them as they delved into their sources. These are likely to be connected to the column of “Other Interesting Facts,” and can be integrated into the I-Charts in the final column.


I-Charts help emphasize to students that research is more than a mere collecting of isolated bits of information. Other advantages include:

As students become more independent, they can develop individual I-Charts that focus their inquiry and organize their notes.
Student writing is less likely to be a rambling compendium of facts and instead will be centered on significant questions which students had a role in developing.