Reading and Writing About Whales Using Fiction and Nonfiction Texts

K - 2
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Eight 30-minute sessions
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This lesson teaches first and second grade students how to formulate research questions and write letters. The lesson uses the nonfiction picture book Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies to present factual information about blue whales and the fiction picture book Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James to demonstrate how a letter can be used to ask questions and foster inquiry about blue whales. Depending on the level of your students, whole class, small group, or individual letters about blue whales are then written, revised, and sent to an online scientist.

From Theory to Practice

  • Letter writing can provide an especially empowering form of writing practice, as young children send meaningful written messages to one another, classroom mascots, pen pals, family members, and even elected officials.

  • The ultimate purpose of reading and writing is meaningful communication, and letter writing provides an authentic, reinforcing form of written communication.

  • In addition to supporting basic literacy skills, letter writing also promotes social interaction and develops a competence that children will use throughout their lives.


Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Materials and Technology

  • Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies (Candlewick Press, 1997)

  • Dear Mr. Blueberry: Big Book by Simon James (Celebration Press, 1999) or

  • Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James (Aladdin Library, 1996).


1. Read Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies and Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James.

2. If possible, make a large copy of Emily's fifth letter in Dear Mr. Blueberry or individual copies of the letter to distribute to students.

3. Print out any useful supplemental information about blue whales from the Websites listed.

4. Select and bookmark photos, videos, and sound clips from the Websites listed to use for whole class or individual viewing online.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Learn the parts of a letter and how to write a letter

  • Learn how to formulate research questions

  • Compare the information contained in nonfiction and fiction texts

Instruction and Activities

Session 1

Read aloud Big Blue Whale by Nicola Davies to the class. After reading the book, make a list of what students have learned about blue whales and title it "What We Know About Blue Whales." Then make a list of questions that students have about blue whales and title it "What We Want To Know About Blue Whales."

Session 2

In the computer lab, have students visit the Online resources listed to view photos and videos and listen to sound clips of blue whales. This activity can be done as a whole class, in small groups, or by students individually. If the computer lab or technology is unavailable, print photos of blue whales and distribute them to students. After viewing the photos and listening to the sounds clips, ask students to add any new observations or questions to the two class lists: "What We Know About Blue Whales" and "What We Want To Know About Blue Whales."

Session 3

Read aloud Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James to the class. Develop a discussion chart to explore the concepts of real and pretend. First, help your students define the terms real and pretend. Make two columns on the chart, one with the heading "real" and one with the heading "pretend." Ask students why they think the blue whale in Dear Mr. Blueberry is real or pretend. List the reasons why students think the whale is real in one column and the reasons why they think he is pretend in the other column.

Session 4

Building on the discussion from Session 3, have students do a similar comparison of information contained in fiction and nonfiction texts. Develop another chart with two columns, one with the heading "fiction" and one with the heading "nonfiction." Hold up the covers of Dear Mr. Blueberry and Big Blue Whale. Explain that Dear Mr. Blueberry is fiction and Big Blue Whale is nonfiction. Explain the differences between fiction and nonfiction in a way that young students can understand. Then have students develop a definition for each term in their own words. Ask students to give examples of things that they learned about whales from the fiction book Dear Mr. Blueberry and things that they learned about whales from the nonfiction book Big Blue Whale. List their responses in the fiction and nonfiction columns. Look at the completed chart and discuss how the information in the two columns is similar and different.

Session 5

This session will help to summarize and bring together what students have learned so far. Look back at the class lists created in Sessions 1 and 2: "What We Know About Blue Whales" and "What We Want To Know About Blue Whales." Review the information in the lists and explain that the class is going to make a third list titled, "What We Have Learned About Blue Whales." Ask students for examples for the third list that expand upon or differ from the examples on the two previous lists.

Session 6

In this session, students will learn about letter writing. Hold up a copy of Dear Mr. Blueberry and discuss how the story is written in the form of a series of letters. Explain that Emily is writing to her teacher, Mr. Blueberry, because she thinks he might know how to take care of a blue whale.

Look at an enlarged copy of Emily's fifth letter in Dear Mr. Blueberry or pass out individual copies of the letter. Discuss the parts of a letter. Point out the salutation, body, close, and postscript in Emily's letter. Have students individually or as a class circle each section of the letter as you discuss it. Show how in the body of the letter Emily makes an observation about the whale ("He looks blue.") and asks a question about the whale ("Does this mean he might be a blue whale?").

Session 7

Depending on the level of your students, have students work as a whole class, in smalls groups, or individually to write a letter to an online scientist, asking a question about the blue whale. For early first graders, interactive writing (i.e., the teacher and students write together, sharing the pen and the act of composition) may be most appropriate.

Point out how this letter writing activity resembles Emily's letter writing in Dear Mr. Blueberry. Make sure that the letter includes a question about blue whales that students really want to know. Review the two class lists, "What We Know About Blue Whales" and "What We Want To Know About Blue Whales," before composing the letters. Encourage students to come up with their own questions if possible, and use a question from the list if they are unable to think up their own.

Session 8

Read the students' letters and make suggestions for revision. Have students revise and rewrite their letters. Since the letters will be submitted online it is appropriate for you to type the final draft of the letters into the computer and send them to WhaleNet: ASK a Scientist. When responses are received, share them with students. Read each student's letter and the scientist's answers to the whole class so that students can understand the relation between written inquiries and written replies. A chart can also be made with a row of boxes summarizing students' questions and a matching row of boxes summarizing the scientist's responses.


Have students use the same format to study another animal:

  • Read fiction and nonfiction texts about a particular animal.

  • Use online resources (e.g., National Geographic Animals: Creature Feature) to view photos and videos and listen to sound clips of the selected animal.

  • Write letters to an online scientist asking a question about the animal. (SCORE Science, which is maintained by the Humboldt County Office of Education, offers a good Ask a Scientist website.)

Student Assessment / Reflections


  • Review students' letters to assess whether students have learned the parts of a letter and are able to formulate a research question related to the data provided to them.

  • Use a rubric to evaluate the student's letter:
1. Does the letter ask a real question that the student wants to know?


2. Does the letter contain enough detail for the scientist to understand the student's question?


3. Does the letter use the proper format, with a salutation, body, and close.

  • To determine whether students understand the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, conduct the following whole-class activity. Ask students to pretend that they are writers who have been asked by a publisher to write a new nonfiction and a new fiction book about whales. On one sheet of chart paper record students' suggestions for possible nonfiction topics about whales, and on another sheet of chart paper record students' suggestions for possible fiction topics. Discuss why some topics are more appropriate for fiction and why other topics are more appropriate for nonfiction. [As a possible extension to this activity, have students write titles for their hypothetical nonfiction and fiction whale books. If the class also participates in writer's workshop, consider having students write their own version of the books they have imagined.]

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