Standard Lesson

Timelines and Texts: Motivating Students to Read Nonfiction

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 45-minute sessions
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Nonfiction texts, in many students' opinion, lack the excitement, energy, and adventure of fictional stories. In this lesson, students use timelines to help motivate them to read more nonfiction, which will, in turn, help increase their comprehension of nonfiction. Students begin with a discussion about timelines and their use to prepare for the research activity. Using a historical timeline and the students' prior knowledge of events, students predict when specific inventions were produced and take notes describing their reason for identifying that particular year. Students then work in pairs or small groups to add to their notes, indicating how this portion of the activity confirmed, refined, or changed their thinking about the timelines they are developing. Next, students consult Web resources about inventions to help them revise their timelines for accuracy. Through discussion, they verify the dates and consider the connections between historical events and when inventions were created.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

  • Teachers should create student interest in a wide variety of materials to support vocabulary development and to provide exposure to new ideas.

  • Accessibility to nonfiction reading materials is often neglected in elementary grades, which can lead to problems as students progress through the grades.

  • Motivating students to read more nonfiction is an important first step toward increasing comprehension of nonfiction.
  • Documents organized in row-and-column formats are extremely common in modern society and are pervasive in elementary, secondary, and postsecondary reading materials.

  • Students' success at reading documents (in this case, timelines) is imperative if they are to develop and update knowledge of events through the integration of ideas.

  • Teaching students the structure of documents can aid in their comprehension of the information presented.


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.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 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.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Computers with Internet access




1. Determine student accessibility to workstations with Internet access and/or secure the use of a presentation system connected to a computer with Internet access.

2. Preview and bookmark the recommended Websites listed above.

3. Duplicate the Invention Birthdays handout so that each student has a copy.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Explicate their metacognitive processes in relation to a specific task (in this case, determining and discussing the placement of inventions along an historical timeline)

  • Develop and use the structure of a timeline to predict and verify the chronological order of specific historical and scientific events

  • Practice using multiple timelines as a way of drawing connections between separate events

  • Establish a purpose for reading electronic informational texts (i.e., to verify predictions and connect new information with prior knowledge)

Session 1: Prereading

This Web-based research activity can be used for content area instruction regarding American history or the development of scientific inventions. It can also expand a lesson that explores the relationship between inventions and historical events. Reading instructors may choose to incorporate this activity when reviewing the structure and purpose of timelines, biographies, or plot development. Many students are familiar with timelines, but using two timelines at once to explore parallel events may be a new or unfamiliar activity.

1. To prepare students for the research activity, review the significance of visual formats to synthesize information concisely. To activate their knowledge regarding the purpose and format of a timeline and to establish a purpose for research, discuss the merits of presenting information in a timeline format. This process allows students to recall and evaluate what they already know about timelines and how to read the information presented.

2. Locate timelines that students have encountered or will encounter in their textbooks. Have students note the characteristics of a timeline, such as its scale, title, and labels. Point out that timelines are combined lists, consisting of a list of dates and a list of events. Significant events are placed on the timeline and there are "gaps" in time between the events. Emphasize that timelines often provide the reader with considerable information in a highly compacted framework.

3. Suggest to students that timelines are useful because they display events over a period of time, letting the reader know what happened in chronological order so that connections between the events can be considered. Ask them to name other topics for which a timeline could be used to display information (e.g., the growth of a plant, the events of a story, the schedule for their class activities, a week-long plan to complete an assignment, a series of sports events).

4. Ask whether there would be any merit to studying two timelines simultaneously, using some of the examples suggested in the previous step (e.g., the week-long schedule for an assignment and one's social calendar; a timeline of the events of the Revolutionary War and a novel such as Toliver's Secret by Ester Wood Brady or Fighting Ground by Avi). Suggest that this allows the reader to speculate about and try to confirm connections between events displayed on different timelines.

Session 2: Preresearch Preparation

1. Distribute the Invention Birthdays handout.

2. On pages 2 and 3 of the handout, preview with students the Alphabetical List of Notable Inventions and the chronological list of invention dates. Discuss how to complete the table (see detailed instructions on page 1 of the handout).

3. On page 4 of the handout, help students understand that two timelines are presented: one recording historical events and the other the appearance of inventions. Draw the students' attention to the title, labels, and scale for each timeline.

4. Give students time in class to work independently on steps 1, 2, and 3 of the handout. Collect the materials at the end of the session.

Session 3: Paired Thinking and Sharing

1. Distribute the handout used in Session 2. Divide the class into pairs or trios for the paired thinking and sharing activity. (If students will remain paired for Internet work, consider your previous observation of students' hands-on facility with Web browser features and the navigation bar and match less proficient students with more accomplished peers for technical support during Session 4.)

2. Review the directions under the "Paired Thinking and Sharing" heading of the Invention Birthdays handout. (Regarding item 5, let students know whether you intend to lead them in a full-class discussion afterward or if pairs/trios will combine to form larger groups.)

3. Give students time in class to work in pairs or trios, and then share their efforts with the whole class or with other pairs/trios of students.

Session 4: During Reading and Conducting Research

Note: The directions for this session are written as if individual students or pairs/trios of students have a workstation with Internet access. You can present the lesson using a projection system, but you will need to modify the directions to accommodate full-class participation.

1. Help students understand that the search for specific information within a website begins by analyzing and using the site's structure (architecture). This analysis—a process similar to previewing print materials—allows them to better locate information.

2. Distribute the Previewing the Website: The Great Idea Finder handout to students and explore briefly how the website is organized, using the site index. Refer to the list of possible responses and points of discussion for previewing the website as you go over the questions on the handout together.

3. Have students use another color ink (or a pencil or pen, depending on what they originally used) to differentiate their preresearch notes from the research they will now conduct.

4. Give students time in class to use the Web resources found on page 3 of the Invention Birthdays handout (particularly The Great Idea Finder—Chronological Innovation Timeline and the—Famous Inventions: A to Z websites). Have students verify the invention's "birth" date and read about the history of the invention, making additional notes and corrections as they conduct their research. Emphasize the importance of verifying or revising the dates on the timeline, rather than focusing on the number of correct predictions.

Note: Make students aware that, occasionally, Web resources may vary the invention's "birthday" by a year or two. This is particularly true for older inventions. When choosing one date over another, students should understand and specify the reason for dating an item as such. Discrepancies can occur for several reasons, including:

  • Some sites mark the earliest development of the invention or a part of it, but others record the date the invention was successfully manufactured for widespread use.

  • A site may refer to the date the invention's patent was issued, while another site may assign the date the invention came into popular use (which can also vary by geographic location).

  • The inventor may have identified an item's "birth" earlier than the date of its legal "birth" record, the patent.

Variance in marking the origin of early inventions could also be a result of relaxed diligence on the part of the inventor to record the invention with the government, the speed of communication (telegraph and cross-country/global mail delivery), or the recording systems (handwritten vs. electronic recording).

5. Ask students to pay particular attention to those inventions that seem to be linked to historical events. (See the background information about inventions table to create initial discussion about one of the inventions as an example.) Students should include in their notes observations about any relationship that they see between history and the inventions. Inform students that these notes will be the basis of a writing assignment.

You might also choose to explain at this point what the writing assignment(s) will be and if the students will have a choice among writing assignments (see the list in the Student Assessment/Reflections area).


  • Students can place additional inventions and historical events on the dual timelines. They should speculate about the connections between the inventions and the historical events.

  • Students can prepare a poster or handout that explains the features and purpose of a timeline. The project should include specific suggestions for success in using a timeline to comprehend nonfiction information.

  • Students can prepare a timeline for a novel or short story that they are reading or that details events that are currently the focus of their social studies or science classes. The interactive Timeline tool may be introduced to students and used for this assignment.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Students should primarily be assessed on their ability to conduct successful research, to incorporate their findings into documents (in this case, timelines), and to prepare written communications about their experience and learning.

Evaluate the completed Invention Birthdays handouts, keeping in mind that accuracy of predictions is not a basis for evaluation, so much as the process of successfully researching and verifying information.

For a culminating teacher-assigned or self-selected assessment activity, students should complete one of the following:

  • Write a reflective journal entry explaining what you have learned about your research process by completing the timeline activity. Explain why you made specific strategy-based decisions to complete the activity accurately and discuss online research techniques you found helpful or of limited value.

  • Write a persuasive essay about the truth or falsehood of the adage, "Necessity is the mother of invention."

  • Select one invention from the timeline (or choose another with teacher approval). Describe how it was developed and discuss any impact it had upon its inventor, its customers, and the development of other inventions.

Rubrics for these essays may be taken from local or state assessment formats, or you may choose to develop one using free templates at RubiStar. (RubiStar also offers a rubric template for timelines.)

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