If you’re looking for engaging way to improve your students’ ability to comprehend informational texts, check out my mini-unit on the Wild West, ideal for teaching and reviewing key ideas and details standards RI.6.1RI.6.2, and RI.6.3.

When my students heard me say that we were taking a trip to the Wild West, they were excited and bursting with questions. I had to explain that we weren’t physically leaving the classroom for our field trip, which resulted in some disappointed sighs. But as I shared that we’d be spending time learning about famous outlaws and gunslingers of the Wild West, their enthusiasm rebounded. Knowing Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and Billy the Kid were going to help my students master the key ideas and details of reading informational texts made me feel a bit enthusiastic, too!

Want a peek inside this two-week thematic unit that I used with my 6th-grade reading intervention class? Put on your cowboy hat and saddle up your horse. Let’s head to the Wild West together to wrangle up reading outlaws with this mini-unit packed full of skill-based learning that teaches key ideas and details in informational texts! Yee-haw!

Reading Informational Text Pit Stop: Why Engaging Topics Matter

When reading informational texts, it’s imperative that the topics engage students. Actually, this is true of all stories but especially so with nonfiction. Since students will read a passage several times in their quest to understand key ideas and details among a host of other skills, you want to start off on the right foot with a topic that will hook them early and keep them hooked. 

A previous novel exposed my students to criminals like Al Capone on Alcatraz, so I knew my kids would enjoy studying outlaws from the Wild West. They love getting the real facts (and the dirt) on interesting and infamous characters – but especially outlaws and criminals. Add in that these tales are exciting and mostly true, and it’s an ideal topic for middle school readers to explore! 

How I Structured Our Famous Outlaws Study

My favorite blogs have always been the ones in which a teacher walks me through day-by-day what something looks like. So, here’s a two-week walk-through of how we studied outlaws of the Wild West, along with the text-based activities I used to hone students’ skills. The timing is based on 50-60 minute periods and takes into account my experience with slightly below-grade-level 6th-grade readers.

famous outlaws key ideas and details 10-day unit at a glance

By the end of the mini-unit, students were feeling much more comfortable citing text evidence, drawing inferences, identifying the central idea and supporting details, summarizing the text, and analyzing the development of ideas and events. Basically everything the key ideas and details standards call for! This really boosted their confidence in the regular Language Arts classroom, too.

Day 1: Launching the Unit

When incorporating informational texts into your lessons, particularly those with subjects you know your students won’t be familiar with, I prefer to start with activities that activate background knowledge. Background knowledge is a two-way street since I’m looking to see who knows what and have students share what they already know. This also increases rates of retention since I’m laying the groundwork to wire new knowledge with the old. 

One of my favorite activities for this is a 3-2-1 bridge strategy – read all about it in this post. Another option to activate background information that ties together movement and discussions is the four-corners activity – read more about it here.

To use four corners with this unit, you’ll read a statement have have your students move to one of four corners in the room as a response. Label your corners strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, and disagree. Some options for this unit can vary from lighter and sillier to more serious. Here are some you might use:

  • Learning about history is interesting.
  • History always tells the truth.
  • Reading about criminals encourages people to commit crimes. 
  • People are allowed to choose their own nicknames.
  • There is no excuse for committing a crime.
  • Punishment deters future crime.

To incorporate some discussion into this, you can have your students share their opinions. If they are reluctant to share, give them a minute or two to chat as a group to deliver a “group statement,” which might remove some of the pressure of sharing as individuals with the whole class.

After the initial activity, I have students read their first informational text about the Wild West – an overview that provides context as to how the West became wild – and why it’s no longer wild today. 

teaching key ideas and details with an informational text on the wild west

Day 2: Vocabulary Study & Second Reading

Now that students have some context and have completed a preliminary read of the first article, I have them return to it again. (So much more can be gleaned by taking another look at it!)

However, before re-reading it, consider teaching some of the necessary vocabulary that students encounter in the reading. I try to aim for 4-5 terms that feature in the text. You can certainly provide definitions in a teacher-led way (especially if you are short on time), or you can have students find and record their own definitions. 

With any vocabulary activity, I have students write down the definition and find a way to apply the term (illustrate it, use it in a sentence, etc.). Students can complete fill-in-the-blank sentences using the bank of vocabulary words or write their own sentences using the new vocabulary. One way to help with this second option is to provide a relevant image to inspire sentence writing. Check out some free images on pexels.com or pixabay.com.

After that, we reread and annotate our first text.

Day 3: Student-Driven Mini-Lesson & Application Task

Today is reserved for digging into the key ideas and details of our first text. I prefer to start with a brief mini-lesson on one of the most important skills that we practice all year long – citing text evidence and drawing inferences (RI.6.1). After a quick review, we take a look at the text and answer questions about the article. 

I have students highlight “right there” answers pertaining to text evidence, and I have them write out responses to questions pertaining to inferences. Additionally, we discuss what it means to draw conclusions, categorize statements of facts vs. opinions from the text, and work together to identify a main idea.

Day 4: Meet Belle Starr

Now that students have a better understanding of the context of the Wild West, they get to meet their first outlaw: Belle Starr. 

Belle is a great entry point into the Wild West because she has been the subject of countless legends, books, and movies.

So who is Belle Starr? She was an outlaw both in reputation and association; she is, after all, known as the Queen of the Outlaws! In her younger years, Starr committed different crimes but only served jail time for one. She was known, however, with her second husband, to harbor criminals such as Jesse James. However, in learning about Belle Starr, students are also exposed to an important fact: sometimes events become sensationalized… as is quite often the case with Belle.

After reading the Belle Starr passage the first time, I have students explore key vocabulary from the passage.  

Day 5: A Closer Look at the Central Idea and Key Details

Before I have students answer comprehension questions about their Belle Starr reading, I host another quick mini-lesson – this time on identifying the central idea and key details (RI.6.2). With this new information in mind, students read the Starr passage one more time. Once students have read the passage again, we complete a standards-aligned question set that addresses text evidence and inference from yesterday’s mini-lesson as well as the skill featured in the mini-lesson.

Days 6 and 7: Meet Jesse James

Giddy up! Students are ready to cruise onto outlaw number 2, Jesse James, who is one of the more well-known outlaws in the Wild West as a result of some daring bank robberies. Similar to previous days, I have students review the required vocabulary before reading and then learn about James’ life in crime.

reading informational texts about jesse james to practice mastering key ideas and details

On our second day with Jesse James, I teach a mini-lesson about providing an objective summary of the text (RI.6.2) since this is an important piece in the key ideas and details strand of our standards. It’s important to teach the central idea first because a summary should contain the main idea and important details. It should also stick to the facts – so we talk a bit about facts versus opinions.

Afterward, students re-read the informational text and put their newly refreshed skills to the test – including summarizing the text.

Days 8 and 9: Meet Butch Cassidy

At this point, students are ready to take a look at Butch Cassidy, one of America’s most well-known train and bank robbers. As many of my students grew up playing cops and robbers, it is really quite fascinating for them to be able to read about real-life robbers. 

With Butch Cassidy, I teach a mini-lesson on how authors develop ideas, events, and individuals (RI.6.3) within in a text. We take a look at what the idea, event, or individual was like at the beginning of the text (in this case, Butch Cassidy), and then we look at ways that the author described him throughout the text and the examples they used. 

reading informational texts about butch cassidy

With our question set this time, students put it all together with my help and guidance. At this point, they are gaining familiarity and confidence with all three standards and are *almost* ready to do it on their own. 

Day 10: Meet Billy the Kid & Wrap it Up

Now that students have practiced a variety of skills that contribute to understanding the key ideas and details while reading informational texts, it’s a good time to pull back on the scaffolding ever so slightly.

With one final outlaw, this time Billy the Kid, students put their newly polished skills to the test. Billy the Kid is one of the most widely recognized outlaws of the wild American frontier, though students (and teachers) are surprised to learn that he never robbed a train or a bank! Because he is such a fascinating outlaw, I prefer to read and discuss this final passage together. 

However, with this last standards-aligned question set, I encourage students to work independently to show me what they know about standards RI.6.1-RI.6.3.

reading informational texts about billy the kid to practice mastering key ideas and details

As I said earlier, this is technically a two-week unit on the key ideas and details of informational texts… however, I can rarely leave it at that without something fun. If you share similar struggles, you might be thrilled to know that students might enjoy one of the following extensions:

The outlaws of the Wild West are a fascinating group not just for the stories but for the blurred line between fact and fiction. Your students will love these content-rich informational texts, and you will love that this set comes with everything you need for your students to become skilled in mastering the key ideas and details of informational texts!

Give it a try in your classroom, and let me know how it goes.

Happy teaching!