Natural Disasters

Students learn the science behind natural disasters, such as volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires, with an emphasis on how natural disasters happen. 

Unit Summary

Natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires happen all over the world. Understanding how natural disasters happen and why helps children feel less anxious and more prepared. Therefore, this unit focuses on teaching students the science behind each natural disaster while also explaining what to do if they live in an area prone to a particular natural disaster. Over the course of the unit, students hear about many famous natural disasters, but the unit places more of an emphasis on how the disasters happen rather than exploring the devastation or destruction caused by previous natural disasters. The unit provides many opportunities for students to learn more about recent natural disasters, including a culminating research project. 

The texts in this unit were chosen because of their wide variety of text features, content, and accessibility. Over the course of the unit, students will read texts that are very technical and rely heavily on text features, diagrams, and illustrations, as well as texts that are written as informational narratives. Students will be challenged to think about the structures the authors use to help the reader interact with and learn the content. Additionally, students will learn the importance of referring to specific details from the text and using those details to explain and teach back the newly learned material. This unit serves as the foundation for building strong reading habits and routines and setting high expectations for text consumption. Clear models should be included in the unit to help students build a deeper understanding of how to actively read and annotate informational texts for key ideas, text features, and vocabulary. This unit also serves as a launching point for strong discussions. Students will frequently be challenged to debate questions from the text; therefore, strong habits of discussion need to be introduced over the course of the unit.

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Unit Launch

Prepare to teach this unit with videos and short readings that cover:

  • Key standards
  • Essential questions
  • Text complexity
  • Monitoring student progress
 

Texts and Materials

Core Materials

Supporting Materials

See Text Selection Rationale

Unit Prep

Essential Questions

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  • Where and how do earthquakes occur? What hazards do earthquakes create? How can the hazards be reduced? 
  • Where and how do volcanoes occur? What hazards do volcanoes create? How can the hazards be reduced? 
  • Where and how do hurricanes occur? What hazards do hurricanes create? How can the hazards be reduced? 
  • Where and how do wildfires occur? What hazards do wildfires create? How can the hazards be reduced? 

Writing Focus Areas

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Sentence-Level Focus Areas

  • Write complete sentences 
  • Edit for complete sentences 

Complete sentences are the foundation for all writing. In this unit, the majority of sentence level support happens during editing. We recommend using our guide Sentence-Level Feedback and Support (Grades 3-5) to provide individual and small-group feedback to ensure that all students are able to use complete sentences by the end of the unit. ​​​​​​

Paragraph-Level Focus Areas

  • Use single-paragraph outlines to brainstorm cohesive paragraphs 
  • Understand components of a topic sentence
  • Differentiate between topic and supporting details 
  • Write concluding sentences 

Before students are able to write strong paragraphs, they must understand the components of a strong paragraph. Therefore, this unit focuses on introducing students to the components of a strong paragraph. In this unit students are not expected to draft complete paragraphs, rather the focus is on creating strong outlines.

Informational Writing Focus Areas

  • Research and take notes on a topic 
  • Use notes to complete single-paragraph outlines
  • Add headings, illustrations, and graphics 

Students end the unit with their first research project. The focus of the research project is on learning how to research and take notes, write strong paragraphs, and add necessary text features. This project serves as a foundation for the research students will do in later units.

Speaking and Listening Focus Areas

  • Prepare for discussion. Students learn how to prepare for academic discussions. 
  • Elaborate to support ideas. Students provide evidence or examples to justify and defend their point clearly.
  • Use vocabulary. Students use vocabulary that is specific to the subject and task to clarify and share their thoughts. 

In this unit, students predominantly show understanding of the text through academic discourse. Through a range of one-on-one, group, and teacher-led tasks students grapple with the deeper meanings of all core texts. Since this is the first unit of the year, students will learn how to follow rules for discussions and how to come prepared. This will be reinforced through oral language protocols referenced in the unit. 

Students at this point will also be in the beginning stages of articulating ideas and participating in conversations. As noted in our Guide to Academic Discourse (below), when students first participate in discussions the focus should be on helping students clarify and share their own thoughts. Later students will be able to engage with the thinking of others, but to do so they need to be able to clearly articulate their own ideas.

Vocabulary

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Below are all of the unit vocabulary words. Prior to teaching the unit, we recommend teachers decide which words to prioritize. We also recommend that teachers decide which affixes to prioritize. See our teacher tool Prepping Unit Vocabulary (below) for more guidance on which words to pick as priority words.

Text-based

absorb accumulate ash atmosphere catastrophic carelessness climate coastal debris destructive destruction dependent dormant drought epicenter epidemic extinct excess extensive extreme fault famine flammable forecast havoc hurricane imminent immense inactive inland intense magnitude merged moderate natural disaster pandemic periodic plates precursor precede raging retrofitted release renew scorched slight stalled storm surge torrential tragic tropical tropical depression tropical storm warning system

Root/Affix

-able -less -ness in- re-

Assessment

These assessments accompany this unit to help gauge student understanding of key unit content and skills. Additional progress monitoring suggestions are included throughout the unit.

Lesson Map

1

  • Unforgettable Natural Disasters pp. 4 – 9

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Explain what a natural disaster is and why it is important to know if a natural disaster is imminent.

2

  • Unforgettable Natural Disasters pp. 14 – 21

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Explain where and how volcanoes occur using the words "plates," "magma," and "erupt."

3

  • Volcanoes pp. 1 – 13

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Explain what happened when Mount St. Helens erupted and the destruction it caused. 

4

  • Volcanoes pp. 14 – 25

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Describe what makes Hawaiian volcanoes unique.

5

  • “Kilauea volcano...”

  • “Eight facts...”

  • “Slow and steady...”

  • “Going with the flow...”

    RI.4.3

    SL.4.1

    SL.4.3

    SL.4.4

Determine the most important ideas from an article on volcanoes in Hawaii.

6

  • Volcanoes pp. 24 – 32

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Describe the four different types of volcanoes.

7

  • “Each volcano has...” — 1060L version

  • Volcano Facts

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Explain how you will know if a volcano is about to erupt and what you should do if you live near an active volcano.

8

2 days

Writing

    W.4.2

    W.4.2.a

    W.4.2.b

    W.4.2.e

Write a well-structured paragraph that explains where and how volcanoes occur and what hazards they create.

9Essential Task

  • Unforgettable Natural Disasters pp. 22 – 29

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Explain where and why earthquakes occur. 

10Essential Task

  • Earthquakes pp. 1 – 14

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Explain why a person living in Boston is significantly less likely to experience an earthquake than a person in California.

11

  • Earthquakes pp. 18 – 31

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Describe the tools scientists use to measure earthquakes and why one form of measurement is not enough for measuring earthquakes.

12

  • Earthquakes Facts

  • “Earthquake Readiness”

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Describe the steps that can be taken to protect people from the threat of an earthquake. 

13

Writing

    W.4.2

Write a well-structured paragraph that explains where and how earthquakes occur and what hazards they create.

14

  • Unforgettable Natural Disasters pp. 30 – 41

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

    RI.4.7

Explain the type of damage and destruction caused by flooding.

15

  • Hurricanes pp. 1 – 13

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Describe where and how hurricanes occur.

16

  • Hurricanes pp. 14 – 23

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Describe the destruction caused by each category of hurricane.

17

  • Hurricanes pp. 24 – 32

  • Hurricanes Facts

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Explain how you know when a hurricane is coming and what you should do if you are in the path of a hurricane.

18Essential Task

Writing

    W.4.2

    W.4.2.a

    W.4.2.b

    W.4.2.e

Write a well-structured paragraph that explains where and how hurricanes occur and what hazards they create.

19

  • Wildfires pp. 1 – 9

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Explain why not all wildfires are bad.

20

  • Wildfires pp. 10 – 21

    RI.4.3

    RI.4.5

Explain what happened during the Yellowstone fires of 1988 and the impact the fires had on the park. 

21

  • Wildfires — pg. 26 - end

    RI.4.3

Analyze why wildfires are neither good nor bad.

22

  • “Ten ways...”

  • “Predicted climate change...”

  • “Research study shows...”

    RI.4.3

    SL.4.3

    SL.4.4

Explain the ways people and climate are responsible for the increase in wildfires.

23

Writing

    W.4.2

    W.4.2.a

    W.4.2.b

    W.4.2.e

Write a well-structured paragraph that explains where and how wildfires occur and what hazards they create. 

24

  • Unforgettable Natural Disasters pp. 42 – 57

  • Winter Cold and Extreme Storms Facts

  • Droughts Facts

  • Extreme Heat Facts

    RI.4.3

Explain other types of natural disasters and what to do to prepare for or prevent them. 

25

Assessment

  • “Tsunamis” pp. 7 – 14

26

5 days

Writing

    W.4.2

    W.4.2.a

    W.4.2.b

    W.4.2.e

    W.4.7

    W.4.8

    L.4.1.f

Research and report on a recent natural disaster.

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.4.1 — Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

  • L.4.1.f — Produce complete sentences, recognizing and correcting inappropriate fragments and run-ons.

  • L.4.2 — Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

  • L.4.4 — Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 4 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.

  • L.4.6 — Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal precise actions, emotions, or states of being (e.g., quizzed, whined, stammered) and that are basic to a particular topic (e.g., wildlife, conservation, and endangered when discussing animal preservation).

Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • RI.4.3 — Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.

  • RI.4.5 — Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.

  • RI.4.7 — Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.4.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.4.1.a — Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation and other information known about the topic to explore ideas under discussion.

  • SL.4.1.b — Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out assigned roles.

  • SL.4.1.c — Pose and respond to specific questions to clarify or follow up on information, and make comments that contribute to the discussion and link to the remarks of others.

  • SL.4.2 — Paraphrase portions of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

  • SL.4.3 — Identify the reasons and evidence a speaker provides to support particular points.

  • SL.4.4 — Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

Writing Standards
  • W.4.2 — Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

  • W.4.2.a — Introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

  • W.4.2.b — Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic.

  • W.4.2.e — Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented

  • W.4.7 — Conduct short research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.

  • W.4.8 — Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information, and provide a list of sources.

Sprial Standards

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L.4.1

L.4.2

L.4.3

L.4.4

L.4.4.b

L.4.6

RF.4.3

RF.4.4

RI.4.1

RI.4.10

RI.4.4

RI.4.9

SL.4.1

W.4.10

W.4.4

W.4.5

W.4.6

W.4.9